Now that the end of January is approaching, it’s time to look back at your New Year’s Resolutions. If you’re like most people, you were probably enthusiastically proclaimed your resolve to eat healthier, exercise more, or lose weight. But just a few weeks later, are you still sticking to those resolutions?
I never declare New Year’s Resolutions. Based on what I hear from the people around me, these lofty, non-specific “goals” never really seem to work out. A better tactic is to make lifestyle changes using goal setting and self-management.
You might be thinking, Aren’t New Year’s Resolutions goals? Not quite. A New Year’s Resolution is a great place to start – you just need to refine and enhance it to construct a great goal.
1. Decide what lifestyle change you would like to create and why. Identify the reasons you want to make that change. The more meaningful the reason is for you personally, the more effective it will be in motivating you to pursue your goal. Reflect on your reasons before you move forward so that you know why you have decided to take action.
2. Assess your individual needs. Figuring out where your strengths and weaknesses lie will help determine where to focus your goals. For example, if you want to eat healthier but you already eat lots of fruits and veggies, you may find that you could make a bigger modification by targeting a different area, such as dessert or sugary beverages. A great way to identify needs is to keep a journal. Jot down notes for a few days related to the lifestyle change you would like to make. Maybe you would write down what you ate along with how much, or maybe your journal would include whether you exercised. It is important to also note reasons that you did or did not do things – this will give you an idea of what barriers you’re up against. This is not the time to make changes, just observe your own behavior. Review your notes and zero in on where you can improve.
3. Create your goals. This is where you get to decide what you want to achieve and how you will get there. Behavioral research has illustrated several characteristics of effective goals that you can include.
S.M.A.R.T. Goals: This acronym is frequently used to describe features of well-constructed goals. S is for Specific – what are you going to do? (Example: drink water, exercise) M is for Measurable – what concrete information can you compare to your initial assessment to know if you did or did not meet your goal? (Example: ounces of water drank, number of minutes exercised) A is for Attainable – is this goal possible for you to accomplish? R is for Relevant – will this goal help you make the change you desire? T is for Time-bound – when do you hope to have reached your goal? (Tip: Take care in setting your time frame by considering what is realistic.)
Approach vs. Avoidance Goals that focus on what you will do (approach) are more effective than goals that focus on what you will not do (avoidance). If you find that your goals are oriented toward avoidance (for example, “Eat less candy.”), re-frame the goal as an approach (“Choose nuts as a snack.”). Deciding what you will do is more clear and specific than deciding what you will not do.
Challenging vs. Easy The spectrum of goals you can set ranges from ones that you know you can obtain with little effort to those that you feel like you may never meet. Additionally, goals can be made to achieve something you very much want, or something that you really don’t care about at all. Finding where these two scales intersect is important in choosing and setting your goal. The more challenging a goal is, the more motivated you will be to reach it – but only if you really want to achieve the outcome. Defining goals that are both highly desirable and adequately challenging is important.
Performance vs. Mastery Goals that focus on performance (for example, “lose weight”) are less effective than goals that focus on skill mastery (for example, “learn to cook healthy meals”). The science behind this is that when you are trying to reach a performance goal, short-term setbacks are viewed as indicators of inadequate ability that will lead to failure. However, the same setbacks in the context of a mastery goal are seen as learning opportunities because the all-or-nothing attitude is eliminated. In the long run, mastery goals foster a sense of confidence in one’s ability that translates into successful lifestyle change.
4. Write it down. Write down exactly what your goal is, including all the characteristics listed above. Writing down your goal makes it tangible. It feels like a commitment to put a goal on paper, and you will need that commitment (and a reminder of the details!) to carry you through to achieving your goal.
5. Evaluate and reassess your progress. Check in with yourself along the way. Use your assessment method occasionally to evaluate your improvement and set a new goal.
What are some of your goals? Share in the comments below to celebrate the lifestyle changes you are making!
Corbin CB, Welk G, Corbin WR, Welk KA. Concepts of Fitness and Wellness: A Comprehensive Lifestyle Approach. Boston: McGraw Hill; 2009.
University of Virginia Human Resources. Writing S.M.A.R.T. Goals. http://www.hr.virginia.edu/uploads/documents/media/Writing_SMART_Goals.pdf. Accessed January 17, 2015.
Mann T, de Ridder D, Fujita K. Self-regulation of health behavior: social psychological approaches to goal setting and goal striving. Health Psychology. 2013;32:487-498.