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The Domino Effect: How to Make a Resolution Stick

Learn how a single healthy change can stop a free fall of bad habits. Then get on the path to making 2014 your fittest, happiest year yet.

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Stacked dominos falling
David Sykes
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Make a Change

"It's a new year, and I need to make over every aspect of my life." Sound familiar? Take a deep breath. Experts say that focusing on a single goal can keep you from getting overwhelmed. And once you've tackled one, you'll feel motivated to keep the improvements going. Need proof? We asked eight women to spend a month adopting a healthy behavior. Their success is evidence that starting small is the best way to see big results.

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Goal: Stick to One Sweet Treat a Day

The tester: Alissa Rotberg, 26

"I'm the kind of girl who always hits the candy bowl before meetings or skips lunch and eats a cupcake instead," Alissa says. "But when I go overboard on sweets, I hit a slump later."

The outcome: Alissa kept a written log of what she ate. "I also told everyone what I was doing so they could call me out if they saw me having more than one treat," she says. "At first I had my sweet right after lunch, but then later in the day I'd be tempted by something and feel disappointed that I had already indulged," she says. "So as the month went on, I began saving dessert until after dinner."

"Though my one treat was occasionally a big handful of cookies, I stuck to the plan most of the time. Some days I didn't have anything sweet at all, which was a first for me." By the end of the month, Alissa had lost a few pounds and felt more energized in the afternoon. "The best part was that I stopped craving sweets as much," she says.

Try it: "You can still snack on something sweet, but make sure it contains at least three grams of fiber and pair it with protein," says Susan Mitchell, PhD, a coauthor of Fat Is Not Your Fate. Those nutrients fill you up and deliver steady energy so your blood sugar doesn't seesaw. Mitchell's favorite combos: a hard-boiled egg and a pear, string cheese and a banana, and nuts and dried fruit.

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Goal: Stop Checking Facebook Compulsively

The tester: Kelly Kapron, 32

"Facebook always made me feel as if I wasn't achieving as much, going on as many vacations, or hitting the same milestones as my friends," Kelly says. "Yet I was logging on six times a day."

The outcome: After typing See you next month! as a status, Kelly worried that she was missing out, especially when people would tag photos of her. "But for the most part, I stopped thinking about it and started spending more time on home-improvement projects and other activities that make me feel good about my life," she says. "And without the distraction of a news feed, I could concentrate at work."

When Kelly signed back on at the end of the month, she was curious to see what she had missed. "Absolutely nothing important!" she says. "Now I check Facebook every few days, but most of the time I would rather focus on what's happening in real life."

Try it: "If going cold turkey makes you anxious, slowly extend the time between log-ins until you're checking only once or twice a day," suggests Larry Rosen, PhD, a professor of psychology at California State University, Dominguez Hills.

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Goal: Track All Expenses

The tester: Sarah Anderson, 44

"I know what my fixed expenses are, but I have no idea what I spend on all the little things, like dinners out and new clothes," Sarah says. "And my boyfriend just moved in with me and is looking for a job, so we're living on one income."

The outcome: Sarah started saving receipts and inputting the amounts into a spreadsheet at the end of each day, organizing her spending by category. "I didn't want to have to input receipts for every coffee or manicure, so I began to cut back," she says.

This challenge also helped Sarah realize how good she was at rationalizing bigger purchases. "I would tell myself that I deserved new shoes because I work hard, or that I would never find a cuter top." She came up with a novel solution for her splurges. "I started keeping my purchases in the bag with the tags on them for a full day and reconsidering them after the high had worn off," she says.

Try it: "Use an app like Spendee or Mint to make tracking your expenses easy," says Manisha Thakor, a personal finance expert and the founder of MoneyZen.com. "Once you've tallied a month's worth, see if they follow a classic 50-30-20 breakdown. Fifty percent of your take-home pay should go to needs, 30 percent to wants, and 20 percent to savings," she says. "If yours don't, make adjustments the next month."

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Goal: Turn Off the TV After an Hour

The tester: Courtney Thom, 36

"I always tell myself that I'm going to catch one show to relax, then three hours go by and I'm still watching," Courtney says.

The outcome: Courtney missed the background noise more than any one show. "To drown out the silence, I switched to Pandora and discovered some new music," she says. Courtney also became pickier about what she watched: "Instead of just flipping on the set, I would check the listings and choose something that was really worth it."

"In the middle of the month, I got really stressed out at work, and all I wanted to do was binge on Bravo. Instead I channeled my wound-up energy into trying new recipes and taking yoga classes after work. I also began heading to bed around 10:30 instead of midnight," she says. "Feeling rested and accomplished is better than any TV show."

