By Robyn Osborn Pashby, PhD
December 31st marks that wonderful time of year when millions of people ring in the New Year with confetti and party hats. Whether you choose to spend the evening out dancing past midnight or you prefer to snuggle into bed by 9pm, the new year isn’t just about celebrating; it is also a time when many people make New Year’s resolutions and try to take advantage of the fresh start feeling that January 1st brings.
For many Americans who struggle with weight, losing some of that weight is perhaps the most common resolution set each year. But as you may have experienced in the past, the energy and focus you have to work on your resolution in January tends to fade. And for most people, by the time February rolls around, you may be feeling discouraged and either at the same weight as you started or even with a few additional holiday pounds. If this has happened to you, like it has for so many Americans who start out strong but lose steam a few weeks/months in, there are some simple steps you can take to try to make this year’s resolutions more sustainable.
First, focus on changing one habit. Yes, just one! Trying to change too many behaviors or habits at once can really zap your energy and lead you to feeling overwhelmed. For example, instead of aiming to start an exercise program, cut back on snacking, and get more sleep, pick one of these changes and then make a plan for action. By focusing on the one habit you most want to change, you are more likely to set yourself up for success.
Next, when you do pick the change you want to focus on, be specific. A resolution to “lose weight” might seem like a good idea, but in reality, losing weight is made up of a number of different behaviors and habits. And the truth is, we can’t really control the number on the scale – all we can do is work hard to manage our day to day behaviors, which then could lead to weight change. So instead of trying to work on the more complex goal of weight loss, try breaking it down into manageable behavior changes that can help you work towards that end goal. For example, if your goal is weight loss, then maybe you want to try to bring your lunch to work every day instead of eating lunch out. Or, perhaps you want to try to have a healthy breakfast in the morning instead of skipping breakfast and ending up starving by the time lunch hour rolls around. Or maybe you want to drink more water. Any of these smaller, more specific goals can really help you clarify your action plan and then make changes you can stick to.
Be realistic and flexible. Even if you have already set your sights on changing one single behavior or habit, and even if you are specific about what change you’d like to make, remember that it is key to set a goal that is truly feasible in your life. For example, if your primary goal is to increase your physical activity, and you are specifically aiming to go to the gym, focus on something realistic and achievable. Ask yourself, “What I can do this week?” For example, if you are currently not going to the gym at all, you may be tempted to set a goal of 5-6 times per week because it feels like the only way to really see “results.” Of course, going from zero to 6 gym visits per week is quite a stretch, even if you have been a person who went to the gym 5-6 times a week in a different stage of life. Instead, focus on something realistic, like perhaps aiming to go twice per week to start off and working up to more frequent visits. Or, after some careful thought about what is realistic for you, perhaps you will conclude that getting to the gym is just too difficult with your current schedule and you’d rather aim to go for a walk 2-3 times per week. This type of flexibility and middle ground thinking (e.g., not 6 days a week at the gym or nothing!) can really help with sustaining your energy. And, the more realistic your goal, the less likely you are to end up frustrated (or even injured from starting too quickly).
Write it down! The next important thing to consider about sticking to your resolutions is that when you take the time to write down your plan for action, you not only reinforce your own commitment to the goal but you also have a visual reminder that you can read and review daily to help yourself stay focused. Jot down your specific goal and be sure to include some steps (remember, specific, doable steps) you will take to get you there. For example, if your goal is to drink more water, maybe you need to buy a water bottle to keep at your desk or perhaps setting a reminder on your calendar to get up and fill your water bottle mid-afternoon will help encourage you into action day after day.
Once you have taken all of these initial steps to help set yourself up for success, keep in mind that an important key to sustaining your energy and focus on these changes past January (and even February!) is to manage your stress. Stress is a normal part of life, but it is also a common pitfall that leads people back to old tried and true habits, especially the unhealthy ones. So when you are working on changing a habit or behavior in order to reach a goal, it makes good sense to work on managing your stress level along the way. How to manage stress effectively is different for every person. For you, it might mean practicing deep breathing for a couple minutes during the day or making sure you call a friend when you get home from work to vent about your stressful day. For others, managing stress might mean practicing saying “no” when asked to take on more responsibility at home or work. Or for another, getting involved in your religious or spiritual community might be a way to feel less stress. Whatever the outlet is for you, spending the additional time and energy to manage stress as best you can will be a worthwhile investment in meeting your resolutions.
Finally, as part of creating your resolutions for the year ahead, also take a moment to reflect on how far you have come. When you sit down to think about your 2017 New Year’s resolutions, think back on 2016. Maybe you achieved some of the goals you set for yourself, even if you didn’t achieve them all. Or, maybe you were thrown a few curveballs this past year and you coped with them quite well. We all have a tendency to minimize or under value the changes we have made and over value the things we have not yet accomplished. But when you take time to reflect on the positive and healthy changes you did make over the past year, no matter how small, you are more likely to appreciate your efforts and create a positive mindset for the year ahead.
In the end, the real key here, as you may have already concluded from reading these tips, is to find a balance in how you meet the urgency of your goal (e.g., I want to lose weight right now!) and the long-term energy you will need to sustain your work towards your goals. For many of us, the very concept of setting a ‘resolution’ means that we have a particular start date (January 1) and often times a particular end date in mind (even when we don’t mean to set one). Thoughts like “I bet I can only stick with this for 6 weeks” or “I will be really careful about my food intake for the whole month of January” pretty much set you up to lose focus after those deadlines have passed. Instead, if you can see resolutions as an opportunity to set short-term behavioral steps that work in service of your longer-term lifestyle goals, then you will be on the right path. And, once you start thinking of resolutions that way, you open up the opportunity to get started working on your goals any time of year, and you allow yourself the space to keep revising the goals and keep working towards them indefinitely. Happy New Year!