“New year, new me”. It’s the mantra we all like to chant every time January rolls around. Many of us hope that over the following twelve months we will become our best selves and, honestly, our intentions are good. After the inevitable overindulgence of Christmas, January 1st seems like the ideal time to commit to some healthier behaviour. The problem is, New Year’s resolutions rarely last.
Survey data by social-fitness network Strava has shown that most people abandon their resolutions within the first three weeks of the year. A meta-analysis of studies published in Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin in 2016 found that some 55% of resolutions are typically health-related. With Strava and other studies finding a near-50% drop off rate of resolutions within 6 months, the potential impacts on our health are alarming.
However, the cause of this widespread failure doesn’t necessarily have ,much to do with the nature of our New Year’s resolutions. Rather, it has to do with how we all set goals in general. In short, we’re all really bad at it. Consider some of the most common New Year’s resolutions: lose weight, eat healthier, get fit. While they’re all noble endeavours, they’re also incredibly vague, and once the initial excitement that comes with committing to self-improvement wears off, you’ll most likely find yourself tossing these goals into the 'too hard' basket.
It’s critical that you set SMART goals. You might be familiar with this acronym, but here’s a quick refresher:
Specific: Make sure your goal is clearly defined. “Get fit” isn’t specific, so instead think of what you want to achieve with your fitness. Maybe you want to be able to run a kilometre in a certain amount of time by the end of year. Or perhaps complete a marathon. Strava's survey of its users found that by September (8 months after setting a resolution), users who set specific goals were 95% likely to still be active. Only 87% of those who did not set goals were still active. Note that Strava users tend to be already active, so for those who are taking on a new activity, this difference will likely be much larger.
Measurable: You need to ensure you can actually keep track of how you’re doing. Data is key here. There are all sorts of apps that can help you manage this, or just write your goals and achievements down in a diary or a spreadsheet. A spreadsheet will allow you to quickly translate your data into a line graph that visually shows your progress, which can be a strong driver of success in sticking to your resolutions.
Achievable: This is where reality plays an important role. If you’re too gung-ho at the beginning, you’ll burn yourself out far too quickly. For instance, if running a marathon this year is your goal and you aren’t already in the habit of running regularly, then don’t commit to running 10km four times a week straight off the bat. You need to allow yourself time to work up to your goals. Start by setting an achievable goal of running a set, achievable distance two/three times a week, and then increasing those numbers gradually.
Relevant: Your goals need to be tied to an overarching aim. If it is to run a marathon, set smaller goals that speak to that overall aim, like running your first 5km without requiring a break, and then building on this goal.
Time-constrained: Set yourself a timeline. Don’t just say, “I want to complete a marathon this year”. Choose a specific marathon happening late in the year (you’ll need plenty of time to train), and register yourself immediately. Having an imaginary timer counting down in the background will help to keep you motivated and accountable.
1. Reassess your resolutions
By now, you might be realising that the resolution you set for yourself this year was not, in fact, a SMART resolution. Instead of resigning yourself to just do better next year, consider reevaluating your goals now. Begin by reminding yourself why you set those specific goals, and consider if they still hold meaning for you. To do this, think through each SMART criteria. Is it specific? Can you measure your success? Is it something you can realistically achieve? Is it something you actually want to do? And have you set yourself a reasonable time frame in which to achieve the goal?
For instance, if your goal was to “run more” but you’ve discovered you actually hate running, then go ahead and drop it! Instead, consider what was at the root of your commitment to run more. Was it a desire to get fitter, or perhaps just to spend more time outdoors? Once you figure that out, you can reallocate your time and energy to a different pursuit (perhaps hiking or cycling) that will allow you to reach your goal and have fun at the same time.
Do this immediately.Not next week, not at the start of next month: right now. After all, you don’t need a new year to justify making some healthy changes in your life.
2. Build slowly
No matter how motivated you are, you’re not going to achieve your resolutions overnight. What’s more, if you try to get to the finish line too quickly, you’ll likely set yourself up for failure. For example, running a four-minute mile is an ambitious goal, but if you expect to get there within a week of training, you’re guaranteed to become disheartened when this isn’t the case and then just stop trying altogether.
It’s human nature to want to see immediate results, but the wiser course of action is to set yourself a series of smaller, more attainable goals. Planning in this way is vital for sticking to any sort of goal, as plans make you more accountable. In the instance of a four-minute mile, you could look at your current average running speed, and then work out how much faster you would have to run each week in order to achieve a four-minute mile by the end of year. Suddenly, your goal doesn’t seem that ludicrously out of reach. Just remember to take things one day at a time, because (metaphorically only, in this specific example) your goal should be a marathon and not a sprint.
Additionally, don’t pile on too many resolutions at once. While it’s great that you want to lose weight, eat less meat, run a marathon, read a book a week and visit your grandparents every month, that’s a lot of new projects to take on all at once. You need to prioritise and determine which items are more pressing and which could perhaps be seen to later in the year. That’s not to say that you shouldn’t have a lot of goals; it’s just that it’s important not to overwhelm yourself, as that’s a surefire way to burn out.
Note: Be aware of plateauing. You might see significant success early on in your goals. This is often the case with taking on a new sport or activity. It is also a great feeling to notice real changes in your health. Be aware that this often plateaus at some point. Don't be discouraged at this point!
3. Review your progress monthly
As much as I’m sure we all wish it were true, no one ever achieves anything simply by wishing it. In other words: it’s one thing to make a SMART resolution, and another thing to see it through to the end. To ensure you don’t get tired of your resolution (or worse, forget you even made one), be sure to check in with yourself every month. This doesn’t mean that if you fell short of your goal one month, that you need to chastise yourself. Instead, it’s an opportunity to reflect on what went wrong so you can reassess your plan for the coming month.
If possible, it’s also really helpful to have another person keep you accountable. It’s easy enough to make excuses when you only have yourself to answer to, but much harder to admit to a friend that you perhaps didn’t stick to your schedule last month. Even more helpful is to find someone to commit to the same goal as you. For instance, training for a marathon by yourself can sometimes feel like a chore, but training with a friend is suddenly a social event.
4. Don’t fear failure
Taking a step backward every now and then is not the same as failing. Even if your goal is to beat your one-mile pace by 5 seconds each week, and then one week you actually run slower than the week before, that is not a sign that you should just give up. Progress is not always linear, and external elements will affect performance. Maybe you had something on your mind that week, or maybe your body was just fatigued. Either way, missing your target every once in a while is OK. What really matters is that you don’t let results affect your mindset and that you keep going. And if you keep missing your target, week after week, this is more a sign that your goals are unrealistic, not that you have failed to achieve them. Once again, reassess your resolutions, and then get back out there. Quitting might be the easy option, but come December 31, few things are sweeter than being able to confidently tick an item off your list of New Year resolutions.