New Decade, New You – The Science Behind Making a New Year's Resolution and Keeping It
By Rachel Miller, Registered Dietitian
It’s that time of year again, where we say goodbye to the past and hello to the new and exciting. This upcoming year is even more special as it marks the start of a new decade. We all have improvements we'd like to make to our lives in some way and making New Year’s resolutions can be a perfect way to achieve these goals. Unfortunately, despite our best intentions on average it takes only six weeks for 80% of all New Year’s resolutions to fail1. As the majority of the resolutions we make are about improving our health in some way, it’s important to understand the science behind making and keeping a proper New Year’s resolution2.
First of all, New Year’s resolutions are often too vague. It is not enough to simply say that you want to eat healthier. Your resolution needs to be SMART, meaning that it’s3:
- Specific: consider the who, what, where, when and why of your goal. For example, imagine that you would like to increase your vegetable intake. A specific goal might be “I want to increase the number of vegetables included in my lunches packed for work, in order to get more fiber and nutrients throughout the day”.
- Measurable: Being able to measure your progress is important in order to stay motivated and keep yourself accountable. It’s particularly helpful to keep a written record to evaluate your progress. For example, if you would like to increase the amount of water you drink each day, try tracking it in a fitness phone app or keeping a notepad on the fridge to better measure your success.
- Achievable: The biggest life journeys begin with one small step. If you make the immediate goal of drinking eight cups of water daily, when currently you struggle to include any water at all, this probably won’t be a realistic starting point. Start with a goal that stretches your comfort zone but not so far that it sets you up for failure.
- Relevant: Why are you making this change? It has to be something that has value to you. By bringing these reasons to mind and having support from others around you it can make you more likely to succeed.
- Time-bound: Every goal that you make should include a deadline in order increase your motivation. Find ways to break any bigger goals you may have into small incremental goals with timelines. Bigger goals should have an overall deadline of a few months to a year, and good short-term goals are small steps you are able to include within the week.
Simply by ensuring that your goals match this SMART outline, you will greatly increase your likelihood of achieving them.
Lastly, here are five pieces of advice to consider when creating and sticking to your New Year’s resolution:
- Avoid fad diets. These diets that promote rapid weight loss and focus on cutting out major food categories may result in short-term weight loss, but at the expense of your own long-term health. Focus instead on including research-based healthy eating strategies like those outlined by Canada’s Food Guide.
- Success is never a linear process. Consider how you will deal with setbacks at the beginning of establishing your goals, so you are able to better overcome them in the future without getting discouraged.
- Avoid setting negative goals. Instead of focusing on what to remove from your diet, focus on healthy behaviours that you can include. Negative goals are more difficult for the brain to focus on – try reframing them so that they sound positive: you may be surprised by the difference this makes!3 For example, imagine that you frequently eat chocolate in the evening after dinner. Instead of focusing on not eating any more chocolate, try instead to think about including healthier choices like yogurt and berries.
- Don’t make too many resolutions all at once. Focus on only one or two goals to start. Make promises that are relatively easy to keep to build the trust in yourself. It’s better to have one simple goal that you know you can accomplish than several difficult goals that make you give up altogether.
- It’s also important to know when to ask for help: book time with a dietitian, physiotherapist, or other health care provider in order to get assistance establishing realistic health goals and how to best incorporate them into your life.
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1. Dodgson, L. The psychology behind why we’re so bad at keeping New Year’s resolutions. In Business Insider. Retrieved from https://www.businessinsider.com/the-psychology-behind-why-we-cant-keep-new-years-resolutions-2018-1?IR=T
2. Woolley, K. & Fishbach, A. (2016). Immediate Rewards Predict Adherence to Long-Term Goals. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 1-12. https://doi.org/10.1177/0146167216676480
3. Mind Tools Content Team. (2019). SMART Goals - How to Make Your Goals Achievable. In Mind Tools. Retrieved from https://www.mindtools.com/pages/article/smart-goals.htm