Health psychologist and Stanford University lecturer Kelly McGonigal, PhD, has a passion for translating the latest research from psychology, neuroscience and medicine into practical strategies for health, happiness and personal success.

With 2024 swiftly approaching, and a trail of abandoned resolutions dogging us, we asked McGonigal to explain the finer points of successful goal-setting—and to identify the shortcomings of our previous attempts.

"While the steps need to be small enough to tackle, the why needs to be big," she says. "A lot of people know to set realistic goals, but they won't follow through if the resolution doesn't really matter to them." Another land mine is our tendency to take failure hard. "It's part of the process," McGonigal adds. "One of the key points for any willpower challenge is seeing failure as evidence that you stretched the limits of what is possible for you. Pushing yourself to do something difficult is like exercising a muscle: If you work it to fatigue, you'll hit a wall. But the next time, your limit will be a little bigger."

Once you think you've settled on the right-sized goal to test your limits, ask yourself if it meets these four criteria before committing to the challenge:

Want it for yourself. Don't choose a resolution because someone else wants you to change, or because you think you should do it, McGonigal cautions. In general, the mind-set of self-improvement—that there's something wrong with you that needs to be fixed—is not constructive. New Year's resolutions should be about being good to yourself.

Be specific but flexible. The steps to achieving your resolution are important because they give you something specific to do and monitor. But leave room to revise these steps if they turn out to be unsustainable or don't lead to the benefits you expected.

Get support. Sometimes we equate New Year's resolutions with personal willpower, but you don't have to achieve your goals alone. What information or resources do you need? Who can help you? Can you find a group that supports the change you want to make?

Focus on the why before the what. Before you commit to your resolution, make sure you appreciate the big-picture goal that's driving it. What do you want in your life? What would help you achieve better health and greater happiness?

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