New Year’s resolutions sometimes get a bad rap, but that’s only because people often abandon them early in the year, confused about what went wrong. But is that the person’s fault, or could the blame lie in a poorly constructed goal that set the person up for disappointment? If you’re like most people, you’ve set a New Year’s resolution focused on improving your health or fitness. Follow these guidelines to craft a goal that will lead to long-term behavioral change and better position you for success.
Set resolutions that are realistic based on your personal history and current lifestyle. Setting lofty goals may work for some people, but having objectives that don’t align with your current lifestyle or your experience with pursuing similar goals in the past is a recipe for disappointment. You may want to exercise five days a week by stopping at the gym on the way home from work, for example, but your family responsibilities and true time availability may make that impossible. Begin by conducting an honest assessment of what is doable at this moment in your life, and then push yourself to do a bit more.
Connect your resolutions with your values. For instance, if you’re one of the millions of people with a resolution to lose weight next year, dig a little deeper into why that’s important to you. Is it so you’re better able to keep up with your grandkids? To relieve some nagging knee pain? To prevent prediabetes from progressing to type 2 diabetes? The point is, those underlying values are likely to be far more motivating than “I want to lose 30 pounds this year.” Figuring out why a goal is important to you may keep you on track when things get tough.
Focus on the process, not the outcome. Let’s say your resolution is to improve your body composition by building muscle mass through a consistent muscular-training program. Measuring your body composition every three months will certainly gauge your progress over time, but a process-focused steppingstone goal may be to “perform two full-body circuit training workouts each week, one after work on Wednesday and one on Saturday morning.” By hitting that weekly process goal, you would likely be setting yourself up for success at those quarterly assessments. Similarly, if you have an ambitious long-term goal like losing 50 pounds in a year, break that into smaller goals that will help keep you on track. For example, you might set goals to lose 25 pounds between January and April, maintain that weight loss for two months, lose 25 more between July and October, then move back into that maintenance phase.
Build in social support and accountability. Social support—whether in the form of a workout partner, a group fitness class or a family member who has agreed to help you pursue your goals—is vital to success. There’s no need to go it alone! It’s also important that the accountability you choose to build into your program is of a type that works for you. For example, a daily food log or nutrition app may work for some people but be too burdensome for others. Reminders from a spouse may help some people but annoy others. Figure out what works for you and build it into your routine.
Be SMART about it! A SMART goal is specific, measurable, attainable, relevant and time-bound. Vague goals simply don’t work for most people. “I’m going to lose weight… or meditate more… or get in better shape” is not enough to keep people on track and motivated over the long haul. The following is an example of a well-phrased SMART goal: “I will lose 2 to 3 pounds per month for a total of ~25 pounds this year by cooking dinner at home four days per week, going for a 30-minute walk during my lunch break five days a week and attending a strength-based group fitness class after work on Tuesdays and Thursdays.” To set a SMART goal, answer the following questions:
What do I want to achieve?
Why is this important to me?
How much time can I commit to pursuing this goal?
How will I know that I achieved this goal?
What is a reasonable timeframe to achieve this goal?
Finally, be kind to yourself. Everyone has lapses and falls off track on occasion. The key lies in having strategies in place to get back to it as quickly as you can. But, in the meantime, give yourself some grace and try to keep the negative self-talk at bay. You’re not a failure for missing a week of workouts or gaining weight on vacation. Many people tend to be overly focused on those “failures” and overlook how many successes they’ve had along the way. Instead, celebrate those successes and pause to savor the progress you’ve made, no matter how small.