By Jeff Li
New Years can be a rather refreshing holiday. The start of a new calendar year reminds us that despite our past struggles, we’ve made it this far. We can put the past behind us and get off to a fresh start. This feeling of renewed energy, vigor, and optimism culminates in the formation of New Year’s resolutions that are usually focused on some form of self-improvement.
Many of us choose health-based resolutions. We might be determined to eat better, exercise more, get more sleep, do more stretching, or find ways to reduce stress. Some of us may even have more specific goals like losing a certain amount of weight, gaining a certain amount of muscle, or improving an aspect of our athletic performance. Turns out the three most common resolutions almost every year are to lose weight, quit smoking, and exercise regularly.
Does that sound like you? If so, let me ask you this: how well have you adhered to your resolutions each year? Best honest, now. How well are you adhering to this year’s resolutions, and have those resolutions resulted in significant change?
If you’ve stuck with your resolutions and have seen significant changes, great job! You’ve found a program that works well for you and you’re sticking to it. Unfortunately, for most of us, change isn’t so easy. Old habits die hard, and as the novelty of the holiday season fades, so do our renewed optimism and motivation. In fact, a study conducted by the University of Scranton suggests that only 8% of us are successful in achieving our resolutions.
Of course, we don’t need to wait until the New Year to resolve ourselves to improving ourselves, and many of us don’t. Unfortunately, making a change and sticking with it can be really hard no matter when we decide to do it. So what gives? Are we all just lazy and weak-willed? Are we doomed to never improve?
I don’t think so. As a coach, I’ve seen and helped many people make long-term changes that resulted in significant improvements. Here are some brief descriptions of the strategies that have helped my clients (and myself) with long-term change:
Set a good goal.
Goal setting is essential to long-term success. Goals help us to clearly define what we want and when we want it. They also help us to hone our efforts and keep track of how well we are progressing. A good goal should be specific, measureable, realistic, and on a deadline. For example, a general idea like “I want to lose weight this year” can be reframed into a good goal like this: “I want to lose 30 pounds by December 31”. The goal can then be broken down into more manageable chunks. For example, assuming this resolution was made on New Year’s, it could be broken down like this:
As you can see, this exercise will not only help to make your resolution tangible, it will help you pick realistic goals, plan your approach, and keep track of your progress.
Of course, you’ll also want to make sure your goal is personally significant. An appeal to your emotions is a powerful motivator. Ask yourself why you want to accomplish your goal. How will you feel when you accomplish it? What kind of impact would your success have on the rest of your life? The more personally significant your goal, the more likely you are to accomplish it.
Lastly, make sure to put your goal in writing. Make it real! Hold yourself accountable to your goal and refer back to the written goal when you are in doubt.
Create action items so that you can get to work right away.
Creating an outcome goal (as outlined above) is extremely important, but we ultimately don’t have direct control over the outcome. We can, however, immediately engage in behaviors that are likely to get us closer to our outcome goals. With that in mind, it is also helpful to set behavior goals. For example, using the outcome goal of losing 2-3 pounds per month, we can create this behavior goal: “I commit to doing X hours of purposeful exercise every week”. From there, you can get to work figuring out when you will exercise, what kind of exercise you will be doing, etc. As you can see, behavior goals are also specific, measureable, and realistic. Most of us know at least a couple of things that we can do to improve ourselves, but if you aren’t entirely sure what kind of behaviors to adopt in order to reach your goals, I recommend seeking out a professional coach.
Start Tracking Your Adherence.
Tracking your adherence not only helps keep you accountable to yourself, it can also be an extremely eye-opening experience. Sometimes, we may be slipping up and not realizing it. Other times, we may be doing really well but feel like we’re slipping up too much. Keeping an objective adherence log helps to keep things in perspective, and also gives us an extra incentive to stick with the plan.
Change your environment, not just your attitude.
Willpower is overrated. Sure, some of us have great willpower (or we like to think we do), but even so, it can often be unsustainable. Real behavior change comes with a change in perspective, attitude, and environment. While it is often difficult to sincerely change our perspectives and attitudes at will, it is entirely possible to instantly change our environments. Do you want to eat better? Try this: immediately throw out (or better yet, donate) all of the junk/bad foods in your house, then immediately go to the grocery store to restock your kitchen with healthy foods. The next time you get hungry, you’ll be much more likely to reach for healthy food because it’s readily available. Meanwhile, getting junk food will require you to leave your home (and spend extra money). That’s much easier than reaching for an apple while trying to ignore the donut that’s been staring you down, right?
Find like-minded people and be accountable to each other.
Your social circle is an important aspect of your environment. If those around you react negatively to your lifestyle changes or are generally unsupportive or uninterested, you’ll be much less likely to adopt new behaviors for the long-term. Conversely, if those around you are interested in the same goals, are supportive, and generally react positively to your lifestyle changes, you’ll be much more likely to stick to your plan. Apart from helping to create a positive, supportive environment, your friends and family can also help you by keeping you accountable to your own goals. Believe it or not, returning the favor and keeping them accountable to their goals will also help you feel more motivated to do your best. It’s a mutually beneficial, win/win relationship. With that in mind, it can be helpful to sit down and discuss your goals and intentions with those close to you. While this may seem horribly embarrassing, it usually ends well, and often brings everyone closer together.
Allow Room for Flexibility
100% adherence to a program is not only difficult- it’s usually unnecessary. Although it is impressive and admirable, unyielding and strict adherence to a program can sometimes end up being detrimental to your health, especially if it is a cause of stress. Sometimes life happens. Sometimes, we just need a short break. Don’t worry, it’s perfectly OK to give ourselves some slack every now and then as long as we are adhering to our programs most of the time. Personally, I shoot for 90% adherence, allowing myself to relax 10% of the time. For example, I eat about 5 times per day, which means I eat 35 meals per week. 10% of 35 is 3.5, so I allow myself 3 “cheat” meals (meals during which I deviate from my nutrition plan) per week. I usually reserve those three meals for times when I go out with friends or for when things don’t go according to plan.
Turns out, for most of us, that 10% slack doesn’t have any significant impact on our progress. So don’t let your program dominate your life- every so often, feel free to take a short break, guilt free, and then just get right back on your program.
Celebrate Your Successes
Adhering to your program can be hard work, but it will pay off. That said, it’s important to make sure that you take the time to enjoy the fruits of your labor! Celebrating our successes helps us realize the value of adhering to our programs, gives us confidence to continue moving forward, and provides encouragement for times of doubt. I like to use these celebrations as motivational boosts approximately every 8 weeks; they’re good times to reflect on how much we’ve accomplished and review why accomplishing our goals is important to us.
Here are some ways you can celebrate:
New Years is right around the corner. This is a perfect time to give these suggestions a try and let us know how everything goes! Have a wonderful New Year!