Writing A Healthy New Years Resolution You’ll Actually Keep

Many of us want to get in shape for the new year, but how do we stick to our goals without getting derailed? Learn to create a health and wellness resolution that is not only achievable, but that you’ll actually want to see through the year!

As 2019 draws to a close, many of us are thinking about setting New Years Resolutions for 2020. After all, it’s not just a new year, but a new decade, and a new chance to accomplish something different. Though not everyone believes in making formal resolutions in January (I personally have followed the Three Word Mantra methodology for several years), many see the calendar update as a useful catalyst to make a major change.

Because of this, there is often a push to adopt a healthier lifestyle after the start of the year. Coming out of the holiday season, with our emphasis on excess consumption and an abundance of treats and indulgence, this makes a lot of sense as a reaction. People often go into this resolution with the best of intentions to make a change for the better, as we notice in early January with upticks in new gym memberships and shoppers in the produce section. Unfortunately, just because a goal has tangible benefits for someone’s health and wellness does not mean it is more likely to be adopted, or likely to last beyond the first few weeks when the stress and realities of life start to get in the way. 

Part of the problem here is how we set these goals in the first place. Large, vague goals (such as “get in shape” or “eat healthier” or “lose weight”) are nearly impossible to accomplish because it’s difficult to tell what success actually means. And other goals may be more specifically defined, but are set up from the start to be discouraging or negative. So how do we set a goal that we will actually still be following at the end of the year?

Here are some workable tips for putting together a positive, achievable 2020 New Years Resolution for your health and wellness:

Break it down into definable, manageable chunks

Take a lesson from Agile development and project management methods, and break your goal into smaller stories that meet the definition for INVEST: Independent, Negotiable, Valuable, Estimable, Sized appropriately, and Testable.

  • Independent: self contained, avoids dependencies on other stories.
    For example, both adding a new “color” of food into each meal and walking an extra distance each day can be performed independently of each other, even if a circumstance prevents one from happening.
  • Negotiable: can be changed or rewritten prior to starting.
    For example, you might initially plan to meal prep every Sunday, but find that it’s more realistic to have the day be variable based on the week, or only do it every other  week.
  • Valuable: the outcome is demonstrably useful to the “end user” (yourself).
    For example, you may want to get in shape in order to run and play with your kids, or carry four bags of groceries up the stairs without help. You may want to change your diet or sleep habits in order to have more energy or feel less worn down.
  • Estimable: the level of effort and “acceptance criteria” of the story is properly documented with all important variables accounted for.
    For example, knowing what it would take to eat more fresh meals at home (grocery shopping, cooking/preparation time, recipe research, etc.) or to lift weights each week (finding a gym/home equipment, blocking off time for exercise and/or travel, planning around existing personal, career, or family obligations).
  • Sized appropriately: isn’t too large or small of a task, can be accomplished with the time and resources allotted.
    For example, while it may not be possible for everyone to do a couch-to-marathon within a year, or compete in a Crossfit Open, smaller tasks that fit your experience and energy level (like learning to use new equipment, meeting with a strength trainer, researching recipes, or making grocery lists with new ingredients) are all smaller sized stories that can be combined in sequence to achieve a larger goal.
  • Testable: able to show that the work has been completed.
    For example, keeping a food diary, sleep journal, or fitness log is a great way to document progress (provided writing things down isn’t triggering for you).

Don’t define success based on achieving a specific number

Avoid setting a goal to lose a specific number of pounds, run a specific number of miles, lift a specific amount of weight, etc. While this seems like a good idea on the surface, since it’s easy to tell whether or not this goal has been accomplished, it actually sets people up for failure more often than not. This is due to several related factors.

First, the number we have in our heads may not actually be a healthy number for our specific bodies. We often come up with these numbers (such as our “ideal weight” or “ideal strength”) based on outside factors, and are usually trying to compare ourselves to someone else’s appearance or performance rather than listening to what our body actually needs. This can lead to unhealthy behaviors like crash dieting, overtraining, or disordered eating, and foster other negative relationships with food, movement, and our bodies.

Second, the one constant in life is change, and goals like this don’t account for the very real parts of life that can get in our way. Sickness, injury, or a lack of time and resources can derail a number-based goal very quickly, making it easy to get discouraged or decide to give up on healthy pursuits overall.

Third, by not meeting a specific numeric goal, people can feel like they failed even if they’ve improved their life in countless other ways. It can be hard not to fixate on a number on a scale or time on a stopwatch as proof that you’re “not good enough” without noticing how they might be sleeping better, having more energy, being in a better mood, or getting stronger.

Focus on what you can do rather than what you can’t

Often, people treat a health-based resolution as a chance to purge themselves of “bad” or “negative” behaviors that may have been creeping into their habits. It’s true that there may be some behaviors they want to reduce (like eating processed sugars, staying up late, or excess consumption) or eliminate (like drinking, smoking, consuming caffeine, or other dependent behavior). However, by focusing on the things you can’t do anymore, you’re treating health as a restriction

The thing about restriction (in cases where we  are not talking about addiction) is that it is almost never sustainable in the long term. We push ourselves to be perfect and “never” do something, which means as soon as we do it, we believe we have “failed.” This often leads to actual unhealthy behavior, like bingeing due to “falling off the wagon” and the resulting guilt and shame. It also falsely moralizes our actions, causing us to think of certain foods, movements, or behaviors as “bad,” and therefore we too must be “bad” if we’re doing them. Again, this leads to an unhealthy relationship with our own bodies and minds.

Instead, treat health as an opportunity. Rather than thinking about how you “can’t” eat chips or cake or pasta, think about how you “can” explore a whole variety of other foods that you wouldn’t have tried before (maybe even occasionally alongside that cake!) Instead of thinking about how you “can’t” sit and watch TV for hours after work anymore, think about how you “can” meet new people and gain new experiences at the gym or fitness class you signed up for (maybe even make some new friends to talk about your favorite TV shows with!) Finding excitement in new opportunities is much more sustainable than focusing on things we “can’t” do. 

Add positive habits before eliminating negative ones

To build upon the previous tip, it is easier to add a new, small, positive habit than it is to start by taking something away. Following the INVEST protocol above, start by finding some of the smallest, achievable stories as part of your larger goal. If you’re working on building a daily workout habit, your first small positive habit may be laying out your workout clothes the night before so you see them in the morning. If you’re working on eating a healthier diet, your first small positive habit may be to add one new color to your plate at one meal each day. If you’re working on getting more sleep, your first small positive habit may be starting a five minute wind-down routine at the end of your night.

As you accumulate positive habits, you will notice them gradually starting to replace the negative ones. Getting up earlier to work out  will start pushing your bedtime earlier. Filling your plate with multicolored foods leaves less room for less nutritionally dense food. Enriching, filling meals cause less desire for mindless snacking. Feeling stronger, more energetic, and more well rested will encourage repetition of those behaviors, and will also support a quick, easy transition back into those behaviors after the days we do choose to indulge differently – because, after all, health is not about restriction, and we do still have a life to live!

Do you have a health or fitness based New Years Resolution this year? Or do you do something different than setting a resolution? I’d love to hear about it! Either way, Happy New Year everyone, and good luck in 2020!

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