New Year’s resolutions – how to make them actually work

Up until a few years ago, I used to make New Year’s resolutions every January, mainly revolving around doing more exercise, eating more healthily and getting more work done. I would write something like: “eat more veg and less chocolate”, or “make a study plan and stick to it”, or “do X amount of weights sessions per week.” But the problem was, they never stuck.

I would begin the year with good intentions, feeling very motivated. But within a few weeks, old habits would take over and before I knew it I was continuing to live my life as I had every year before. I was still grabbing the most convenient snacks possible without much thought, putting off university work and skipping out on sessions if I felt a bit apathetic.

I do know some people who make resolutions and seem to stick to them – kudos if this is you! But I was never able to make them stick just as they were, and nor were many other people I knew.

The problem with New Year’s resolutions is that they are often just long-term goals set without a means of getting there. We don’t generally sit and plan out each step of the journey – we just state what we want and start trying to do it.

Why is this a problem?

Whatever behaviour it is that you are looking to change, it is likely to be made up of lots of other skills and behaviours. For example, “going to the gym more” involves planning, organising your exercise gear, getting the motivation to go, actually travelling to the gym, and then physically putting the effort into an exercise session, to name a few.

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Trying to “eat more healthily” or “eat more X and less Y” involves identifying what foods you want to eat more of or avoid, actually buying or avoiding buying them, deciding what you are going to have on a daily or weekly basis, preparing meals or snacks, and refraining from eating tempting things.

These all sound like relatively simple behaviours… but when you try to do them successfully all at once not only does it take up a lot of mental energy, but you have to remember to pay attention to all of it every day, amongst other things like family, work, chores, and your social life. You also have to persist with them when you are distracted, tired, stressed or in a bad mood.

So if you have ever found yourself in this situation, where you have set New Year’s resolutions only to find you’ve lost your way a month later – you are not alone! It isn’t because you can’t change, and it isn’t because you are a demotivated person.

So how can NY resolutions be made more effective?

Big goals like NY resolutions need to be broken down into little steps. I know it sounds boring – most of us want to achieve our goals ASAP and make fast progress. But it isn’t sustainable most of the time. Targeting each skill or behaviour one by one allows you to make change steadily and sustainably, while living your life as normal.

Research has shown this approach to be effective time and time again in various areas of behaviour change. The reason being is that we rely on habits, or automatic behaviours, to get us through the day – this is our brain’s way of conserving energy for more complicated tasks, such as problem-solving, decision-making, planning and anything that involves thinking. It saves us having to think about every single one of our actions. As a result, habits are persistent, because they are familiar and they make our lives easier. In turn, this means that it can be difficult to just eliminate a habit just like that.

They key is to break your goal into manageable steps, and remove the ambiguity from each step. Be sure of what you are doing, and plan it in advance. This way there is no extra thinking to be done, and you can focus on one thing at a time.

It sounds simple, but it still requires work. And your long-term goals also need to be in tune with your your values, and provide inspiration for you. If you would like some guidance with making your goals happen and changing your behaviour for good, feel free to contact me! In addition to personal training sessions, I build personalised, structured programmes that create a clear path to your goal, and offer psychological support to help you make the most out of your journey.

 

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