Each December, untold numbers of people create a list of New Year’s health resolutions, eager to hit the gym, lose some pounds, or become healthier starting in January. Health clubs fill up, hopes run high, and then, somewhere along the way, momentum fades. Just 8% of people achieve their New Year’s resolutions, according to Forbes. But you’re different. The good news is that achieving health resolutions is entirely possible. It takes just a little more planning than writing a goal on a list. Use the knowledge that many people give up to motivate you, not defeat you.
How to create resolutions that work
Here are some ways to actually achieve the health resolutions you set for the new year. Not all of these methods will work for everyone. Take what works for you and leave the rest. The most important thing is to find methods that help you reach your health goals.
While the reasons for abandoning resolutions can be personal, much of our ability to stick with a goal comes down to one thing: the quality of the goal itself. This year, up the ante and improve your chances of making real changes by implementing SMART goals.
What are SMART goals?
SMART is an acronym that was developed in 1981. From the beginning, SMART was a mnemonic device that people could use to set goals that were:
- S: Specific
- M: Measurable
- A: Assignable
- R: Realistic
- T: Time-based
Over the years, few changes have been made to this simple formula. Most recently, other options for the acronym have included:
- S: Specific, significant, sensible
- M: Measurable, meaningful, motivational
- A: Achievable, attainable, action-oriented
- R: Realistic, relevant, rewarding
- T: Time-based, time-bound, trackable
Whichever word you choose, SMART goals can help you to create goals that will stick and produce results. Here how to use each letter.
S = Specific
How many times have you set a goal of losing weight? This goal is one of the most common, especially around the new year, but it is also one of the most doomed to fail or to be only moderately successful. Why? Because it is not specific enough.
Think of it this way: if you set the goal to lose weight, and you lose one pound over the course of 365 days, technically you have met that goal. But this would not be a satisfying result. If you don’t lose even one pound, you might end up kicking yourself for not being able to lose even the smallest amount of weight.
So how can the goal be modified? Let’s start with this goal: I am going to lose ___ pounds. You can fill in the blank with a weight loss goal of your choice here, and we will continue to add to it below.
M = Measurable
Although the goal to lose weight is measurable, again, the lack of specificity means that even just an ounce of weight loss means that it’s a Pyrrhic victory. Other goals, like “exercise more,” fail the measurability test. In this case, what does “more” mean? Is it one sit-up per day when you have previously done none? Is it 100? Either way, you have technically exercised more, but you have not made a plan for measuring your progress.
Looking at alternate acronyms, the goal to “exercise more” isn’t particularly meaningful or motivational. Looking back to our weight loss example, a better way to add to this goal would be as follows:
I am going to lose 15 pounds, weighing myself once a week.
This delineates the specific goal and outlines how you will measure your progress.
A = Attainable
This one is key. If you set the goal to be the starting quarterback for the Arizona Cardinals, but you are 37 and have never played a down of football, this is not an attainable goal. While that example is extreme, some goal setters set similarly extreme goals. SMART goals make sure that you actually think about whether or not the goals can be reached.
For example, there are safe, healthy ways to lose weight. Any crash diets, fasts, and over-the-counter weight-loss drugs may result in unhealthy weight loss. Attempting to lose more than ten pounds per month is not only unhealthy, but it is unsustainable.
It’s just basic biology. To lose one pound of fat means you have to cut 3,500 calories. To lose two pounds means cutting out 1,000 calories a day. This doesn’t mean going from a 1,500 calories a day to 500; this could result in your body going into starvation mode and actually slowing weight loss. Healthy weight loss involves portion control, better food choices, and more activity. This is a safe way to lose the weight.
So using the formula of dropping 1,000 calories per pound of body fat, an attainable weight loss goal is eight to ten pounds per month. There is a potential for more weight loss depending on starting weight and gender (men tend to lose weight faster than women), but in the main, an attainable, healthy weight loss goal would be eight to ten pounds per month.
R = Realistic
SMART goals are realistic. It means that they are something that you are physically, mentally, and emotionally capable of achieving. Because this is similar to the “achievable” part of the SMART acronym, it’s also helpful to look at the other words for “R.” Is the goal rewarding and relevant? How will achieving it make your life better?
T = Time-based
Finally, SMART goals have a deadline. If your goal is to lose weight, a SMART goal would read something like this:
I will lose 15 pounds in three months.
Without a deadline, the goal may never be reached. And why would it be? You haven’t set any timeframe for completion. It’s like the task that never ends.
SMART goal examples
Setting SMART goals is often easier said than done, which is why it is helpful to utilize a few guidelines when developing and setting goals. Think about what kind of support you might need to achieve your goal. If you are losing 15 pounds in three months, do you need to talk to a doctor or nutritionist to make safe dietary changes?
