The clean slate provided by a New Year often inspires us to plan important life changes, both big and small. Many of these resolutions involve health. You may have watched in amazement as a formerly plump friend actually dropped the 30 pounds he vowed to lose one January 1st, or as an avowed couch potato transformed herself into a mini-marathoner.
Many people make the mistake of setting goals that are just too big or general to attain. Resolving to "get in shape" is too big and too vague. It is guaranteed to promote discouragement.
Some people seem have no problem sticking to their resolutions, which may inspire or embitter those of us who have a harder time doing this. But that fact is it's how you make your resolutions that determines your likelihood of success. Happily, new research shows that there are specific methods that people use to successfully tackle – and achieve – their goals.
This year, make a resolution to make resolutions you can stick to. Here’s how.
The key to making your resolutions stick is to set specific, realistic goals, according to the National Institutes of Health (NIH). Many people make the mistake of setting goals that are just too big or general to attain. Resolving to "get in shape" is too big and too vague. It is guaranteed to promote discouragement.
Instead, make sure your resolutions are concrete and made to be measured. Gretchen Rubin, author of The Happiness Project, says the more specific you are about your resolutions, the easier it is to keep them.
Start small; you can always build momentum. For example, if walking two miles per day is your ultimate goal, you could decide to walk half a mile a day until you feel healthy enough to walk a mile. Or, as the NIH suggests, instead of vowing to lose 30 pounds, resolve to lose five pounds per month over six months. Rather than focus on pounds, the American Heart Association recommends you focus on changing your behavior. You might decide to have desserts only on weekends, or to replace the enormous coffee shop muffin you have in the morning with a banana or whole grain toast. The pounds become the byproduct of these other changes.
Related to this idea of making your goals specific and measureable is the idea that you need to hold yourself accountable for doing what it is that you've resolved to do. That means writing down your resolutions and creating a chart on which you can record your efforts. NIH clinical psychologist Christine Hunter says that, "[s]elf-monitoring or tracking seems to be critical for almost every sort of behavior change."
So, someone hoping to work up to walking two miles every day would start a resolution chart with all the days of the week on it. Each day he or she would fill in how far they had walked. As the weeks turned into months, the distance walked would likely begin to approach your two-mile goal. Someone who wanted to eat a piece of fresh fruit every day could do the same thing, writing down their daily consumption. (Notice that the resolution is not to "Eat more fruit" since that's too vague to measure).
Remembering just why you made the resolution in the first place is a good way to stay motivating in getting to it. If your resolution is to lower your cholesterol, try to keep in mind (even better, write down) all the reasons why this is a good idea. Lowering your risk of clogged arteries, heart attack, and death are all good reasons to lower it, but there are also others which are warmer and fuzzier – like being around longer for your kids and grandkids – which may be easier to relate to when you’re feeling like giving in to a temptress in the form of a brownie.
You may feel you should keep your plans under wraps, thinking, "if I fail, then no one but me will know!" But announcing your plans actually serves a twofold purpose. The first is that it holds you accountable for your actions – to yourself and to others. You’re more likely to stay on track if you know that others will be asking about your progress.
The other reason to be vocal about your resolutions is so that you can ask for help and encouragement from those around you. Support is a key ingredient of many weight loss and addiction programs. Having a running buddy to help motivate you, or someone to support your desire to head to the salad bar instead of ordering a burger and fries can really help firm your resolve. Joining a group that supports your particular goal (weight loss, running, gourmet cooking, etc.) may also be worthwhile.
Planning for obstacles is the best way to beat them. Sometimes it’s just not possible to meet your goal one week, because, let’s face it, stuff happens and we all hit a wall sometimes. But having a plan for getting back on track makes it more likely that you’ll be able to deal with setbacks rather than giving up. What's worse: missing a week of exercise or doing none at all?
The flip side of this is no good either. As Gretchen Rubin points out, if there’s something that is just not happening for you year after year – if you still haven't learned to knit, become a master at darts, or become a vegetarian, maybe it’s time to focus on other goals.
But having a plan for getting back on track makes it more likely that you’ll be able to deal with setbacks rather than giving up. What's worse: missing a week of exercise or doing none at all?
A goal is more doable if you realize that there is likely more than one road to it. If dropping 30 pounds is your end goal, getting there can be more fun (and, research shows, more likely to last) if you view it as a lifestyle change rather than a grueling exercise in denial. For example, you can get active by trying a new hobby that you’ve always been curious about, or slim down by challenging yourself to create a new recipe that’s healthy but drool-inducing. This way, you’ll also be setting yourself up to continue your new lifestyle in the future.
Most change happens at little bit at a time over time. Making changes is part of growth and a tremendous source of happiness and satisfaction. So start with a small, specific resolution. Write it down. Tell a friend. Track it every day. Keep it up even if you've slipped for a while. And see your resolution come take hold.