The winter holidays are typically a time of overindulgence and lack of routine, and many of us get around our guilt of gluttony by making a “new year’s resolution”: promising to change our behavior once the holidays are over. The start of a new calendar year is the most popular time to set goals such as weight loss, exercising more, choosing a healthier diet, quitting unhealthy habits (smoking, drinking, etc.), or reducing stress. Unfortunately, these goals can be difficult to achieve and are often forgotten soon after they are set. If you’ve ever visited a gym in January and observed a surge of enthusiastic newcomers, you may also have noticed the crowd will dwindle and return to just the regulars by early spring.
This may sound pessimistic, but it doesn’t mean your resolution is doomed. Failure has less to do with a lack of willpower and more to do with a lack of planning and support. Here we will discuss some of the best ways proven to help you set realistic, healthy goals and make a plan to reach them in healthy ways.
How do I set a healthy resolution?
- Big dreams, small steps. It’s okay to make big, fantastic, lofty goals. In fact, the bigger the dream, the more likely you are to fight for it and inspire others around you because of the value you place on the outcome. Making a smaller goal that you see as more attainable may not inspire the same motivational push because you don’t value the outcome as much .
It is important, however, to know what small changes you can make to help you reach that big goal. If reaching the big goal requires you to immediately change everything about your lifestyle and behavior, you’ll be less likely to stick to the changes and attain your goal [2,3].
Plan out the small changes you can make over time that will contribute to the overall, big dream and think of a way you can measure and track your progress over time. Plan certain time points to evaluate whether the small steps are working and adjust your plan as needed without losing sight of the goal itself.
- Set intentions, not parameters. While it is recommended to make measurable, specific goals, try to phrase what it is you want as a positive intention rather than a strict and specific measurement to be reached . For example, if your goal is to lose 50 pounds in five months and you only lose 30, you are likely to feel disappointment. On the other hand, if your intention is to move your body towards a healthier size for your frame and you manage to lose 30 pounds in five months, you are likely to feel accomplished. In both scenarios, what you are doing is working! Your body is changing in a way that is moving towards your goal, but the feeling of accomplishment is more likely to reinforce the healthy habits that will keep you on track to shed the remaining pounds.
- Consider the reason for your goal. Why do you value the change you want to make? If your goal is in fact weight loss, is it because you are comparing yourself to others or feel shame from others’ opinions (not healthy reasons), has your doctor warned you of potential health consequences of maintaining your current lifestyle or do you value the idea of a more active lifestyle and wholesome diet to increase your energy, well-being, and longevity (health reasons)? Make sure you are setting goals to benefit you and your personal values . If the value is not intrinsic and the desired outcome isn’t for you, rethink your goal, and choose a goal that makes you feel excited.
- Choose “Approach Goals” over “Avoidance Goals”. Goal achievement data shows that goals are more likely to be attained when they are phrased as something to reach towards rather than something to be avoided . For example, if a more healthful diet is part of your goal, try making your motto “I will choose healthy foods that make my body feel good” rather than “Stop eating junk food”. Approach Goals help you think positively about reaching towards your goal. Avoidance Goals cause stress and negative thinking or make you feel like you’re constantly running away from something that is tempting or difficult to avoid. This means if you do end up eating food that makes you feel bad or guilty, you can just remember your goal was to make better choices and learn from the experience, rather than berating yourself for failing at your goal or giving up altogether because of a misstep.
How do I get started in achieving my goals?
- Give it all you’ve got! While you may be tempted to ease into goal attainment, a strong start is actually the best predictor of whether or not you will reach your goal . Even for difficult long-term goals, behavior within the first seven days predicts those who ultimately achieve their goals, including factors like sticking to your plan, self-monitoring motivation, and maintaining a positive attitude towards the goal.
- Stay accountable from the get-go. Just thinking about a goal might not be enough to keep you motivated down the line. Write it down! Tell your friends. Be positive and proud that you have decided to make a healthy change and gather your cheerleaders and support system. If you don’t have people in your household that can help support your new healthy habits, try joining an online forum of others working towards a similar goal, or use social media to update your friends and loved ones about the goals you are reaching towards.
If on your goal-attainment journey you start to feel hopeless or guilty for making some poor choices, these people may be able to give you hints for getting back on track or boost your confidence to keep working hard [2,3]. Sometimes hearing “you can do it!” from someone who believes in you is all you need as a reminder to believe in yourself again.
