Trying To Go from Couch Potato to Regular Runner (or Whatever)? 6 Tips for Sticking to Your Resolution.

Every Wednesday is Tip Day.
This Wednesday: 6 tips to hold yourself accountable for keeping your resolutions.

One thing I’ve discovered from doing my happiness project is – no surprise – it’s easy and fun to make a resolution, but it’s not always easy to keep a resolution.

I’m fascinated by the question: what allows people to keep resolutions? Why does one couch potato suddenly decide to start going to the gym, and then goes regularly for years, while another similar couch potato just can’t stick with a program? Why does my sister keep resolving to learn to cook, but never follows up? Why can’t I make myself floss regularly? And yet I’ve been able to keep my one-sentence journal.

The first step, in my case at least, is to make a concrete, well-directed resolution. Samuel Johnson wrote a prayer that includes the line, “O GOD, grant me to resolve aright, and to keep my resolutions.” At first, this puzzled me. I understood praying for the strength to keep resolutions, but why make the special request to be able to “resolve aright”? Now I understand that resolving aright is very important. (See #1 below.)

The second step is to hold myself accountable. This is enormously important. The constant review of resolutions, and the knowledge that I’m being held accountable for sticking to them, makes a huge difference. I know that this holds true for other people, as well.

So how do you hold yourself accountable? Here are some strategies that have worked for me:

1.Frame your resolution in concrete actions. If you resolve to “Get more joy out of life” or “Embrace the present,” it’s hard to hold yourself accountable. It’s easier to be answerable for a specific action like “Spend at least one hour a week hiking” or “Sit in a chair for fifteen minutes every day, with no distractions.”

2.Keep a chart. Having made a resolution, you have to check yourself in some way. I print out a new copy of my Resolutions Chart each month and carry it around with me. At least once each day, I review and score my resolutions. (Email me at grubin at gretchenrubin dot com if you’d like to take a look at my chart, as an example.) This method works if you like to use old-fashioned pen and paper; if you prefer to do such things online, you can…

3.Use the Happiness Project Toolbox. If you want to keep your Resolutions Chart online, use the Toolbox – the Resolutions Tool and the Group Resolutions Tool are two very helpful tools. While you’re there, you can also add things to your Inspiration Board, share ideas to the Happiness Hacks – and look to see what other people are doing! Which is addictive.

4.Tell people what you’re doing. At the very least, tell your family about the resolutions that you’re trying to keep. Studies showed that people trying to make life changes, such as losing weight, were more likely to succeed if they told their families what they were doing.

5. Do it every day. It’s counter-intuitive, but I’ve found that when I’m trying to get myself to adopt a new habit, it helps me to do that thing every day, instead of most days — which would seem easier. For example, I blog six days a week (okay, I do get one day off), and I think that made it much easier for me to get into the swing of blogging. So if you’re trying to start going for more walks, say, try going for a walk every single day.

6.Join a group. Even more useful than keep a chart is meeting with real live people who will press you to keep your resolutions. Mutual accountability is extraordinarily effective, as demonstrated by groups like Weight Watchers and Alcoholics Anonymous. That’s why I think that launching or joining a happiness-project group is a great way to boost happiness. You have the happiness of meeting with friends, whether new or old, plus the happiness of keeping your resolutions. (Email me grubin at gretchenrubin dot com if you want the starter kit for launching your own happiness-project group).

Here are more tips on sticking to your resolutions, if you’re interested.

I’ve had great success with dozens of my resolutions, and yet I still can’t manage to put my clothes away nicely every night. Any advice on a strategy to try?

* When I heard about The 52 Weeks — two friends resolve to try something new every week for a year — of course I had to check it out!

* For a copy of my personal Resolution Chart, to see how it works, or the starter-kit for people launching a happiness-project group, email me at grubin at gretchenrubin dot com. Just write “chart” or “starter kit” in the subject line.

  • Stefany

    I recently (5 days ago) started a new quest to start exercising before work each day. I had tried for weeks and would just turn off my alarm and go back to sleep, but last Thursday I put it on my blog and facebook and asked people to ask me how it was going. The thought of having to tell any one of them that I didn’t do it, was motivation enough to get me out of bed at that terribly early hour of the day! It might not be an actual GROUP but it’s the same concept (as a result, my mother-in-law has started getting up before work to do the same thing and she is now on day 3!). For us, the accountability/we’re in this together mentality was key to getting over the initial hump!

