Sticking to your new year's resolutions: 5 tips for setting and achieving realistic health goals
Don’t let Covid-19 and its related stresses keep you from setting healthy goals for the new year. Experts suggested ways to help you plan and keep your health-related new year's resolutions.
- Covid-19 fatigue may have drained people’s motivation to stick to health goals
- At a time when some people are making new year’s resolutions, experts gave advice on how to set goals that are easy to achieve
- They also explain the psychology behind why people fail to keep their new year’s resolutions
SINGAPORE — If you cannot remember what were the new year’s resolutions you made a year ago, let alone accomplished them, you are not alone.
If you do not feel motivated enough to even set any health goals for 2023, you are not alone as well.
The Covid-19 pandemic and learning to live with the coronavirus is still ongoing, so people have either been worn down by health problems or start-stop routines to keep fit or they are mentally unwell or too physically exhausted to even try.
Dr Rie Kubota, a senior clinical psychologist with the psychology department of the Institute of Mental Health (IMH), said that this lack of motivation to keep healthy could be due to prolonged and accumulated stress related to Covid-19, “which has been a chronic stressor for more than two years”.
“As Covid-19 brought about various disruptions and changes to our life, we have had to deal with them in a fight-and-flight mode, thereby draining our mind and body, and causing fatigue.
As for those who want to stay positive and begin the new year afresh, there may still be barriers to keeping fit or just regaining the momentum to do better for health's sake.
Psychiatrist Lim Boon Leng from Gleneagles Medical Centre said that even with the best of intentions, fewer than one in 10 people will feel that they have achieved their goals by the end of the year.
So why is it so difficult to get rid of old habits and adopt new ones?
For starters, habits are routines or repetitive behaviour that have become imprinted in the neural pathways, such that the behaviour takes place subconsciously, Dr Lim said.
Studies have also shown that although many people set goals and targets, they do not have a plan on how to go about replacing their old habits, he added.
Couples with pandemic fatigue, it would not be a surprise that some people cannot accomplish what they set out to do.
However, don’t throw in your workout towel just yet.
Dr Kubota said that drawing up reachable targets for one’s well-being in the new year is still a good idea for everyone.
“Setting goals can be very inspiring and the new year is the best time to do so. People who make new year’s resolutions are more likely to achieve their goals than those who don’t,” she added.
“If you’re feeling fatigued, a short break may be the best way to reset your motivation.Senior clinical psychologist Rie Kubota”
To boost your motivation and odds of keeping your resolutions in the year ahead, the following five strategies from Dr Kubota and Dr Lim can help.
1. IDENTIFY A TOP POSITIVE EMOTION YOU WANT TO HAVE
If you have been in a unmotivated slump for too long, consider these:
- First, identify the positive emotions you wish to experience. Is it fun, excitement, pleasure, sense of achievement, love, calmness or serenity?
- Focus on positive emotions that will help lift mood and reduce vulnerability to stress
- Next, schedule activities that can bring about these positive emotions. For example, engage in hobbies, learn a new skill or connect with others
- Make time for self-care and to recharge with activities such as taking a walk, going for a massage or just getting enough rest
“The new year is a good time to review your daily routine to include more moments of positivity. If you’re feeling fatigued, a short break may be the best way to reset your motivation,” Dr Kubota said.
Good old-fashioned habits such as getting sufficient sleep, eating regular and healthy meals and exercising regularly can make a difference in how you feel.
Be creative and flexible when choosing your activities and make small changes in your daily routine, she suggested.
2. HAVE CLEAR, EASY-TO-ACHIEVE BITE-SIZE GOALS
DON'T SET THE BAR TOO HIGH
If you set an unrealistic, impossible or out-of-reach goal such as quitting smoking in a month or wanting to look attractive like someone you saw in a photo on Instagram, that will be a sure-fire way for failure, which will then make you lose motivation.
Dr Lim said: “There is a tendency for people to make lofty resolutions and perceive success as an immediate change.”
For example, many will aim to lose weight and would go on a dramatic diet change once the new year starts.
“They may not see weight loss immediately (and may) lose steam after a few weeks and give up. After a few early failures… the person gives up, until next year,” Dr Lim said.
DO BE SPECIFIC
Instead of coming up with an impractical or vague target, Dr Kubota suggested breaking a larger goal into small steps.
For example, if you want to “exercise more”, clearly define it as “go for a 30-minute walk five days a week”.
This helps you to track progress, which in turn keeps you motivated.
Adjust your goal if necessary by using the “S-M-A-R-T” goal framework: Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Realistic, Timely.
“Keeping resolutions should not be an all-or-nothing process. Remember that it’s a work in progress.Psychiatrist Lim Boon Leng”
3. PLAN AHEAD TO SEE RESULTS
Planning for positive outcomes is the key to maintaining motivation.
Human behaviour that leads to positive outcomes tend to be repeated, whereas behaviour that leads to negative results tend to stop, Dr Kubota explained.
- Reward or incentivise yourself for sticking to a goal
- Share your progress with someone you trust
- Or make the goal more fun by doing it with someone else
The “if-then” planning model has also been shown to be useful, Dr Lim suggested.
This helps you to decide in advance when, where and how you should act in order to meet a goal.
“For example, for a weight loss goal, the person can think, ‘If I’m at the coffee shop and about to order a soft drink, then I will just order a bottle of water’.”
4. REPORT YOUR SUCCESS
Being accountable may also determine whether you achieve or abandon your goals.
Take this study by Dominican University in the United States, which recruited 267 participants from businesses and organisations.
It found that more than 70 per cent of those who did the following reported achieving their goals successfully:
- Wrote down their goals
- Said the goals aloud
- Sent weekly updates to a friend
By comparison, just 35 per cent of those who merely thought about their goals accomplished them.
5. BE PATIENT IN FORMING NEW HABITS
Keeping things sustainable is important because it takes time to kick an old habit or form a new one so that it becomes second nature.
This may take anywhere from two or three weeks to half a year, Dr Lim said.
A study published in the European Journal of Social Psychology in 2009 found that a daily activity such as eating fruit at lunch or going for a walk takes an average of 66 days to become a habit.
There may be much variation in the durations and some people may be more resistant to change than others, but what the experts said was that the new routine or behaviour would eventually become less of a struggle when carried out consistently enough.
Dr Lim said: “To remove a habit, a new one must be implemented, and you will need a duration of time to repeat and ingrain the new habit.
“Keeping resolutions should not be an all-or-nothing process. Remember that it’s a work in progress.”
Dr Kubota agreed, saying: “Do not beat yourself up (for not sticking to a goal) as it will only lead to demotivation.
“Instead of being fixated on the outcome or aiming for perfection, focus on the journey and your effort.”