When January 1st rolls around, many people commit to making changes to their lifestyle, especially those that relate to their health. Whether someone’s goal is to lose weight, eat less sugar, exercise more, or drink less alcohol, the start of a new year seems like the perfect time to “turn over a new leaf.”
Unfortunately, studies show that New Year’s resolutions are often pretty unsuccessful; it’s estimated that between 80 and 90% of New Year’s resolutions are never fulfilled!
Many give up on their newfound goals and resort to old habits by the end of February, usually because their resolutions are somewhat unrealistic and lead to burnout and disappointment.
What’s a better way to improve things like your diet, weight, and activity level? Experts tell us that making small changes is the best approach, as well as celebrating our success along the way.
Why Resolutions Don’t Work As Well As Slower, Sustainable Changes
If you find yourself making promises to turn your life and health around this year, then you’re not alone. In North America about half of adults make New Year’s resolutions each year.
One reason why January feels like the perfect time to adopt new habits is because of the indulgences associated with the holidays; many find themselves eating, spending, and drinking more at the end of the year, but sleeping and exercising less.
One way that people rationalize their poor habits during the holidays is by stating that they’ll change and improve once the new year rolls around. Typically, this mindset only serves as an excuse to make poor choices.
So what’s wrong with resolutions then? Why do they so often fail to lead to lasting changes?
Here are some of the reasons that experts believe over-ambitious resolutions may wind up backfiring:
- Motivation usually declines after the first few months, and often it’s extrinsic motivation (such as to impress others) rather than intrinsic (self-motivated).
- A clear action plan is never established, rather goals remain ambiguous.
- People don’t think long-term; James Clear, the author of Atomic Habits, estimates that it takes most people between two to eight months to develop a new habit.
- Stress and interference aren’t taken into account.
- Unmet milestones can wind up lowering self-trust and self-confidence, making it harder to push forward.
To make new habits stick this year, here is what experts recommend focusing on instead:
1. Set small goals
Begin with small challenges that seem doable, rather than over-promising that you’ll make drastic improvements. Once you’ve gotten better at keeping up with a new habit, set the bar a bit higher as the months go by.
Write down your goals and be specific, as this has been shown to improve the odds of you following through with them. Ask yourself what specific steps you can start taking to eventually reach a bigger goal.
As Forbes Magazine puts it, “keep in mind that choosing realistic goals or resolutions and achieving them improves our mindset. Even a small victory is still a victory.”
2. Be realistic about your schedule and capabilities
If you want a habit to stick, you have to figure out how to make it fit into your life. Make your habits as simple, automatic, and stress-free as possible.
For example, determine the easiest place and time to exercise, or the best day to do healthy grocery shopping.
Remove as many interferences and obstacles as possible, such as lack of motivation at the end of a busy day (which may mean hitting the gym in the morning instead).
3. Plan for how you’ll handle stress
While you might feel very motivated at first to tackle your goals, eventually you’ll lose some steam and life will get in the way. We all deal with stress and difficult feelings at times that make healthy habits hard to sustain, whether due to feeling anxious, depressed, frustrated, fatigued, or bored.
Plan ahead for setbacks and stressors. Identify situations that tend to trigger you so you understand your patterns better. Come up with ways to overcome things like a busy schedule or trips that involve dining out more.
The more you can plan ahead, the better you’ll be able to handle whatever comes your way.
4. Sustain motivation by celebrating your successes
Small changes made today that are sustained will yield larger results in the long run. This is why every success is something to celebrate, even if it’s something small like replacing one unhealthy meal with a better one each day.
Find ways to give yourself immediate positive feedback while you’re on your journey.
Take pictures of your progress, write down fitness goals you’ve reached, or track anything else that makes you feel proud, such as your weight, measurements, or other health markers. This builds confidence and trust in yourself which is important for pushing you forward.
Consider rewarding yourself along the way when you’ve reached a milestone, even if it’s something small like a massage, manicure, or day off of work to have fun.
Examples of Healthy “Lifestyle Changes” To Make This Year
- Ready to set some realistic goals during the New Year? Consider focusing on some of these changes that can lead to substantial health improvements when practiced over time:
- Cut out major sources of added sugar from your diet, such as soda, desserts, candy, or energy drinks.
- Remove specific foods from your diet that tempt you to overeat, such as pizza, french fries, chips, etc. Alcohol is another substance that you may want to commit to cutting back on.
- Carve out 1-2 hours per week to food prep healthy meals at home.
- Identify ways that you can swap one unhealthy habit for a better one, such as by going to bed one hour earlier rather than watching more TV.
- Find and join a local gym or fitness studio and sign up for several months of classes ahead of time if possible.
- Consider hiring a personal trainer if you know that a partner helps you stay accountable. Asking your partner/spouse for help to clear up your schedule, or joining a fitness/diet challenge with co-workers or friends is another way to gain support.
- Buy a fitness tracker and aim to walk 8K to 12K steps per day.
- Prioritize sleep, aiming for 7 to 9 hours every night.