Out With the Old, In With the New: Setting Healthy New Year Intentions

This past Sunday, an estimated 45 percent of Americans resolved to make a change in 2017, according to statisticians in the Journal of Clinical Psychology.

Of this group, 25 percent will fall off the New Year’s resolution bandwagon after the first week, 40 percent by the end of January, and over half will abandon their efforts after six months – in fact, only 8 percent of goal setters will succeed in maintaining their New Year resolutions. While the numbers are grim, researchers are finding that it’s not the resolution that has such a high potential to fail, it’s the approach to the resolution.

In fact, many fall in the trap of “false hope syndrome” – a condition characterized by unrealistic expectations about how likely one is to achieve their goals in terms of speed, amount, ease, and the repercussions of changing their behaviors.

Instead, researchers suggest that success may be just as influenced by the way we think about resolutions as one’s determination and commitment to achieving a goal. The very word resolution, in and of itself, carries negative implications – oftentimes used to denote the finality of a behavior, or the end of a problem.  Setting New Year’s intentions shifts one’s mentality from erasing an unwanted behavior to creating a desirable habit.

The top ten New Year’s Resolutions from 2015 were: lose weight, get organized, spend less/ save more money, enjoy life to the fullest, stay fit and healthy, learn something new, quit smoking, help others succeed, fall in love, and spend more time with family.

For those looking to lose weight in the New Year, instead of thinking ‘I would like to lose weight, therefore I will exercise 4 to 5 times a week and eat only 1200 calories’, shift your thinking to more manageable, and realistic, intentions that build sustainable habits – ‘I want to get in the habit of healthier living, therefore I will add a vegetable to my plate at dinner and make an effort to do some form of activity – whether gardening, cleaning, or hitting the gym – every day.’

The shift is cognitive – with food, especially, there is a fear of scarcity, which can be agitated by the thought of restriction, which feeds back into the cycle of overeating. Instead of thinking about weight loss as restriction, think about it in terms of building better habits and a healthier lifestyle instead of a temporal restriction.

A popular recommendation for those looking to make sustainable, and lasting, changes in the New Year is to apply the goal setting technique known as SMART – specific, measurable, attainable, realistic, and timely.

Specific helps to measure whether or not a goal is being met, and makes the goal actionable. The resolution to “spend more time with family” doesn’t carry an accountability measure, but setting the intention to make two phone calls to family members each week creates enough specificity to make the goal concrete.

In line with specificity, measurability helps to make goals tangible, creating benchmarks of success that are easy to monitor. Applying the concept of attainability to specificity and measurability helps make sure intentions are both realistic and sustainable. Setting a goal to lose 50 pounds when you don’t have 50 pounds to lose is unrealistic. Yet, setting goals that are too easy can also feel like defeat. Attainability helps find the medium between goals that are too lofty and goals that are too easily achieved.

Making sure your goals are realistic also helps set you up for success – if you want to train to run a marathon, but don’t have the schedule that accommodates a rigorous training schedule, make amends with your obligations and adjust your intention, accordingly. It would be unrealistic to resolve to take a $35/session exercise class, five times a week when your weekly budget is more around $5.

Finally, make sure your New Year’s goals, intentions, or even resolutions, are timely. Setting goals too far in the future can be discouraging and don’t carry as much motivational weight as setting mini-goals that get you to the end goal.

Losing weight takes time (1 to 2 pounds per week), training for a big race takes training and time, saving money and reducing debt takes time. Being SMART about what you want to accomplish in the new year, and allowing an adequate amount of time to accomplish what you set out to do is the key to goal setting success.

By Whitney Cooper