Try it: "If you don't trust yourself to set clear limits and stick with them, try coupling your TV time with exercise," Rosen says. "By catching up on New Girl while you run on the treadmill or glide on the elliptical, you'll not only fit in a workout, you'll also have a built-in stopping point."

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Goal: Stop at One Drink

The tester: Corliss Elizabeth Williams, 33

"When I'm at happy hour, I'll treat myself to a few drinks," Corliss says. "And after a long day at work, sometimes I'll stay in and have wine and cheese -- a recipe for a sluggish morning."

The outcome: Corliss stopped going to bars as much, and when she did, she drank white-wine spritzers. "Because they're half wine and half soda water, I could have two and still stick to my plan." To her surprise, it was the nights at home that were the toughest. "All I wanted to do was sip wine while watching TV," she says. "To remove that temptation, I stopped buying it." Curtailing her drinking freed up time to take dance and indoor-cycling classes. "Exercising more means that I'm sleeping better than I have in years. And by drinking and eating -- less, I've lost four pounds."

Try it: "Mixing seltzer with white wine is a great way to limit the alcohol and calories you're consuming," says Erin Palinski-Wade, RD, the author of Belly Fat Diet for Dummies. "You can also alternate sips of alcohol and water or save your drink for the end so you can savor it while everyone is sitting around chatting."

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Goal: Wear Lipstick Every Day

The tester: Sarah Rutledge Gorman, 43

"I work from home and take care of my 3-year-old son, so wearing makeup doesn't seem worth the trouble," Sarah says. "But I think I look old and plain, and it doesn't help that my hair is in a ponytail and I have on a ratty T-shirt."

The outcome: "I bought a few new lipsticks and rediscovered some I already owned," Sarah says. "It was fun to play around with them, and soon I wasn't stopping with lipstick. I didn't want my eyes to look washed out, so I added mascara. And then I thought, Why not take my hair down too and put on some jewelry? Feeling good about my appearance has made me feel more positive overall."

Try it: If you're hesitant about lip color, baby-step it with a lip stain, says Poppy King, a makeup artist and the author of Lessons of a Lipstick Queen. Otherwise, start with a shade that's close to your natural lip color and wear it around the house for a few nights to get comfortable with it, King advises.

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Goal: Brush and Floss Right After Dinner

The tester: Sheryl McGloffin, 29

"My late-night snacking -- mainly on sweets -- has gotten out of control," Sheryl says. "The more I eat, the tougher it is to fall asleep. Plus I have a horrible cavity problem."

The outcome: Sheryl was surprised by what an effective deterrent flossing turned out to be. "I think if I'd just been brushing my teeth, I would have still snacked and just brushed them again before bed. But I hate flossing so much, there was no way I was going to do it twice." By the end of the challenge, Sheryl had cut out nighttime snacking altogether. "I'm kind of addicted to how clean flossing makes my mouth feel, and I can't wait to go to the dentist and get an A-plus report."

Try it: "You need to feel satisfied so you aren't tempted to go back into the kitchen late at night," Palinski-Wade says. "Three hours before bedtime, eat a dinner that includes vegetables, lean protein and whole grains. And drink eight to 12 ounces of water before and after dinner."

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Goal: Quit Pressing Snooze

The tester: Christine O'Neill, 36

"I set one alarm that goes off at my ideal wake-up time, followed by others to ensure that I don't oversleep," Christine says. "I could spend up to an hour every morning hitting snooze."

The outcome: "I taped up my phone in newspaper so I couldn't press snooze without unwrapping it first," Christine says. "The first morning, when I felt the crinkling of paper, it reminded me of my goal. I didn't want to fail on day one, so I got up and fit in a run before work," she says. "Seeing how productive I could be motivated me to keep going."

As the month went on, Christine took a moment each night to plan out the next day. "If I wanted to run or get to work early, I would set my alarm for 6:30," she says. "But if I didn't need to do either, I would set my alarm for 7:30 and wake up feeling refreshed."

Try it: "Make sure your alarm doesn't make an obnoxious noise. Otherwise, you'll hit snooze just to make it stop," advises Max Hirshkowitz, PhD, a sleep researcher at Baylor College of Medicine in Houston. "Set it to stimulating music that you can listen to for a minute without falling back asleep. Then set a second alarm to go off a few minutes later to signal that you absolutely must get out of bed."

Originally published in FITNESS magazine, January 2014.

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