  • I am struggling with some goals myself and recently announced what I was doing and why. While I was writing about this, I read some other studies that said that announcing your goal actually made you less likely to follow through because you get the buzz of a “premature sense of completeness.”

    I’m not sure which way I’m leaning and I’d like to get your take on this idea.

    Newsweek article about study:

    • gretchenrubin

      That’s why accountability is so important. If you say to yourself, “I am so
      totally going to start eating healthy!” you feel as if you have actually
      made progress in changing your eating habits, even if you’ve changed
      nothing. But if you’re looking at a chart where you have to check a box that
      says “I ate three servings of vegetables today” or are talking to people who
      are asking you what you actually ate, you are less likely to get the
      premature buzz of satisfaction.

  • LivewithFlair

    I heard great advice from a trainer at the gym: Make exercise something you don’ t have to decide about everyday. You do it like you would brush your teeth, take your thyroid medication, and put on underwear. You don’t stop and ask yourself all day: “Should I do this thing?” NO! It’s part of the routine that you no longer question or decide about. I don’t know–it worked for me!

    • gretchenrubin

      Absolutely. Taking the decision out of it makes it easier in the long run.
      You just KNOW you have to do it.

  • Gretchen,

    Great tips! As you know, I’m obsessed with behavioral change when it comes to our health and fitness, and helping people stick to their goals.

    I’m a strong believer that if there’s no desire, then the willingness to make it happen won’t appear. Why do you want to put your clothes away nicely every night?

    Most likely, because when you wake up, your room won’t appear as messy and it’ll help you start the day off on the right foot. It’s the same reason you wake up earlier and sing in the mornings. That’s a powerful reason.

    But just because we have a desire doesn’t mean it’ll happen. We tend to live up to our expectations of ourselves, not our desires. If you don’t expect that you’ll put away your clothes each night, you won’t.

    So try starting small. Try it for just tonight. See how you feel in the morning. Then, aim to do it tomorrow night, if it makes you happier. Slowly but surely, your expectations will change and that makes all the difference.

    As always, great post!


  • as you’ve suggested in other posts, it may not be pleasurable to exercise, but it definitely is pleasurable to have a trim figure… i think of the accomplished goal and how much i want THAT. 🙂

  • Annie

    Re: putting clothes away at night, identify the problem. Why is is so hard? What would make it easier? And I think revisiting the why might also be helpful. For me, it was the realization that I was essentially doing twice the work and spending twice the time when I leave something somewhere it doesn’t belong and then go back to move it to where it does.

  • Yes, these are great tips. I am a great believer in creating new habits by doing them every day. It reminds me of Malcolm Gladwell’s “Outliers”. Ten thousand hours is the necessary amount of practice to become a master at any skill, but all practice helps, and the best way to practice is every day!

  • jenny_o

    In the comments to a recent post, one of your readers said s/he didn’t want to GO to the gym, but s/he wanted to HAVE GONE to the gym (similar to Chun Yue’s comment on this post). This is what finally worked to get me to start exercising (and believe me, I was entrenched in not exercising). And to further help me keep up the new behavior, I mark off on my calendar whenever I’ve done it – with a kiddy stamp that makes me happy!

    • jenny_o

      I didn’t really answer your questions, sorry! I’m just so thrilled about finally finding a way to get myself moving.

      However, there are several great ideas from other commenters already that may help you.

  • Hilary

    Hi. I am a rare commenter (who loves to exercise but has trouble with other resolutions). I thought Sam Johnson’s comment to “resolve aright” was very thought provoking and important. I interpret that as a call to really look at your resolutions and evaluate whether they are realistic before you jump into promising yourself you will do them everyday and feeling guilty when you don’t. I have two little kids and no time and I am not a morning person but I knew that the only way I would ever have uninterrupted time to write was early in the morning. So I set my alarm to get up at 5. Every morning the alarm rang and I could not get out of bed. My husband got increasingly irritated and I felt like a loser. Finally, as I was crying to my therapist one day, she said, “Maybe that is not realistic. You are not a morning person, and you are not going to get up. Maybe you just need a different resolution. At least for now.” My heart lifted. I felt off the hook. I wasn’t giving up. I just needed a resolution that would work for me, my situation, my sleep, my family. I did not “resolve aright.” When there is space for my resolutions, though, and time, and they are realistic, really, not just a fantasy of how I wish I were, I can resolve aright, and move forward and succeed. It is not just my discipline that is important in success, but my initial choice of resolution. That was a big lesson for me.