- One behavior at a time. Change is hard and can be overwhelming. When planning how you will reach your goal, make a list of things that will need to change. If we return to the weight loss example, your plan may include eating a more nutritious diet, eating smaller quantities, exercising more often or more intensely, sleeping more, drinking more water, meditating, etc. Trying to change all of those things at once is probably unrealistic and would require a complete overhaul of your schedule and lifestyle. Keep all of those factors on your list of positive changes to make, but pick one to start with. Give yourself some time to work that new habit into your life before adding another behavior change . These are the small steps that contribute to a big dream.
What will help me stay motivated?
- Practice gratitude. Looking forward to a brighter future is great, but the present is pretty great too. Part of tracking your progress along your goal attainment journey is noticing all the little things that are already going well. Your present reality may not look exactly like the life you see for yourself once you have reached your goal, but there are probably at least a few positive things that are present in your reality, and it can contribute to your sense of well-being, state of positivity, and continued motivation when you take note of them and say “thank you”. Scientific studies have found that people feel motivated and energized when they experience gratitude and that gratitude encourages them to make progress towards their goals .
- Use a tracking app. Activity tracking devices or smartphone apps are a great way to keep track of your progress towards an activity, fitness, or weight loss goal . Even better, many of them also have a way to input an end goal to work towards, make your progress shareable for the sake of accountability, and even give you notifications and positive feedback when you reach a milestone along your journey. Feedback is also a predictor of success when it comes to progress towards a goal. The better and more frequent the feedback, the faster the progress .
- Reward yourself. Yes, reaching the goal will be the greatest reward, but if it’s big and far away, you may need some small rewards to help you feel good about the progress you make along the way. When planning your journey to goal attainment, give yourself specific points in time when you will evaluate your own progress and note any changes in your motivation and attitude. These evaluations should include a small reward if you’re staying on track !
Beware: it can be tempting you use a small bad behavior as a reward for a lot of good behavior. An example of this is the infamous “cheat day”, allowing yourself junk food after a week of eating well. Instead, after a week of eating nutritious food, reward yourself with a new piece of athletic attire, a book you’ve been looking forward to reading, or an extra hour of sleeping in. You might get your partner or a supportive family member to reward you by taking over one of your household chores so you can have an hour of free time. Try choosing rewards that will support your progress, not cause a step back, no matter how tiny.
What if I fail?
When it comes to goals, there really is no “failure” point; your goal is still waiting to be met.
Don’t beat yourself up. Don’t blame your willpower and try not to get into a pattern of negative self-talk. Don’t let negative beliefs about your behavior patterns sabotage your ability to change. Think about what the specific behaviors or obstacles are standing in between you and your goal and brainstorm new strategies to use to get around them. You might not need to change your goal, just your plan for how you will reach it.
- Happier Human. “Goal Setting Theory”. Happier Human: What About Happiness? July 19, 2019. https://www.happierhuman.com/goal-setting-theory/
- American Psychological Association. “Making your New Year’s resolution stick”. American Psychological Association: Psychology Help Center. Accessed Jan 2, 2020. https://www.apa.org/helpcenter/resolution
- Harvard Medical School. “Seven steps for making your New Year’s resolutions stick”. Harvard Health Publishing. Accessed Jan. 2, 2020. https://www.health.harvard.edu/staying-healthy/seven-steps-for-making-your-new-years-resolutions-stick
- Tartakovsky, Margarita. “10 Tips for Setting Successful Resolutions That Stick”. Psych Central. Oct. 8, 2018. https://psychcentral.com/lib/10-tips-for-setting-successful-resolutions-that-stick/
- Gordon, Mitchell, Tim Althoff, and Jure Leskovec. “Goal-setting And Achievement In Activity Tracking Apps: A Case Study Of MyFitnessPal.” The World Wide Web Conference. ACM, 2019.
- Emmons, Robert A., and Anjali Mishra. “Why gratitude enhances well-being: What we know, what we need to know.” Designing positive psychology: Taking stock and moving forward (2011): 248-262.
- Brost, Kyle. “5 Ways to Recognize and Reward Your Progress”. Medium: Thrive Global. May 22, 2017. https://medium.com/thrive-global/5-ways-to-recognize-and-reward-your-progress-1d85e346438