In my free time, I teach group exercise classes. People who attend my classes often tell me that they avoid them in January since they know the classes will be more crowded than usual.
“I’ll see you in February,” one man once said to me in late December. “The New Year’s Resolutions crowd will be cleared out by then,” he added.
At the start of each year, many people resolve to “get healthier.” Whether you want to lose weight, add muscle, eat better, drink more water, drink less alcohol, or exercise more often, chances are that you (or someone very close to you) set some sort of New Year’s Resolution this year to get healthier.
Unfortunately, research has demonstrated that over 90% of all New Year’s Resolutions will be unsuccessful.  This article will highlight why most change efforts fail and how you can be among the few who succeed in making healthy changes stick.
Why do most people fail with their New Year’s Resolutions to get healthier?
There are two main reasons why most most resolutions to get healthier will fail. First of all, the resolution to “get healthier” is too vague. What does it mean to “get healthier?” How would you or anyone else be able to tell if you made progress with this unclear objective?
This ambiguity is a problem because it can destroy your motivation. When you aren’t sure if you are making progress, it can be very tempting to give up and stop trying to improve.
The second reason why most New Year’s Resolutions fail is due to a poor strategy. People who resolve to get healthier usually follow one of two approaches:
- The improvised approach: With this method, there is no strategy. You just try to make healthier decisions whenever (a) you recognize an opportunity to be healthier and (b) you are in the mood to make the healthier choice.
- The overhaul approach: With this method, there is a strategy, but it’s not a sustainable one. You try to make major changes at one time, perhaps by following a fad diet that is complicated and rigid, or by starting a workout program that is time-consuming and extreme.
Both methods are likely to be painful and unlikely to result in positive long-term changes. In fact, research by Dr. Traci Mann at UCLA has demonstrated that over 40% of people attempting a fad diet will actually gain weight. 
What should you do instead?
If you want to get healthier, a stronger approach is to focus on breaking, making, or expanding one specific habit at a time. Commit to stop doing or start doing one specific behavior every day (or at least five days a week). I refer to this as the fail-safe approach to get healthier.
This method is much more effective than the improvised approach. It’s also much less painful and much more sustainable than the overhaul approach. If you incorporate one healthy change into your life each month for the next 12 months, you are guaranteed to get much healthier over the next year. (See Figure 1 below for a visual depiction.)
Where should you start?
If you want to get healthier, here are three examples of a behavior that you could focus on first:
- If you frequently drink beverages with extra calories, added sugar, or preservatives (i.e. alcohol, sweetened iced teas, sodas, or energy drinks), you could commit to replacing one or more of those beverages each day with 12 ounces of water.
- If you usually skip breakfast or eat a low-value breakfast like a bagel with cream cheese, you could commit to eating a natural, nutrient-dense breakfast every morning instead. Aim for at least 20 grams of quality protein, at least one serving of fruits and vegetables, and no added sugar or artificial ingredients.
- If you are not exercising consistently, you could commit to exercising for 20 minutes before, during, or after every workday.
You can increase or decrease the size or complexity of these sample behaviors, or any other behavior that you decide to adopt. Someone who already has many healthy habits would focus on different and more complex behaviors than someone who currently has very few healthy habits.
Whatever you decide to focus on first, consider the following as a checklist to make sure that you are truly following the fail-safe approach to get healthier:
- Have you identified one specific behavior to focus on first? Your selected behavior should be specific enough that anyone could determine whether you did it or avoided it each day.
- Are you at least 90 percent confident that you can follow-through? If you are not at least 90 percent confident that you can do or avoid your new behavior at least five days a week, take that as a sign to shrink the size of the change that you have in mind. 
- Will your new behavior take less than 30 minutes (max) a day? For example, if you aren’t exercising at all right now, you are much better off starting with 20-minute workouts, rather than immediately trying to start with 60-minute workouts. You could always expand your habit and increase your duration in the future.
What if you want to make more than one change now though?
Let’s say that the first habit that you want to focus on is exercising for 20 minutes before every workday. The fail-safe approach does not prevent you from making additional healthy choices on a daily basis. For example, you could certainly also start drinking more water and start reducing your consumption of artificial foods.
However, consider any effort beyond your selected habit as a bonus. The positioning here is very important, or you can easily fall into the trap of the overhaul approach. Don’t require yourself to break, make, or expand multiple behaviors simultaneously.
It’s better to start small and build momentum and confidence, rather than biting off more than you can chew and potentially being overwhelmed after just a few days or weeks. Whenever a behavior starts to feel easy and automatic (when it becomes a habit), you can then identify an additional healthy behavior to incorporate into your life next.
Research has estimated that over 90% of all New Year’s Resolutions and change efforts eventually fail, and over 25% of resolutions don’t even last one week.  Don’t set a New Year’s Resolution to get healthier. Instead, focus on adopting one specific change at a time. Follow the fail-safe approach to get healthier, and the next year can be your strongest, healthiest year ever.
P.S. Have you taken my free habits assessment at StrongerHabits.com?
You can click here for a free, 3-minute assessment that measures your current habits in four areas linked to greater health, well-being, and performance. You’ll also get a free eBook on the 5 keys for forming stronger habits.
About the author: Pete Leibman is the creator of StrongerHabits.com and the author of Work Stronger; Habits for More Energy, Less Stress, and Higher Performance at Work. His work has been featured on Fox News, CBS Radio, and CNNMoney.com.
author Pete Leibman at work (left) and competing in an obstacle race (middle)