It happens to the best of us: We start January off saying “new year, new us.” We make big promises to change a few of our less-than-desirable habits, only to give up and fall back into old patterns a few weeks later.
According to research from the University of Scranton, about 80 percent of people abandon their resolutions by mid-February. After the gluttonous holidays, losing weight and getting in shape is not surprisingly at the top of everyone’s resolution list. But gyms see a spike in memberships and attendance at the beginning of the year, only to noticeably teeter off by the end of the month.
Gary Foster, PhD, behavioral scientist and Chief Science Officer of WW (formerly Weight Watchers) says this phenomenon has a lot to do with setting the wrong type of resolutions. Below, are his tips for creating goals we can actually keep, based on simple behavior changes.
Set reasonable goals.
When it comes to weight loss and diet, Dr. Foster explains that a fad diet approach is not reasonable. Words like “never” and “always” in a diet description are red flags that it will not be sustainable in the long term. “Deprivation of any kind sets you up for failure and the more drastic and restrictive your goals are, the less reasonable they are,” he says.
Set specific goals.
Setting a specific goal is more effective than a broad one. Instead of an “I want to lose weight” goal, Dr. Foster suggests setting up “what” you plan to achieve and “how” you will do it. Even saying I’m going to exercise three times a week is too vague.
Make an action plan and commit to specific times: I am going to lose weight by taking a 30 minute walk Monday during lunch, doing a 30 minute strength building routine at the gym Wednesday at 6 p.m., and jogging for 30 mins on Friday at 7 a.m.
This kind of behavioral mindset allows us to prepare for accomplishment, such as packing gym clothes to take with us to work on those days, and sets us up for accountability because we’ve committed to specific times. We’ll also be able to check in and reassess what part of our plan is working and what isn’t.
Small success leads to big success.
This isn’t to suggest we should set the bar low because that’s all we’re capable of accomplishing. “Starting with simple goals that are close to our current behavior sets us up for success,” explains Dr. Foster. And this can lead to bigger, more challenging successes in the future.
It’s about progress, not perfection. “In our everyday lives, be it at the workplace or in our relationships, we accept that we cannot be absolutely perfect and we don’t equate this to being complete failures,” says Dr. Foster. “But we exhibit very different behavior when it comes to weight control: We expect that we’re going to follow a strict regimen and if we’re perfect, we’ll lose the weight.” Any slight derailment can automatically make us feel like we’ve failed.
When setting a goal, Dr. Foster says it’s not if a setback is going to happen, but when it will and what are we going to do about it. “Responding to setbacks quickly is what we should focus on and the most critical skill for long term weight control,” says Dr. Foster. A setback is no reason to punish yourself or give up on the progress you’ve already made.
This doesn’t mean you should respond to your night out of indulgent drinks and dinner by skipping meals the next day, but to “learn from it and move on.” Ask yourself why it happened, how you will handle it differently next time, and behave as you normally would according to your plan the next day. Maybe on your next night out have a healthy snack before you leave so you’re not starving and over-order at the restaurant.
People often devolve into negative character assassination when it comes to weight management, berating themselves for not having willpower or saying they are never going to be able to lose the weight. Over the course of Dr. Foster’s 30 year career, he has had CEOs of companies and otherwise incredibly accomplished individuals admit to saying awful self-deprecating things to themselves — simply because of what they ate.
It’s no wonder we derail from our resolutions; it’s a terribly negative head space to live in. Instead, Dr. Foster suggests viewing the journey as something you’re doing for yourself, not against yourself. Consider these contrasting mindsets:
· I don’t like myself as I am, but I will like myself if I lose 20 lbs.
· I fundamentally value who I am as a person, as I am at this moment, and because I value myself I want to take care of myself the best way possible for my future.
“When you value yourself, you are coming from a position of strength,” says Dr. Foster. “You are the reason for the process, and you are valuable and worth taking care of — not only if, and when, you achieve the goal.”
Talk to yourself like you would to a friend.
If we catch ourselves using bullying, harsh inner dialog, a technique to manage this behavior is to imagine saying it to someone you care about. Let’s be honest: You probably wouldn’t say half the things you say to yourself even to a stranger.
This also goes with saying that having a network of others to share your goals with is helpful. You can utilize how you communicate with them to create a healthy dialog within yourself. “Even if they are not on your same journey, you can still experience the benefits of community support,” says Dr. Foster.
Check in with yourself.
So you weigh yourself and the scale hasn’t budged, rather than throwing in the towel, Dr. Foster encourages us to trust ourselves and go back and reflect on our behavior. You can always reassess your goals if you’re not meeting them. “Remember that no matter the goal, it’s our progress — not perfection — that should navigate the journey.”