    • gretchenrubin

      A GREAT example of the importance of “resolving aright.” It’s easy to blame
      ourselves when it doesn’t work out, but as you say, it may be a matter of
      realistic fit.

  • BerniceWood

    I was just reading something from Zen Habits Leo Babauta on this. Crazy as it sounds, he says using something as simple as a chart with a gold sticker every time you do whatever it is you are try ing to accomplish, for instance, walking 15 minutes a day. AS SOON AS YOU ARE DONE, put a gold star on your chart. Sounds elementary? It worked for kindergarten!

  • Lblake

    I am totally impressed. Way cool information and ideas. However, being a regular exerciser and soon to get my website launched as a fitness/life coach. Please remember that sometimes you have to set realistic goals that you can obtain. Saying that you will exercise 3 days a week for 30 minutes. Then when you can accomplish this the power of that positive feeling is unbelievable. Remember little goals first will have that sense of accomplishment and soon you will really be rockin and rollin. It takes 90 days to form a habit. Hang in there. Remember find something you enjoy! Good luck……and remember to say I believe I can achieve.

  • Ann

    Three years ago next month I started participating in a Boot Camp style workout each weekday morning at 5:30. It changed my life. BUT…I know that there are certain things that have to happen to get me to go and continue to go:

    1. Dear husband must pretend to be asleep. I know my alarm wakes him up, but if he pats the bed next to him when I get up to stop the alarm, I will fall back into bed. He has understood this.

    2. Get up, pee, brush teeth, wash face, brush hair, put on clothes & glasses, put on knee braces, sox and shoes, get water and keys and go. If I linger, I won’t go. If I get to the park where we work out, I am safe.

    3. It hurts. I was 55 when I started. SOMETHING hurt every freaking day for a year. All day. But ice, advil and massage helped. Now I don’t hurt as much. Ha.

    4. When I come home at 6:3o, my husband is showered, dressed and reading the paper. He has made me a cup of coffee. If I whine about how hard it is or how much I hurt, he makes little violin movements and tells me it was my decision. That helps.

    It’s a cliche…but JUST DO IT!!!

    • I hope this morning routine also includes a small carbohydrate food or drink. Exercising on low blood sugar (especially in the morning, 10-12 hours after one’s last meal) stresses the body and affects performance. (By the way, kudos to you for working out every day!)

    • Meghan

      I started doing something similar (Cross fit) about six months ago, and I never would have believed I could wake up for a 6:30 class 3x a week. I think the two keys for me (definitely NOT a morning person) are that it’s a class that I have to sign up for the night before, and that once I get myself there, it’s actually fun!

  • John

    For all you iPhone types out there, I can recommend two apps to assist you with starting to exercise:

    1) GetRunning – personal voice coach app, following the couch to 5k method.
    2) FatWatch – not particularly inspiringly named, but with daily weighing, scientifically charts your progress with a moving average to give you encouragement even on the days when you may be carrying an extra pound or two.

  • Ithaca

    I have successfully started exercising. As soon as I get up at 4.45A, I change in to treadmill clothes, and then go down to the family room treadmill. I start with yoga stretches, and then the treadmill to 5AM news on MSNBC. What has worked (1) doing it everyday (2) doing it first thing in the morning so I don’t run out of time and before I am awake enough to think of excuses to get out of it (3) leaving my treadmill clothes out the night before so I can change in to them even half-asleep.

    Contrary to some of the above instructions, I have _not_ told anyone I am doing this, but that’s just me- I am a private person.

  • Marci

    I have learned that I need to mark time in my calendar to exercise or get other resolution items done. I don’t have a daily “routine” so I can’t exercise at the same time every day. In the past, I would leave it at “I can’t exercise.” Now, I know that I can, as long as I schedule the time in my planner. I exercise after I get the kids off to school on the days I work from home. When I go to the office, I work out in the evenings… except on the days I have evening conflicts, then I squeeze it in before dinner or at lunch. I may only take the dog for a long walk, but at least I’ve done something.

