New Year’s Resolutions: How to make goals that stick!

Happy New Year!

Are you embarking on any New Year’s resolutions? If so, how are they going? Many are resolved to start eating better and exercising in the New Year. A great plan, I can’t disagree. The problem is, as always, where to start? What’s the plan?

Questions I often get asked come January: Which diet plan is the best? Which types of exercises would help me lean up in the shortest amount of time? Aren’t bananas bad for you? I heard sweet potatoes are way too starchy, right? Should I be a vegan?  Should I eat according to my blood type?  Is paleo really the way to go? Is it true low fat diets aren’t that healthy? Do I need to detox?

Oh wait, I get asked these questions all year long. But they are particularly pertinent this time of year as people really intend on embarking on true lifestyle change. Honest to goodness I hope those of you in that boat are tremendously successful. We know the statistics, however. Forty-nine percent of Americans who make New Year’s resolutions will have some success but not consistently. Twenty-four percent will fail at their resolutions altogether. And even of those who “achieve” their goals, only 49% will actually see those results continue past 6 months. Why are we so terrible at keeping to our aspirations?

A recent article in Psychology Today gives some insight into that very question. In the article professor Peter Holmes and colleagues point to a phenomenon called “false hope syndrome.” The premise is that most of us make goals that are completely unreasonable and unrealistic, thereby condemning our pursuits from the get-go. As the author states, these goals are not only unrealistic, but also “out of alignment with their internal view of themselves. Essentially we aspire to thing we don’t actually believe we can be or achieve, and in the end this negatively influences how we perceive ourselves.

Yikers, eh? We sabotage ourselves, plain and simple. The other problem? We aren’t specific enough in what we hope to achieve. “I want to lose weight” is somewhat of a goal, but it doesn’t tell us how, by what measure, and when we can expect our clothes to fit better.  That type of goal is easily pushed off to next week, next month … only to be revived again next January as the new goal that will set life right again. But we must take caution. Interestingly enough the author points out that while we are typically taught to make specific, measurable goals, we need to be careful not to set our parameters too narrow. Otherwise we run the risk of doing everything in our power to achieve the “goal,” forgetting that once the goal is achieved we will likely swipe the sweat of victory off our brow, sit in our brief satisfaction of winning the war of mind over matter, and then let life resume it’s usual course until we are back where we started … or even worse.

So what is the takeaway here?  First of all, our goals need to be SMART. That stands for Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Realistic, and Time-bound. Us dietitians use this acronym frequently as it really helps guide one in making a solid and well thought-out plan. It does run the risk of defining the parameters too narrow, as mentioned previously, but it’s a good place start.

That being said, our goals also need to be broad enough to allow for some variation and course-correction if the actions we choose to achieve our goals end up not working out. Have you ever had an injury when embarking on an exercise plan? If that were to happen you need the flexibility to change gears but with the same end goal.

Keeping those ideas in mind, what would you say if someone said their goal is to lose 30lb by summer doing P90x videos every day and eating only fish, nuts, berries and kale? Specific, measurable, realistic and time-bound? Yes. Attainable? Umm, that’s debatable. Flexible? Not so much. If you injured your ankle as a result of those intense workouts, what would you do?  What if kale makes you gag and fish makes you break out in hives? As you can see, not setting your goals carefully and appropriately can bring down the whole plan if things don’t go as expected. I think that’s called life.

Now, even though you have all this planned out, in writing even, one last critical tool you need is mindfulness. You can make all the SMART goals you want but if you are not continually checking in with yourself and reminding yourself of the reason for your goals, you may scrap your plans altogether once it feels difficult and uncomfortable. Don’t forget, change is never easy, even with the best laid plans.

I found some good tips on mindfulness via Psychology Today here and another unrelated post here.

I also love Intuitive Eating which heavily involves the process of being more mindful. For those of you with weight loss and healthy living goals, these principles are critical ingredients for success. Check these out and employ as necessary during your journey.

Some good reading, should you be so inclined.

If you have already made and embarked upon New Year’s resolutions, now is the time to check your plan and see if a few adjustments need to be made for long-term success. If you have yet to make your goals but hope to do so, now you have the tools to make a plan that is well thought out and more likely to be achieved with the mindfulness piece in place. Remember, the overarching goal is true lifestyle change, not a quick fix. Here’s to making 2014 your best year yet!