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New Year's Resolutions: How to Set a Goal You Can Stick With this Year
Let’s talk New Year’s resolutions.
When I was a kid, I used to love to come up with a good New Year’s resolution. There was something about identifying the ways in which I’d like to be better in the coming year and making a (fairly shaky and somewhat fickle) commitment to it. (Because okay, I was 10.) But like most of us, I would inevitably decide it was unrealistic and forget about it by February. (Which is probably why, despite resolving it every year, I didn’t manage to stop biting my nails until well into college.)
There are several common traps we fall into when making New Year’s resolutions that pretty much set us up to fail. One of them is making a resolution to do something that we feel like we should do instead of something that is actually meaningful to us. For example, you might make a resolution to read two non-fiction books a month for the next year because you feel like that would make you a more well-rounded, smarter, more impressive human being. But maybe you’re more of a fiction person. Or a magazine person. You don’t actually care all that much about reading non-fiction books, but you feel like it’s something you ought to do in order to be taken more seriously by others, or for a myriad of other reasons that you probably haven't articulated to yourself. So chances are you’ll read a book or two by the end of February, but you won’t stick with it. However, if you set a goal that you actually feel strongly about (say, get out of work at a reasonable hour every day so you can spend time with your family), you are way more likely to succeed at that, simply because you value the result of that resolution more.
Another common pitfall is setting goals that lack specificity. How many millions of people each year vow to lose weight, only to have the scale read the same number the next Christmas that it did on New Year’s Day? But if you add some specificity to the resolution, you are more likely to stick with it. Maybe instead of “lose weight”, you could resolve to lose 10% of your body weight, or lose five inches from your waist. By setting a more specific goal, you actually know what you’re shooting for, and you’ll know if you’re making progress or not, and even more importantly, you’ll know when you’ve succeeded.
But all the specificity in the world won’t get you far if you don’t turn your goal into an actionable plan. For instance, if you want to lose weight, you need to figure out what actions will get you there. First, be specific about your goal. (For example, “Lose 24 pounds this year”.) Then if necessary, break it down even farther in order to make it more measurable. Two pounds a month, say, instead of just 24 pounds over the course of the year. And really, if it were that easy on its own, you’d be doing it already. There are so many things that can derail your good intentions (and probably have hitherto), so one thing that can really help is identifying the things that might trip you up. Often, after a failed project, teams do a post-mortem analysis to determine what went wrong. So you’re going to do a pre-mortem, so to speak. Ask yourself the question, “If I haven’t lost two pounds at the end of the month, what will be the most likely reason?” Spending too much time sitting at work? Paying too little attention to my snacking? Pretty much always choosing a fried entrée when I go out to dinner? And figure out what you need to do to avoid that outcome. If too much sitting is likely to be your problem, maybe sign up for a cardio-based exercise class a few times a week, or watch Netflix while walking on the treadmill instead of sitting on the couch in the evening. Or if you think that snacking throughout the day will trip you up, get rid of all the unhealthy snacking options in your house and stock up on those cute little clementines, or some other healthy option that you love. And while you’re at it, switch out some of the more calorically dense foods on your plate for more fruits and veggies! If eating too many calories in general is your trouble, you can easily take in fewer calories without having to measure or record anything. Since most fruits and veggies are less calorically dense for their volume than meat and other heavier foods, you can eat the same volume of food so you’re not hungry, but with a much smaller calorie price tag.
Or maybe you’re one of the many millions of people who vow at the beginning of every year to “eat healthier”, and you really mean it. It’s important to you. While it’s a great thing to do, as it stands, “eat healthier” is basically just a blob of undoability. What does that actually look like? How will you know if you’ve succeeded? And what specific actions are you going to do to reach that goal? Maybe to you, eating healthier means cutting sugar, incorporating more fruits and vegetables, and cooking at home more. Or maybe it means choosing healthier options when you go out to dinner and staying better hydrated. There are a lot of ways to “eat healthier”, so choose the ones that are the most pertinent to you, and start there. So once you know what “eat healthier” looks like for you, you can form a game plan. Maybe you want to reduce your sugar intake. You might make a goal to reduce your sugar intake to X amount per day or per week. Then do a pre-mortem analysis. If you don’t reach you goal of X amount of sugar per day, what will be the most likely reason? The insane amount of sugar in your daily can of soda? The 20 boxes of Thin Mints you bought from your daughter when she was selling girl scout cookies? Determine the most likely problem, and figure out how you’re going to handle it before the situation is right in front of you. Perhaps you could ask whoever does the grocery shopping in your house to please please please support your goal by not bringing pop home from the store. Or don’t carry small bills with you to work, so it becomes harder to go get a can from the vending machine at your workplace. Or give each of your friends a box of the girl scout cookies. It’s a win-win. Your friends will love you forever, and you won’t have the temptation of those delicious cookies calling your name every time you walk into your kitchen.
Then, keep analyzing. Did those measures enable you to achieve your goal? If not, then figure out what else needs to be tweaked. If so, then awesome! You did it! Now keep doing it. Because it’s pretty easy to keep a resolution for a week or two, but harder to keep doing it in the long run. If you experience a setback, acknowledge it, form a plan for how to tackle similar setbacks in the future, and keep on moving. And at the end of the year, you’ll look back at the goal that was once so hard and realize that it’s become so much a part of your life that you don’t really think about it anymore. Except to appreciate how it’s contributed to your quality of life, of course.
If you're looking for a way to do the traditional New Year's Eve celebrations in a healthier way (perhaps to get a jump start on those healthy living resolutions you set?), check out these fun New Year's Eve recipes from Eating Well. Whether you're throwing a party or just planning some celebratory snacks for while you watch the ball drop on TV, these can help you munch festively in a healthier, more natural way. Enjoy!