Make 2017 Your Year!

How to set (and keep) New Year's resolutions this coming year.

Posted Dec 19, 2016

When January 1st rolls around, many of us will take stock of our lives and vow to make healthier choices in the year ahead.  We’ll make plans to lose weight, exercise more, drink less, stop smoking, spend more time with our families, spend less time on our “screens,” and be better people in a variety of other ways.  Most of us will have nothing more than fleeting success at our attempts at self-improvement.  I don’t say this to be cynical; I say this because there are mounds of scientific research to suggest that this is the case. 

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Source: shutter stock

About 25% of new year’s resolutions are abandoned within the first week and the majority of new year’s resolutions are forgotten within a couple of months.  In fact, it’s extremely common for people to make the same resolution year after year because nothing was, in fact, “resolved” in the preceding year. 

So, what should you do if you really want to accomplish your goals?  Here are some evidence-based tips that will give you a leg up in 2017.

Be realistic.  If you aren’t currently exercising at all, don’t aim to exercise six days a week.  There’s probably a good reason (or several) why you haven’t found time for nearly daily exercise. So, before you set a goal for the new year, be honest with yourself about what is possible.  One or two days of exercise per week is a lot better for your health than no days of exercise.  And, you’re likely to stick with a more realistic goal such as this.

Keep it small and simple.  Grand proclamations such as, “I will no longer eat sweets in 2017,” feel thorough and virtuous.  But, a goal such as this is actually fairly complex.  What qualifies as a sweet?  Are there exceptions to that rule if it’s your birthday? What if you go to someone else’s house for dinner and the meal includes something sweet?  Research suggests that in order to achieve our health-related goals, we benefit from keeping these goals small and simple.  Giving up an entire category of food, for example, is likely unrealistic and too difficult to stick with.  Instead, try a more modest and attainable goal.  If ice cream is your favorite sweet, commit to only having it twice a week. If you want to limit your time with social media, commit to one “free day.”

Monitor yourself.  One blockade to achieving our goals is our bad memories.  We tend to think we are doing better than we are.  Then, we can’t figure out why we haven’t lost weight, gotten in better shape, or otherwise improved ourselves.  So, keep a journal, use an app, jot notes on your calendar in the kitchen, or find a way to easily monitor yourself.  Don’t over-focus on a technological solution, just find a way to hold yourself accountable.  For example, I keep track of my exercise simply using the notes feature on my smartphone.  Every time I exercise I jot it down (e.g., “run 4 miles”); this takes no more than 10 seconds. 

Share your goals.  Few things can be more motivating than the fear of public humiliation.  However, you don’t need to post your goals on Facebook to reap the benefits of wanting to save face in the midst of efforts towards goal attainment.  Do tell at least one person about your goals – your mom, your partner, or a good friend.   Tell others if you are comfortable doing so.  Ask them to check in with you about your goals.  Let them know that you hope to check in with them as well (whether it be daily, weekly, or monthly).  Use this social support as a form of accountability.  And don’t hesitate to be explicit about what is helpful to you.  Most of us don’t want to be shamed for slipping up, but we do want to know that others are rooting for us.

Recruit help preemptively.  In addition to telling others about your goals, ask for their help – before you need it.  This may take many forms.  Consider asking your family, partner, or roommate to avoid buying chips if you know this is a weakness of yours.  Or, set screen time limits as a family; it will be easier to turn off your phone at 8pm if everyone else around you is also.  Or, maybe you could sign up for an exercise class with a friend and you’ll look forward to seeing her for class every Wednesday evening. Social support and working towards your goals with others will make them more attainable – and more fun.

Be forgiving You are going to mess up.  We all do.  Changing our health behaviors is just plain hard.  The above tips should make it easier, but some days it will still be hard.   So, when you have a bad day, forgive yourself.  If you beat yourself up about your set-backs, you’re likely to get off track and give up.  So, make this your mantra, “today was a bad day, but I will try again tomorrow.  Tomorrow will be a better day.”

Don’t give up.  Research suggests that most health behavior changes require at least six attempts before success is achieved.  So, if you’ve made the same new year’s resolution since 2012, don’t despair!  This could be your year.  Follow the advice above, and DON’T GIVE UP!

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