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New Year’s Resolutions Don’t Work: Make a Health Plan

snowy rocky landscape
January 1, 2018
Leigh Erin Connealy, M.D.

I’m not a fan of New Year’s resolutions. The season’s air is thick with them, well intended, but far more likely to fail than succeed. So let’s re-frame those good intentions and agree that any time of year is a great time to make changes that succeed, improving your health and life.

But if you need a starting point to make those change, the New Year is a perfect time.

What do you want to change?

It doesn’t matter whether you want to lose weight, learn a new language, exercise more, or travel more: Everyone, myself included, has an internal “I really want to…” list.

The emphasis here is on really.

So, please make it something you’re really serious about. Something you’re committed to, and will make part of your life over the long term.

To make extra sure you’re heading in the right direction, ask yourself this key question: Am I responding to pressure—from a friend, from my culture, or from any other external influence?

You answered no?

Excellent. Let’s move on—SMART-ly.

How to make a promise to yourself that you’ll keep

A commitment to change doesn’t have to be a battle between what you want and what you need to get it—if you play it SMART.

The SMART acronym provides a perfect roadmap for achieving your goals and making lasting changes. It stands for…

  • Specific
  • Measurable
  • Achievable
  • Relevant
  • Time-bound

Let’s take a closer look.

  • Specific. Let’s say you want to lose weight. What’s wrong with “I will lose weight?” Well, how do you know whether you’ve reached your goal—without setting a specific amount of weight, over how much time? Make it “I will lose a minimum of one pound per week.” How about reducing stress? Be specific, “I will meditate for at least 15 minutes, three times a week. What’s your choice, what’s your timetable? Be as specific as possible
  • Measurable. As per the above, be specific—”eating healthier,” for example, means something different to everyone. So make your goal clear—I will eat at least 3 servings of vegetables a day, I will eat no more than one sugary snack per week. Make it anything you want, as long as you can track whether you’re on track.
  • Achievable. It sounds so simple, but be realistic. Yes, there are occasional highly motivated individuals who resolve to be marathon-ready by the end of the year, for example—and do it. But let’s recognize our limits, and undertake change that challenges you just the right amount. Your overall health and lifestyle—bad diet, or a sedentary lifestyle, for example—might make positive changes harder to reach. But achievements, whatever the challenge level, will keep you going. The best part about that is how proud you feel every time you stick to your plan. It’s a wonderful feeling, and your body supports you by releasing happy hormones, including serotonin and endorphins.
  • Relevant. Back to the reasons people fail above. Are you being influenced by family, friends, or trends? Thinking about becoming a vegan, because your brother-in law keeps urging (nagging?) you? Choose a goal that really matters to you. It might help you to make a list or post a picture of your reasons for making this change.
  • Time-bound. Like “achievable,” the timeline for reaching your goal should be realistic, too. That means giving yourself time to do it with lots of smaller intermediate goals set up along the way. That plan to lose at least a pound a week is perfect. Or to exercise for 10 minutes a day…three times a week.

 

I think this is a very SMART way to create a very doable plan. And we have some fresh insight from research that can make it easier to stick with.

Hint: It’s not about “willpower.”

The willpower myth

The American Psychology Association tells us that the most common reason people give for letting New Year’s resolutions drift away is lack of willpower.

Let’s assume that goes for any kind of change.

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For sure, there are times when you just don’t feel like keeping the promise you’ve made to yourself. But in my book, no one “lacks willpower.” If that were the case, offices all over the world would be empty.

Not only that, but to me “lack of willpower” is like saying “I can’t help it, I’m powerless.”

My friends, no one is powerless. Not me, not you. If I sound a bit preachy, so be it, but I know, because I’ve seen thousands of my patients prove that we can do anything we set our minds to.

And now science has shown us that this gets more true, the more we exercise our willpower.

Science makes keeping commitments easier

Experts in the field of self-control have determined that the prefrontal cortex is the part of the brain that helps us control our behavior—deciding, for example, to put the fork down instead of shoveling in another mouthful.

As we know, the brain is a muscle, and muscles grow stronger when challenged. Isn’t it sort of a no-brainer that the more often you make a right decision, exercising your prefrontal cortex, the stronger it gets, and the easier the next decision becomes?

Backing that up is research showing that the prefrontal cortex can “tire” at the end of the day—run out of the nutrients it needs. This makes difficult decisions even more difficult. So let’s be sure that your prefrontal cortex—and the rest of your brain and entire body, is well fed and healthy.

Be prepared to power your change

Remember what I told you about willpower—as an excuse for abandoning your plan, it doesn’t fly.

You’re in charge here, as the new year comes, and as every new day comes. All I can do is advise how to best use your power. If you put a proper plan together, and stick with it—and I know you can—I guarantee you’ll start feeling better on day 1.

One last, essential step to get your plan firmly planted in your life.

Build a change support team—and respect it

No matter what your change plan, or when, look ahead to anticipate the demands your behavioral change might make on you and your family and friends. Quitting smoking, for example, can turn a good-natured lady or gentleman into a snarling beast in the first days or weeks. A change in diet or exercise will also need some settling in time.

That doesn’t mean you should forget your plan for change. It means you should explain any possible withdrawal symptoms to people close to you, and ask for their understanding, forgiveness, and support (this one’s a biggie), until any uncomfortable days of kicking your former habit, or stating a new one, are over.

Also on the healthy holiday (and every day) menu

I’d be remiss if I neglected to offer some suggested changes for you to adopt. You can tackle these changes one at a time, and you’re probably already doing some of them. Adding them all together is what will result in a truly healthy lifestyle.

Doctor’s orders are right here:

  • Start taking the supplements that are right for you. If you don’t know where to start, I recommend an omega-3 oil and vitamin D for everyone
  • Sleep seven to eight hours a night
  • Stop smoking
  • Cut in half the amount of alcoholic and sugary beverages you drink
  • Drink enough water: half an ounce per pound of body weight per day. So: 140 pounds? 70 ounces of water—paced through the day. Easier than it sounds
  • Walk for 10–15 minutes a day, increasing your time and distance, or interval and weight training
  • Pick one goal for improving your diet—cutting out sodium or refined carbohydrates, eating more healthy fats, increasing the quantity and variety of vegetables in your diet—and stick with it for 3 months. Then go back and add another specific, achievable diet related goal, until you have exactly the diet you think of when you think of a healthy diet

If you want to know more about how to get any of these wonderful practices into your life, I’m always here for you online, and I’m full of good advice :-).

Here’s to happy, healthy holidays—and all days to come!

References

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