After over 20 years in the field of wellness, health and behavior change, I suggest that New Year’s resolutions often do more harm than good.
Your typical New Year’s resolution is not effective because it is unrealistic and overly complicated. Once the brain detects the number of behavior changes required to make the unrealistic goal a reality, it short circuits.
You would never create an environment for a child to fail the first time they attempt to ride a bike. That is why we use training wheels. The child will experience success for several months on his training wheels, gaining confidence, balance and motor skills. The next step is fairly seamless, as he now owns the skill and ability to begin to ride a bike without training wheels. Realistic, achievable, measurable actions! This is how we learned to be experts in specific areas of life: small changes, repeated over and over. Why should nutrition and exercise be any different?
The hack is simple: Set a realistic, measurable, achievable goal at which you cannot fail. Only this type of “goal” (resolution) has the potential to change your life.
Step one: Create a specific, measurable goal so simple that, when you implement it, your brain cannot detect it.
For example, your broad goal is to lose weight or inches (body fat). For two weeks only, in real-time, record your carb grams for everything you eat (yes, include alcohol and your intake on weekends!). In this case, you are not changing anything you are already doing. Simply record what you eat as you eat it. Use free online tools to look up foods that have no labels. It takes only seconds several times a day - and you did not ask your brain to “change” an existing set of behaviors.
Step two: After you see how many carb grams you are consuming, set a goal you are sure to achieve. For instance, if you ate an average of 150-200 grams of carbs per day, set a goal to stay under 100 grams per day for only four days the following week. Allow yourself to go over 100 grams the other three days of the week. This goal is simple to achieve, so it is likely you will exceed the goal. You will not only feel good, but see some results as you are losing weight or inches (body fat). You will be less hungry and find that you do not feel the need to go over 100 grams three days each week.
Here’s another example: you want to get back into working out; however, you have been doing nothing! No weights, no cardio, no cycle or yoga classes. No hiking, no walking, no elliptical, not even the treadmill or gym. The big mistake people make in this case is to set a goal of working out 1-1.5 hours (or more) at the gym before or after work five days a week. Ha! Going from nothing to five days?! Not. Going. To. Happen. Your brain will detect a major change and short circuit, thereby sabotaging your unrealistic resolution.
Important: Your goal cannot take a lot of time. It must be one around which you can easily arrange the rest of your daily schedule.
Not sleeping enough? Getting only five hours a night? Don’t aim for eight right out of the gate. Rather, get into bed 30 minutes earlier and ease in to increasing your time asleep.
Here’s an example of a realistic exercise goal: “I commit to 15-20 minutes upon waking of exercise at home by walking on my treadmill (or doing an exercise DVD) at 8:00 a.m. three days a week.” State where, when, what and for how long. In this case, if you miss a day or two, you can easily modify your schedule to achieve the three days out of seven.
TIP: You have to be able to tell other people “no” sometimes or delay answering that email or text until your workout or food logging is complete. In fact, I did not reply to FICP asking me to write this blog article for you until my evening workout was complete! Once you take care of what you need to do for YOU, then you feel better, have more energy and are more productive. Achieving small goals will give you the self-efficacy to tackle your obligations to others (that goes for family and work).
Indeed, we should banish “traditional” New Year’s resolution to the “ghosts of things past,” much like Blackberry phones and mixed cassette tapes. Solid, realistic, specific and measureable goals are timeless…anytime of the year.
Romy Nelson, MEd, DTR is a past FICP speaker and contributor, presenting on nutrition and creating healthy habits for ourselves and our attendees.