Get SMART about Keeping Your Resolutions

A Kaiser Permanente health psychologist offers strategies to help people thrive in the new year.

Interview by Dolores Radding

Having trouble keeping your New Year’s resolutions? You are not alone. A 2014 study by the University of Scranton found that 45 percent of Americans make resolutions each year, but of these only 8 percent are successful.

Dr Pruitt

Sheri Pruitt, PhD

InsideKP Northern California spoke with Sheri Pruitt, PhD, director of Behavioral Science Integration for The Permanente Medical Group in Sacramento, for some advice on keeping resolutions.

When Pruitt works with patients to make positive behavioral changes, she uses what she calls SMART skills. SMART stands for setting a goal, monitoring your progress, arranging your world for success, recruiting a support team, and treating yourself when you succeed.

Why do people have such a hard time keeping resolutions?

People often know what they need to do, and they may have strong motivation, but until they have a strategy to help them, they can’t change their behavior. People often think their willpower will carry them through, but it doesn’t work like that. They have to have a skill set to help them do things differently and not fall into old patterns.

Another problem is that people often set goals far beyond what they can realistically achieve, then they fail and feel bad about their inability to change.

What’s your advice for getting back on track?

Start with goals that you can actually achieve. For example, if you’re just getting started with exercising, don’t plan to run 30 minutes every day for the entire year. Instead, start with a goal of walking briskly for 15 minutes, Monday, Wednesday, and Friday, for two weeks. Start small, and if you’re successful you’ll feel great and you’ll be more likely to keep going. You can increase your goal later.

Also, make sure you’re monitoring your progress because tracking behavior can change behavior. You don’t have to use a journal; you could simply put a checkmark on a Post-it. Next, make sure you’ve arranged your environment to be successful. So if you’re trying to eat healthy food, don’t buy unhealthy food at the grocery store, don’t have it in your office, or in your freezer. Environmental cues and triggers are very powerful. You can use that to your advantage by having healthy snacks nearby.

Finally, make sure you have a support person who is encouraging you and holding you accountable, and don’t forget to celebrate when you stay on track. I still give my husband a high-five after I finish my workout in the morning.

Other tips for long-term success?

Be aware of drifting back to old behaviors and habits, and counter that by creating “if-then” plans. If you’ve been walking regularly and then it rains for a week and you don’t walk, you could easily stop exercising. With an “if-then” plan you decide in advance that if it rains, you’ll walk inside. Or if your walking partner is sick, you’ll walk alone. It’s planning for all the excuses that can get in your way.

Another strategy is what I call personal rules. They’re that line in the sand that you don’t cross. For example, I always wear my seatbelt, or I don’t go three days without doing something physically active, or I don’t eat anything that comes out of a drive-thru window. Recently I added that I don’t eat treats left in the break room. These personal rules make your life easier because you can’t control everything in your environment.

Behavior change is hard, and you do have to be relentless in your adherence to the SMART skills if you want to be successful, but these skills absolutely work. And it’s so empowering when you lose weight, or when you run your first race. It’s the greatest thing.