Failing Those Resolutions? Why the Resolutions, Not You, May Be the Problem

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Those of you who have read my blogs for a while know that I am not a fan of New Year’s Resolutions. If you can relate to my patient Anna’s story below, then you’ll know why I feel the way I do. This is what turned Anna from a goal-setting optimist into a blathering mess last year.
Anna spends some time in December setting her New Year’s Resolutions. She is disappointed and frustrated that she still has not lost the 15 pounds she wants to lose so “lose weight” is at the top of her list. It’s followed by resolutions like “give up eating ice cream”, “work out at 5am every morning”, “keep the house organized”, “get out of debt” and “don’t scream at the children”. On January 1st, she is excited for her 5am workout. She finished the quart of ice cream the night before. She has installed a budget-tracking program on her computer and the list of chores to keep the house organized is on the fridge. By January 12th, she is exhausted, yelling at the kids and eating ice cream on the couch. She feels like she is a failure. If only she knew that she is not the failure. It is the New Year’s Resolution plan that is the problem. There is nothing wrong with having goals. However, when it comes to making lifestyle changes, I recommend that you choose one main goal and then take baby steps towards achieving that goal. If Anna wants to lose 15 pounds this year, then she will want to work towards that outcome goal with small, sustainable steps that she can maintain long-term. Perhaps, her initial goal is to keep the ice cream out of the house but enjoy a single scoop at the ice cream store once a week. It’s important to stay away from “all or nothing” thinking when it comes to sustainable goals. Anna commits to exercising at 5am every morning. She may want to start with 2 or 3 mornings each week and see how that goes. She may also want to have a Plan B for the days she hits the snooze button a few too many times. Maybe she does a yoga DVD in the evening or takes a 30-minute walk with a coworker at lunchtime. It is also vital to set up support for whatever goal you choose. If Anna wants to scream less at her kids, she may want to learn some new parenting strategies by reading a book or taking a class. She may also want an email or phone check-in with a buddy who is also a parent. They can debrief with each other and help each other get back on track. There is an acronym that we use when helping patients set goals – SMART goals are goal that are: Specific: If my goal is to simply “eat healthier” then why not specify how that will be done? For example “eat half a plate of vegetables at lunch and dinner” is specific enough to prepare you for action. Measureable: Instead of saying “exercise more” why not try “exercise for 30 minutes three times weekly.” Attainable: So many people set incredibly lofty goals, only to realize that they aimed too high. Remember, baby steps! Instead of someone who hasn’t exercised in years saying “I will run a marathon in 9 months,” why not aim for a half marathon, or even just jogging a few times per week. Focus on the larger goal once you have attained the first goal. Realistic: “I will never eat ice cream again.” Okay, this one is obvious. Are you seriously going to give up the Ben & Jerry’s for good? I think not. However, as with my patient example above, you can still enjoy ice cream sometimes without keeping that Costco-sized container within arm’s reach. Time-associated: Set a deadline. We humans are awful procrastinators when given the chance. Setting a deadline and putting it on your calendar is a great motivator. Goals need to be revisited throughout the year. There is nothing magical about January 1st. Some people like to set seasonal goals (especially when it comes to physical activity and nutrition). Others review their goals monthly or weekly. Whenever you do set goals, just remember to start small, build on your successes and get lots of support. Then you won’t be frustrated by mid January and you’ll have plenty of energy to keep moving forward toward long-lasting behavior changes. If you’re setting resolutions this year, what are they, and how have you made them work for you? Here’s to a successful 2013!