A Fresh Approach to New Year’s Resolutions
Sharon Black, PhD, MSW, LISW-CP/S
Are you motivated to change to improve your health in the new year? A recent survey of 2000 adults showed that while the concept of New Year’s resolutions is considered outdated by 55% of Americans, they still want to set health goals in 2024.
The concept of resolutions being outdated was reported by people in the survey who made New Year’s resolutions in the past and then gave up by March, saying they lost motivation, life priorities shifted, or the goal was forgotten altogether. Other reasons for giving up were feeling too much pressure, and the goal being seen as a chore with no hope of lasting change. Respondents also reported making one significant change seemed harder than incremental lifestyle changes. The top three goals people were still interested in pursuing were related to health, including eating healthier, drinking more water, and becoming more active.
Research indicates people who don’t stick with their goals tend to try and do too much, set goals that are not specific to their life, don’t modify a goal when it’s not working, or fail to look at the big picture. With a “can do” mindset and practical goal setting, it becomes much easier to stay on course with strategies that work for the long term. It’s important to think through the process first, similar to bringing together the ingredients for baking a cake and reading the directions before beginning.
What is your overriding goal? For example, if the goal is to eat healthier, what does this mean in terms of your lifestyle, and where is an easy place to start? Goals should be challenging but achievable, with no glaring red flags. Make sure to question any goals or social media trends that sound unrealistic to you. It is also helpful for long-term success to have a mindset of developing goals around lifestyle change instead of restriction, and to individualize goals to fit with your personality and environment.
Start by setting one small goal at a time and making it part of your routine before adding another. Find something you want to work on to improve health instead of “need” or “should.” Be curious and do a little research to find options you think will work for you. When developing a goal, a helpful strategy is to think SMART, an acronym for: specific, measurable, achievable, realistic, and time-related. A plan with simple steps that work with your lifestyle helps increase the chances of being successful.
For example, if you want to add more fruits and vegetables to your diet, a SMART goal might be, “I will prep and add a vegetable to my dinner meal at least five days a week.” Once this goal is met for several weeks, add a fruit or veggie to another meal or snack. An activity SMART goal might start with, “I will walk for 10-15 minutes over my lunch break at least two days a week,” then more activity can be added over time. Also, consider how to set up your environment with opportunities to decrease barriers, such as planning to purchase veggies weekly to have available for meals or keeping walking shoes at work for walking at lunch time.
Another strategy called habit stacking can pair a new goal with something you’re already doing, such as using a walking trail located on the route home from work or putting medications by the coffee pot as a reminder to take them more consistently.
Getting creative with goal setting and adding in the fun factor is another ingredient in the recipe for success. Enlist help by discussing your goals with someone you trust and having follow-up conversations over time, joining an exercise group or cooking class, or journaling about the goal and reviewing it regularly. With any goal, check in at intervals and adjust as needed. A goal might need to be adjusted, abandoned, or changed, depending on what’s going on in life.
Take the time to regularly analyze your goals without harsh judgment. Developing accountability is an important tool to help stay on track with goals. If you think of goals as experiments, it’s easier to evaluate them more objectively and figure out any changes needed. Or, if the goal isn’t working at all, explore other alternatives and set a new goal. Throw out any guilt or shame, and develop grace and self-compassion. Learn to treat yourself well, like you treat a dear friend. Aim not to compare yourself to others and be okay with not being perfect.
Setbacks, challenges, and curveballs are a normal part of life. Embrace the ebb and flow, keep a positive mindset, and give yourself a break during challenging times. If you feel like a failure and find yourself in the middle of a pity party, allow it and set an end time. Brush yourself off and try again. Success comes by sticking with goals, even if you don’t feel like it in the moment. Any step toward good health is a step in the right direction. Look at the big picture and be aware of things going well, such as more energy, a better mood, a clearer mind, or less stress. Find your stride and learn to develop a “bounce back” mentality when you get off track.
Make sure to celebrate small wins. We tend to beat ourselves down for failing instead of lifting ourselves up when we do well. Aim to reframe a negative mindset to a positive one. It’s not failing – it’s struggling. Goal setting is more about progress over time, not perfection. When doing well, embrace the progress and reward effective behaviors. Rewards don’t have to be about money or food. Take a nap, read a book, schedule fun time with loved ones, listen to a podcast, or visit a free museum or local attraction. Rewards for your accomplishments are more about doing nice things for yourself!
While the first of the year has traditionally been a time for changing habits, any time can be the moment to focus on building new habits to improve health. Small steps lead to big changes over time, and improving health is a journey that takes time. Set your course, readjust your goals when needed, and correct your course when you get off track. Take the time to enjoy the journey and the many wonderful benefits of taking care of yourself in the new year and beyond.