How to avoid the New Year’s resolution trap

Learn how to set New Year's resolutions and goals that will lift you with long-term success.

People holding sparklers at a New year's party

Holiday sweets, treats, and drinks are justified with the intention to start fresh, come the first of January. But most resolutions don’t work. Unrealistic expectations, all-or-nothing thinking, and focusing on the outcome sets us up for failure and feeling bad about ourselves. Learn how to set goals that will lift you up with long-term success.

Why New Year’s resolutions fail 

Many New Year’s resolutions have positive intentions, such as focusing on improving health and wellbeing. The problem is we tend to set expectations too high with unrealistic expectations, extreme thinking, and focusing on the future outcome rather than the journey. 

Unrealistic expectations  

Expectations can influence everything from pleasure of experience to how well we perform (1). If we expect too much from ourselves, we can end up feeling stressed and frustrated at our failures. 

Goals and expectations should be difficult enough to be motivating, while not so challenging that it's impossible to achieve. Focusing on small, sub-goals can be more effective than large unrealistic ones (2). 

Black and white thinking 

Black and white thinking, also called dichotomous or all-or-nothing thinking, is a way for us to arrange the world in extremes. For example, indulging in sweets and drinks for the holidays, then cutting them all out for New Years. The problem with this is that we tend to go more overboard with the anticipation to cut out “bad” habits cold turkey (3). 

One way to move from the black and white to the grey zone is to accept that nobody is perfect. Expecting perfection makes for a moving target that can never be obtained, setting us up for dissatisfaction and guilt.

Outcome focus 

When we set a goal and only focus on where we’re heading, it creates a sense of failure if life factors knock us off course. Say for instance the goal is to lose 20 pounds (9 kg). After a few pounds down, the scale pops up. This one incident could be caused by many other factors such as water weight. What matters most if the overall progress, which can also be measured as energy levels, how you are feeling, look of skin, or how clothes fit. 

Resolutions the right way

Goal setting is the process of taking active steps towards a desired outcome (emphasis on the steps, not leaps) (4). Successful habits can be best achieved by S.M.A.R.T. goals, journaling, and small attainable changes. 

S.M.A.R.T. goals

S.M.A.R.T. an acronym for a goal setting tool that can help plan and achieve objectives. 

  • Specific: detailed and well defined in order to know exactly what to do.  
  • Measureable: using numbers or quantities in order to compare over time.
  • Achievable: feasible with current lifestyle and easy to put into action.
  • Realistic: consider limitations such as resources, cost, time.
  • Time-based: using a time-frame to set boundaries (5). 

An example would be: beginning this Monday, run outside at a moderate pace (out of breath but able to talk), three times per week for 15 minutes each run.  

Write it down

When it comes to goal setting, studies show that writing down goals can encourage people to do related skills more often (6). Keeping track of habits, such as a healthy eating food journal, can also expose any nutrition gaps or struggles. Track the easy way with a nutrition app.

Start small changes today 

Research shows that when we think about our future selves, 10 years from now, our brains show a similar pattern as if we’re thinking about a complete stranger (7). Not to say that New Years is that far away, but it’s hard to imagine hitting any goal too far in the future. 

Rather, start taking small steps now to make easy tweaks for a healthier holiday and beyond. 

Find what suits you long-term 

The best way to start and stick to a New Year’s goal is to focus on something that provides enjoyment and focuses on feeling good. Not sure where to start? Take the test to find the diet best suited for you. 

7 references (hide)

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