Make plans, not resolutions

This post originally appeared on the Pattern Health blog.

By Aline Holzwarth


Your new year’s resolution is very likely to fail. Most do. Resolutions are just not built to succeed. They rely on willpower, hoping and wishing (which last about a week, a month if you’re lucky). New year’s resolutions are like that promise to that friend that you will meet up, grab coffee, but neither of you actually makes the first move and neither of you really minds. They are that nonfiction book on your bookshelf, or documentary in your Netflix queue, that you definitely want to read/watch and completely plan on getting to, just not this time.

And that’s fine. If you’re not serious about getting more sleep or saving more money or spending more time with your family, that’s your prerogative. But for those of us who do actually want to carry out our self-bettering wishes this year, there’s a better way. We don’t have to settle with declaring our grandiose aspirations over a toast to a room of acquaintances, then forgetting about them as soon as the champagne hangover subsides.

Instead of making a resolution this January 1st, make a behavioral science fueled plan.

It’s so easy that I did it myself and am here to share it with you. (You are welcome to copy it, I would be honored!)

I built my New Year’s plan this year using the goal-setting worksheet created by Pattern Health and the Center for Advanced Hindsight (which we also wrote about a few months ago in our how-to guide for setting better goals). Here’s how it works.

Step 1: Choose your big goal

I’ve put on a few too many pounds over the past couple years and I’m ready to say goodbye to them. (Just a hunch, I am probably not the only one hoping to shed pounds this year.) Therefore..

My big goal is to lose some weight so that my clothes fit me well again.

This is a fine start, but before we move on to Step 2, let’s first make it a SMART goal.

  • Specific: More specifically, I want to be in “healthy BMI range” which means I need to lose about 20 lbs. I’m not going to fixate on this number, and I’m just going to take it one week at a time because smaller goals that add up to larger goals are more likely to be met.
  • Measurable: I’ll know when I reach my goal because I will step on the scale each morning (at the same time, wearing the same-ish thing) to record my weight.
  • Achievable: Definitely achievable. I’ve succeeded at losing weight in the past and I know what it will take to reach my goal. It’s just a matter of making the plan and sticking to it.
  • Relevant: If I lose 20 lbs, I will have more energy, happiness and will not have to buy new clothes because my old clothes will fit again.
  • Time-bound: At a weight loss rate of 1-2 lbs a week (and being conservative with 1 lb/week), I hope to lose 20 lbs by the 20th week of the year which is about May 19th.

Step 2: List your goal steps

To lose weight, the two most important components will naturally be around my diet and exercise.

Diet Goal Steps

I’ve decided to try a low carb diet. I’m starting with 25 grams of carbs a day, and will gradually increase the amount as I lose weight by “climbing the carb ladder” (I’ll spare you the details). In addition, I’m restricting my caloric intake to 1,200 calories a day (which I know I can do, as I’ve done it for the past month). These are my diet-related goal steps.

  1. Establish basic diet principles (or “cheat sheet”) for meals and snacks
  2. Plan meals for the week every Saturday at 9am
  3. Go shopping every Saturday at 10am
  4. Prepare food on weekends (for Sat-Tues) and Wednesdays (for Wed-Fri)
  5. Record meals via photo tracking and share with interested parties

Exercise Goal Steps

I want to meet the level of exercise recommended in the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ just-released Physical Activity Guidelines (spoiler: for adults like me, get in 150 minutes a week of aerobic exercise and strength training on 2+ days/week). These are my exercise-related goal steps.

  1. Find activities to satisfy the aerobic and strength requirements
  2. Schedule these as recurring events on my calendar
  3. Set out my workout clothes and shoes the evening before

Step 3: Identify your obstacles

Diet Obstacles

  1. Go out to eat
  2. Fail to plan ahead

Exercise Obstacles

  1. Don’t feel like exercising
  2. Too hot or cold to exercise outside

Step 4: Make an if-then plan

Diet Solutions

  1. If I go out to eat, then I will stick to a set of rules to help me make better meal choices
    1. Pick either appetizer or alcohol, not both
    2. Share an entree with someone or take the other half to go
    3. Order a 2:1 ratio of vegetable to protein
    4. I may have one and only one small bite of a shared dessert
  2. If I fail to plan ahead, then I will have a default meal option that I must make (so I can’t fall back on unhealthy alternatives)

Exercise Solutions

  1. If I don’t feel like exercising, then I will do it anyway but take it easy
  2. If it’s too hot or cold outside to run, then I will instead do an alternative predetermined indoor exercise

Supercharge your commitment with behavioral science tools

Planning is going to make a big difference on its own (compared to empty resolutions), but if you want to take the extra step, there is more you can do to ensure your success. Behavioral science has a range of tools to help with this, and at Pattern Health we’ve already shared our work using two important types: commitment tools and social tools. In the spirit of winding down 2018 and getting on to 2019, let’s recap.

Commitment tools

  • Precommitment“When we sign our names we are also reminding ourselves to follow through on those promises. The signature is hard evidence of the seriousness of our commitment, and it stays in our mind as a symbol representing that dedication”One form of precommiting to my New Year’s plan is by writing this very article. Go figure.
  • Implementation intentions“These kinds of if-then plans are remarkably effective at translating vague desires into concrete action plans that might actually come to fruition”
  • Commitment devices “Commitment devices can help all us stick to our goals by setting up and enforcing if-then plans. (So, for example, you might decide that if you fail to go to the gym tomorrow morning, then you will not be allowed to hang out with your friends on the weekend.)”As any good behavioral scientist would do, I’ve set up commitment devices to prevent me from failing: “If I go a week without exercise, then I will sign up (and prepay) for a recurring fitness class. And if I go a day without eating low carb, then I will start from the top of the carb ladder (essentially starting from scratch).

Social tools

  • Social norms“Other people are one of the strongest influences over your behavior. But how do they influence you? Two ways, basically: What they do, and what they approve of.”In case you didn’t already know, exercising and eating well is loads of fun. Everyone you admire is doing it, and they love doing it.
  • Social media“As humans, we are inherently social animals. We care what others think about us, and want to make sure our networks think of us positively. This social incentive can get us to behave in all sorts of ways, and social networks can serve as a vehicle to transmit this information.”
Check out this very tweet about this very article:

By publicly declaring my intention to stick to this plan, I’ve raised the stakes because I know you will hold me accountable.

  • Social support “Social support works by moving us to act in ways that we believe are popular or socially desirable, and we are motivated by words of encouragement — not only when we receive encouraging words, but also (actually, even more so) when we help others.”This is the most important one of all, so as a smart behavioral scientist I’ve invested the most in my social support network. Here are some things I’ve done to make sure that my friends and family help me succeed:
    • told my friends about what I’m doing and offered to bring diet-appropriate meals to gatherings
    • enlisted my husband to join me in the additional exercise (including a lunchtime yoga class)
    • invited my mom and sister to do this along with me, and we are sharing meal plans and exercise plans (and success stories) as we go

And with that, I’d like to call it a year. Happy planning, and merry new year to you. Looking forward to sharing more on how behavioral science fuels Pattern in 2019!

P.S. We are very much interested in how you are using behavioral science for your health. If you’ve made your own behavioral-science-fueled plans, send us a tweet @ptrnhealth to let us know what it is.

P.P.S. If you’d like to see my more detailed New Year’s Diet and Fitness Plan, I’m happy to share it. Just shoot me an email at or tweet at me @alineholzwarth.