Article Published: Jan. 10, 2014 | Modified: Jan. 10, 2014
The fruitcakes have been re-gifted, the Menorahs have been stored for another year, the Christmas trees have been recycled, and the holidays have drawn to a close. All that’s left to do is set — and maintain — New Year’s resolutions.
But setting realistic goals and following through with them can prove to be more difficult than finding a place to put all of your new holiday haul. Whether you want to lose weight and get fit, quit a bad habit, save more money, do better at managing stress or debt, or start on the path to a better education or job, they all have equal chances of success or failure.
Dr. Cynthia Anderson, a professor in the clinical psychology track at Appalachian State University, noted that the easiest resolutions to keep are obviously the ones we’re already actively doing, the ones that “involve one simple behavior change that leads to an immediate desired outcome.”
But, Anderson noted, most resolutions aren’t like that, as the majority of them require long-term change in behavior. The hardest resolutions to keep suffer from several of the same problems.
“First, they involve behaving in a certain way over and over again,” Anderson said. “Second, the reward or payoff for engaging in these behaviors is all pretty far removed from the behavior itself. For example, I might start exercising more and eating healthier foods to lose weight. That weight loss will be very slow and gradual. Unfortunately, the reward for eating unhealthy foods comes immediately — I could eat that yummy slice of double chocolate cake now and, boy, would it be good, or I could deprive myself of that cake for … nothing immediate.”
So, how do you ensure that this is the year you succeed at your New Year’s resolutions?
Anderson recommends setting specific, tangible, attainable goals as a good starting point.
“Losing weight, drinking less, exercising more … these are all really vague,” she said. “It’s hard to achieve something if you don’t know precisely what you are trying to achieve. Another problem is that some goals are so far off that it is not clear what the first step is — what do I do now to eat healthier?”
Lana Steen, certified personal trainer and fitness instructor with Lana’s Fitness and Boone Healing Arts Center, said big goals are attainable if they’re broken down into smaller pieces.
“My advice is to set small goals along the way and make sure you celebrate ‘you’ when you reach those goals, because it keeps you pushing forward,” Steen said. “Little celebrations are huge.”
However, Steen noted that the celebrations don’t need to derail from the bigger goal. If you’re trying to lose weight, rather than indulging in a hot fudge sundae, she recommended a healthy alternative, like a pedicure or a movie.
Anderson said it’s important not to overwhelm yourself with too many resolutions and recommended sticking with one or two.
“If you resolve to change everything you don’t like that you do, well then, you will simply get overwhelmed,” she said. “Behavior change is hard; start small.”
Other advice Anderson offered for succeeding at resolutions: make concrete, tangible goals; be realistic; set small goals in between; set a start date, and an end date, if necessary; track progress; consider consequences; and ask for help from your social network.
Steen recommended reassessing resolutions on a regular basis.
“What is it that drives you?” she asked. “Ask yourself, ‘Where am I going to be in October with my goals?’ Where am I going? What am I doing to get there? And how am I going to get there?”
Anderson said she doesn’t know that she would consider a resolution to be a failure, because the plan for behavior change can always be revisited and revised. She noted that some behaviors are long-ingrained habits, and some can be addictions or reinforced by environments. “In such cases, it may be useful to work with a professional — a cognitive behavior therapist will be able to help you develop a plan to reach your goals,” she said.
Steen noted that the most important part of setting resolutions and reaching goals is to remain realistic and be dedicated.
“If you get off track, hey, it’s OK,” she said. “Get back on the wagon, notice your ‘downfalls,’ and get back up.”