Other ways to stick with your goals over time is to think about the benefits of achieving the goal. If your family has a history of Type 2 diabetes, will losing weight help prevent that? Maybe the extra weight is causing more pain, or maybe you are unable to do things you love. Write down the benefits of your goals and post them where you will see them every day.
How to stick to SMART goals
Make sticking to your SMART goals automatic by setting up cues that trigger a positive response. For example, look for natural ways to cue healthy eating behavior. Set an alarm on your phone that goes off every hour to remind you to drink a full glass of water. Put a sticky note on your refrigerator, asking if you have had five servings of fruits and vegetables. These cues help you to make conscious choices to stick with your goal.
These cues should then be tied to a meaningful reward for milestones reached along the way. If your goal is to lose 15 pounds in three months, treat yourself to a massage or a movie when you lose the first five. Make the reward meaningful and decide what it will be before you begin, and that will help even more. In The Power of Habit, Charles Duhigg writes about the importance of cues and rewards being incorporated into new patterns of habit, saying:
“This gets to how habits work. The reason why these cues and rewards are so important is because over time, people begin craving the reward whenever they see the cue, and that craving makes a habit occur automatically.”
Other methods for tackling your resolutions
SMART goals won’t automatically guarantee success, but they can help give you the tools you need to stick with them. But, for some, they’re simply too strict and don’t allow for the goals they want to create. What are some other ways you can create achievable goals?
1. Think small
When creating the dream you, many people think big. They want six-pack abs or to eat completely whole foods. Sounds good, but in reality, the brain is set up to resist big, momentous changes.
The fear factor kicks in and on a dark Wednesday night when you’re tired after work, it’s easier to go home than to the gym. Or eat McDonalds instead of a salad. Then Thursday comes, and you vow to hit it hard again next week. And so it goes.
Skip the charade and set yourself up for success by thinking small. Practice kaizen.
Or maybe you’re curious about a vegetarian diet. Could you adopt meatless Mondays? Could you, for one dinner each week, focus the meal on vegetables and non-animal proteins like beans?
Kaizen is applicable to exercise, too. Can you take a walk after dinner each night? If you’d like to hit the gym, can you start by just driving to the gym? You don’t even have to go in at first, just drive there every night for a week. Then, the next week, try walking inside.
In the kaizen book One Small Step Can Change Your Life, author Robert Maurer talks about a person who successfully starts exercising by walking in place in front of the television for one minute each day. That one minute soon expanded to two minutes, which eventually expanded to longer, more rigorous workouts.
The idea is to circumvent the mind’s natural resistance to change by adopting shifts so small that the resistance is minimal.
Of course, if you’re ready, hit the gym, go on a hike, or start playing tennis! But make small goals and you’re sure to hit them.
Once you have created a small good habit, build from there. And if there’s an inner critic telling you that you’re not doing enough, ignore it. Are you doing better than you were yesterday? Then that’s plenty.
2. Recruit family or friends
Sometimes, things are more fun in groups. With health resolutions like eating healthy, asking your family to join in is really helpful. That way, you won’t be sitting down to eat a vegetable stir-fry while everyone else is eating fried chicken.
Finding a workout buddy can also help make you more motivated to exercise. People tend to be more likely to follow-through on things if they know someone else is counting on them. The one caveat is to be selective about who your partner is. Try to pick someone similarly devoted because if your partner flakes, you’ll be much more likely to follow suit.
Some people have the opposite problem. They want to change their life by eating healthier or exercising more, but people making unhealthy choices surround them. If this happens to you, remember why you’re changing your habits. Think about how you want less pain, or you want to feel better, or whatever reason drove you to change.
On the other hand, if you know people who already have the habit you’re looking to adopt, ask for help. Your coworker who’s really in shape? Ask him to walk with you every day at lunch. Or your daughter who’s really into yoga? Ask her to show you some moves or accompany you to class.
Taking advantage of the expertise that lies all around you is a wonderful way to learn tips and tricks to keep going all while staying inspired along the way.
3. Adopt a success mindset
Everybody messes up. You might be trying to lose weight but eat a whole box of cookies. Oops. Or skip the gym for a week. It’s okay. Don’t let taking a few steps backward derail you from achieving your goals. Get back on track as soon as possible.
Think of these shifts as life changes and only adopt those resolutions you can stick with long term. For example, diets don’t work because you can’t keep those ten pounds off after returning to your original eating habits. Instead, think of eating healthier as a long-term journey to greater health.
The most important thing is to keep going. A step back is only a failure if you stop trying.
What’s your tips for keeping New Year’s health resolutions? And hit the comments to share your resolutions for 2018!