    If I told myself I’d exercise at the same time every day, I’d have a million reasons not to. Because I tell myself I must exercise at least 45 minutes a day, I know I can find that time…somewhere…in the day.

    I also schedule time for other high priorities. I wanted to “take time for projects” as you suggested — but didn’t, until I decided every Wednesday after school I would spend with my kids on projects like making a doll quilt or baking or other fun (but time-consuming) family projects.

    Now I ask myself not only WHAT I want to do, but WHEN will I do it. If it’s something I really value, I plan the time.

  • Carmen

    Hi Gretchen. Like you, I have a daily checklist. It essentially stems from my resolutions, and I have 13 items that I try to do every day. However, I find myself being too relaxed with them. One of them is “exercise” and I find myself checking it off if I walked to class, even though I know that’s not sufficient. I probably need to be more specific. Any recommendations?

    • Hannah

      Hi Carmen. I love lists too and am guilty of checking something off even though I haven’t done the item as it was meant to be done. What if you changed your wording a bit? You used exercise as an example so how about one day you write “take a 30 min walk”. Gretchen mentioned being specific would help. Plus instead of exercise everyday you can mix up your routine a bit. Take a work out class one day, the next lift weights, bike ride with friends…

  • Layla

    I especially like “Do it every day” – Last night I decided to start running in the mornings before work.

    THis morning I pressed snooze too much and by the time I got changed I would have about 2 minutes to go for a run… but I did it anyway because I figured it would get me into the habit.

    I hope it works!

  • David

    All great ideas but I’d offer one more: Understand that change is rarely linear. As a psychotherapist in D.C., I see a lot of clients looking to make changes, often in three main areas — relationships, career and health. Clients sometimes become frustrated or discouraged when, after a period of growth and change, they fall back on an old, negative behavior. One of the things that I’ll point out is that change is rarely linear; rather, it most often has a “two steps forward, one step backward” look to it. Additionally, that “one step backward” is part of, not separate from, the change process. It’s similar to an alcoholic who relapses after many months of sobriety. All is not lost. Far from it. It’s important to look at the big picture and remind yourself how far you’ve come.

  • 50thomas50

    “people who talk about their intentions are less likely to make them happen.”

  • laura

    I have trouble putting clothes away also– especially clothes that I know I’m going to want again soon. Like my pajamas, which I wear several days in a row, or the favorite sweater that I’m currently in the habit of grabbing every time the house is kind of cold. My suggestion is to put some hooks in the bedroom or closet for these kinds of clothes, because then you won’t have to take the time to hang them up, but they don’t end up on the floor or draped over a chair.

    Oh, and I’m finally having success with my resolution to get exercise every day. My husband and I resolved together that we both need to lose 5-10 pounds, and we’re tired of never “finding” time to exercise. So we resolved to spend 30 minutes every day exercising, and to make it a priority just as much as any of the other numerous all-important tasks that tug at us every day. (Afterall, our health just as important as getting that email out to a certain client). We set up a “reward” system– one point for every 30 minutes that we spend exercising. In our case, we use pennies in a jar to keep track of our points. We can earn multiple points in one day if we exercise for more than 30 minutes, but we lose one point every day that we don’t exercise at least 30 minutes. We’re assigning a certain monetary value to each point, and when we’ve accumulated enough points, we can use them to purchase some “luxury” that we want. This is particularly effective for me, because I’m always extremely hesitant to spend any money on myself…. so I’m sort of earning permission to indulge in something I want by making exercise a regular (and non-negotiable) part of my schedule. So far this strategy has been working very well. We’ll see how it gets once it becomes bitterly cold outside!

  • KH

    I love a tip from one of the Zen Habits articles: when implementing a new task or goal, couple it with something else you already do.

    When I finally became a regular flosser, I just made it part of my before-bed routine — contacts, floss, brush, wash face, moisturize. The whole process takes me 5 minutes and it’s a no-brainer now.

    Plus, flossing in particular becomes far less unpleasant after doing it daily.

    Maybe flossing can be my push for implementing new changes – if I can learn to floss every day, what else can I do every day?

    Kristi 🙂