By Cori McMahon, Psy.D, NCCE, Vice President for Clinical Services
It’s a new year…but it’s the same you!
Every year, the idea of turning over a new leaf and putting effort into bettering ourselves is so enticing that making new year’s resolutions is almost a universal activity. And clearly one the diet and fitness industries have banked on.
We know that we should make changes for the sake of physical or mental health, so it makes sense to view the new year as an opportunity to dedicate ourselves to pursuing those goals. Unfortunately, failing to follow through with new year’s resolutions is just as common as making resolutions in the first place.
However, when you take a self-care approach to the new year and focus on what you can do and why you want to do it, your mindset changes. Success seems even more possible when you are gentle with yourself and consider where your life is right now.
What’s getting in the way of change?
According to a study in Psychology Today that investigated new year’s resolutions:
- 55.2 percent are health-related (31.3 percent exercise, 10.4 percent healthy eating, and 13.5 percent healthier habits)
- 34.4 percent are work-related (20.8 percent save money, 12.5 percent get out of debt, 1 percent get organized)
- 5.2 percent are social goals (2.1 percent spend time with family, 3.1 percent enjoy life)
The study found that participants believed both enjoyment and importance have an impact on successful adherence with the resolution. However, researchers found that only enjoyment predicted long-term success. The implication here is significant, in that it suggests we are not likely to follow through with a health or behavior change even if it’s clearly an important pursuit. Rather, the change must also be enjoyable enough to keep us inspired to stick with it.
Smaller is better
Another factor that can make it challenging to adhere to the big plans we set for health and behavior change in the new year is the mistake of making too big a plan. Maybe the plan is a bit too far reaching and, therefore, we feel defeated before we even begin. We might jump in with both feet but quickly become discouraged when results are too slow to realize and seem far off from the end goal.
South African human rights activist Desmond Tutu wisely stated, “There is only one way to eat an elephant: a bite at a time.” When working with patients in a medical setting and outlining personal health goals, I often like to reference this powerful mindfulness-based concept.
When we set out to accomplish a big goal, it can be challenging to get started, especially if that goal seems overwhelming or too far off from our starting point. We would certainly be defeated right at the onset and probably wouldn’t even try. On the other hand, if we, instead, break that end goal into manageable bites — one bite at a time — each step is possible and each step results in a small success that ultimately accumulates into a larger goal.
Reframe with realistic expectations
Importantly, when deciding to set goals, ensure they are specific, measurable, and realistic. Taking these characteristics individually, it is helpful to be clear about what you plan to work toward.
For example, it is much easier to work toward a quantified 10-pound weight loss goal than it is to “get in shape.” Specifics help you measure your progress toward your goal. Consider how to define the small successes in the journey toward the goal (pounds lost, time spent on a project or activity, number of pages written for your new book, etc). Finally, and reiterating the point above, make sure you are effectively managing expectations. Be realistic about the size of the bites you plan to take.
In order to set yourself up for success, it is important to make sure any goals you set are inline with your values and are not simply in response to pressure from the media, friends, or family members. Think about who will be the most satisfied when you reach the goal: you or someone else?
If the concrete, measurable new year’s resolutions seem like a yearlong chore that you dread, maybe you will decide instead to set new year’s intentions. Intentions are more qualitative, progress-oriented, or energy-based plans that offer the reward of the journey rather than the destination. An example might be setting an intention to focus on self-compassion in the year ahead as opposed to setting the goal to exercise a certain number of times per week.
Give yourself a break
Sharing thoughts on this topic from an old friend and colleague, Jaime Zuckerman, Psy.D., reminds me it is important to consider how new year’s resolution can be troublesome. First, January 1 is an arbitrary date — maybe it’s not a good time for you in your life at this moment, and that is okay! It is equally important to maintain already established goals. We might even consider modifying an existing goal to include something new.
Dr. Zuckerman also recommends that if one decides to set a new goal, start very small, even insultingly small, which is in-line with the idea of making sure that goals remain manageable. Small goals set us up for small successes.
Having spent almost two years living amid a global pandemic, it is even more important now to be thoughtful about placing more pressure on ourselves and setting goals that might not be realistic.
According to Dr. Sophie Lazarus from Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center in an interview for CNET Wellness, while people rarely stick to resolutions in pre-COVID times, “…this is an especially difficult year that we don’t really want to set ourselves up for that kind of disappointment and stress that makes it even harder to cope.” Dr. Lazarus agrees that if there is ever a time to give ourselves a break, it is this year.
For those who would really like to get a fresh start, she encourages us to be mindful of our daily activities and behaviors and how they impact us. Consider making small adjustments that help us move toward what we truly value.
As described by Clay Drinko, PhD, in Psychology Today, mindfulness is an ultimate keystone habit. If mindfulness is practicing awareness of your thoughts, feelings, bodily sensations, and environment, then becoming more mindful helps us become more aware of what we are eating, how our body is feeling, and how positive or negative our thoughts are. Becoming more mindful can inspire us, or at least highlight for us, other areas for positive change in overall health, behavior, or mindset.
Regardless of your approach to the new year and any goals you are considering, there seems to be a common and very useful thread woven throughout expert advice on new year’s resolutions — especially for this year. Be thoughtful, be good to yourself, and be realistic. At the very least, let’s celebrate the significant success of making it to 2022.