Finding success with New Year’s resolutions

I dread going to the gym in January. For years now, I have noticed that every January 2nd, I am faced with the challenge of competing for time on the treadmill or elliptical with hoards of new or returning gym members who evidently have resolved to get in shape this year.

Don’t get me wrong, as someone who works in the field of health and weight management, I am thrilled when anyone wants to take steps toward a healthier lifestyle, but what I also have noticed is that the competition for that equipment at the gym is usually not so bad by the end of January. Sad to say, many of those resolutions have already bitten the dust in a mere few weeks.

The beginning of the new year is a natural time for us to think about fresh starts and to consider changes that we’d like to make in our lives. It does seem that these changes often focus on health habits: lose weight, get fit, stop smoking, drink less alcohol, sleep more. But if it seems that you are making the same resolution year after year, that’s a sign that something’s not working too well for you.

Changing old habits isn’t easy, so it’s important to recognize that it involves more than the rather vague concept of “willpower.” People who successfully keep their New Year’s resolutions usually do so by starting out with a plan. Here are some things to think about if you are tackling a resolution for 2013:

Motivation is key to successful change. Be clear about what you want to change and why. Look at what you will gain from making this change, then use that to maintain momentum in your efforts to do things differently. Concerns about health can be a powerful motivator. The smoker who is having shortness of breath climbing up a flight of stairs can turn that negative symptom into a springboard that helps to launch a plan for change.

Make an action plan. Be specific about how you plan to tackle the change. Look at resources that are available to help you and where you can get support. Some people choose a structured approach, such as a weight-loss program or smoking-cessation group. Others choose to tackle the change on their own. Either way can result in success. Think about your past attempts to make a similar change. Try to remember what strategies worked well for you and which did not. Were there certain stumbling blocks that tripped you up before? If so, keep those in mind as you make your new plan.

Be specific. The more specific you can be about your plan, the more likely success will be. For example, just resolving “I’m going to get in shape this year” is too vague. Try to be more specific: “I’m going to exercise three times a week for at least 30 minutes.” Then you need to think about the details of your action plan: What time of day will you exercise, and where will you do it? What type of activity will you do? Do you have the equipment you need? Would it help if you had a friend to do this with? Try to make the change something that fits your likes and dislikes. If you hate jogging, don’t pick it — there are plenty of other activities to give you similar benefits.

Be kind to yourself along the way. Many resolutions seemed to be approached with intense self-criticism (“I’m so fat, I’ve got to lose weight this year.”). That kind of negativity in how we talk to ourselves about change goals is more self-defeating than self-motivating. Change is difficult, so recognize any success you are able to achieve. You don’t have to reach your ultimate goal before you can reward yourself. If you are working on a 20-pound weight-loss goal and you’ve lost five of those pounds, think of a nice reward that doesn’t involve food. Some people giving up smoking choose to save their cigarette money in a jar, helping them to see how much of their cash had been going up in smoke. Those savings can then be used to buy something special that they’ve been wanting.

Consider your environment. Remember that your surroundings can make your efforts to change easier or more difficult. If you’re giving up smoking, avoid second-hand smoke in public places. If you are working on healthier eating habits, keep junk food out of the house and have lots of healthy, delicious alternatives handy.

Don’t let temptation lead to relapse. Expect that you will at least occasionally feel drawn back toward your old habits, and beware! If you hear yourself saying things like, “just one cigarette,” or “right after I eat this brownie, I’ll go back to eating healthy,” that’s a time to remind yourself about your motivation for tackling this change in the first place. Give yourself a pep talk, recognize what you’ve already accomplished and what the long-term benefits will be when you achieve your goal.

Stay vigilant. Even after your resolution has been accomplished, it takes continued awareness, motivation and effort to maintain that change. Anyone can slip from time to time, but if you keep yourself on track with your plan, you may eventually notice that you’ve developed new behaviors that feel more and more natural for you.

And remember, there is nothing magical about making a change on January 1. Every day of the year presents us with opportunities to do things differently. Diets do not need to start on a Monday, and we don’t have to quit smoking on our birthday. We make dozens of small decisions each day that influence the big picture of our health, well-being and happiness. And as we aspire to wellness in the New Year, let’s include fostering the positives, not just eliminating the negatives. Socialize with people who care about you, enjoy activities and interests outside of work, spend time enjoying nature and relaxing, laugh! Resolutions don’t have to be only about giving things up, but can include nurturing anything that enhances wellness of body, mind and spirit.

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