Like clockwork, as the New Year arrives, people will once again take stock of their lives and vow to make healthier choices in the year ahead.
With holiday indulgences in the rearview mirror, we will 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 generally “better off” people in a variety of other ways, notes health-psychology expert Charlotte Markey.
“However, most of us will have nothing more than fleeting success at our attempts at self-improvement,” says Markey, a professor of psychology at Rutgers University–Camden and author of the book Smart People Don’t Diet. “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.”
According to the Rutgers–Camden researcher, about 25 percent of New Year’s resolutions are abandoned within the first week and the majority of them are forgotten within a couple of months. In fact, she notes, it’s extremely common for people to make the same resolution year after year because nothing was in fact “resolved” in the year before.
So, what should you do if you really want to accomplish one of your goals?
Markey gives the inside scoop on 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 at all. 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. However, this sort of a goal 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. Instead of trying to give up an entire category of food, for example, which is likely unrealistic and too difficult to maintain, 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 that 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 successfully.
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 overfocus 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 – for example, “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 8 p.m. if everyone else around you has done so as well.
Or perhaps sign up for an exercise class with a friend, whom you’ll look forward to seeing every week. Social support and working toward 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 setbacks, you’re likely to go 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!