Setting a goal is as psychologically rewarding as achieving the goal itself. For this reason, people like to set lofty goals for themselves because it feels good to say you’re going to achieve them. The problem is that the loftier the goal, the less realistic it is that you’ll actually stick to it for an extended period of time, and the worse you will feel when you inevitably give up.
I implore you to think realistically here and be a fair critic of yourself. If you consider yourself a “carb addict” (your family and your culture surround you with lots of enticing, carb-heavy foods) and carbs have been a large portion of your diet for as long as you can remember, how can you logically expect yourself to drop everything and stick to a low-carb diet from here on out?
It sounds ridiculous when you read it here, yet that is the approach so many of us take when it comes to setting nutrition goals for ourselves. We choose goals that are excessively lofty and counter to our current lifestyles, we have no actual plan for how we will build those habits and hold ourselves accountable, and then we scratch our heads in wonderment when we end up blowing it two weeks later. What gives?
Use small changes to get big results
The aggregation of marginal change (a term coined by James Clear) tells us that all it takes is a little change to elicit a large response over the long term. Imagine making a 1% improvement each day versus a 1% decline in your success. A year’s worth of 1% improvements each day can be mathematically represented by 1.01 to the power of 365, which comes out to 37.78. A 1% decline in success each day for a year would then be 0.99 to the power of 365, which comes out to 0.03. This is an excellent way of conceptualizing just how incredibly powerful these small changes can be.
But why shoot for these when a big change would elicit a bigger effect?
The reason to avoid the big changes that everyone says they want to make is that they just aren’t doable. Here at True Fitness & Nutrition, we are in the business of helping people make long-term lifestyle changes, changes that we can habituate and make part of our lives so we don’t have to consciously force them everyday. The difference between forcing a “healthy diet” and having healthy eating principles be second nature to you is immense, and I cannot emphasize that enough.
When I say small changes, I mean to focus on eating one more veggie or fruit a day, rather than shooting for 5 servings every single day when you’re starting from one...or zero. I mean building the habit of getting to bed 30 minutes earlier than you normally do each night, rather than shooting for the “perfect” bedtime. I mean adding just one stretching exercise to your recovery regimen, rather than expecting to keep up your thrice weekly hour-long foam rolling sessions. For a more in depth look into this approach, I recommend highly the book “Mini-Habits” by Stephen Guise.
Now, onto the simple steps you’ll need to make your New Year’s resolution a reality.
Steps to cementing your New Year’s resolution
1. Set a habit you know you can complete
This is important advice that I know a lot of people (myself included) will be inclined to shrug off. I do literally mean that you should be choosing a habit you have a 9 or 10 (on a scale of 10) confidence level for. This is something you know without a doubt you can consistently do. Its completion itself should not be a challenge and should not be something you miss regularly. If you find you are often missing the habit or under-performing (i.e. getting two training sessions in per week, rather than three), you have to bring down the difficulty level until it is something you are completely confident you can do.
Also make sure you are choosing a process-oriented, rather than goal-oriented, habit. This means you are choosing something that is in your direct control and actionable, such as eating a certain amount of green vegetables each day, rather than something not in your direct control, such as losing a certain amount of weight each week.
2. Never penalize the habit
Unless the habit proves so easy that it doesn’t ever tackle the motivation barrier and get you going above and beyond, refrain from making the habit harder. Instead, consider anything above and beyond the habit… well, “above and beyond.”
This has allowed me to maintain habits even when times are tough. Whereas the normal approach to “work getting crazy” is to excuse yourself from having to be as strict with your diet (and subsequently giving up entirely on it), this approach would have your standard be consistently low, so that when things get rocky, you are still doing just fine by completing the minimum. And when things ease up, you can afford to go above and beyond.
3. Track the habit
A habit-tracking system is essential to keep this from existing only in your head, a situation that makes it all too easy to excuse yourself from completing the habit every now and then. Something about checking off the day is so psychologically rewarding, and it works wonders to remind you of your success when you might otherwise be tempted to feel like the habit endeavor is not going so well.
Make sure your habit tracking system is not so complicated that it becomes a habit in and of itself. Your coach may have a simple electronic spreadsheet for you to share. For myself, I like to simply tape a piece of paper in a place I’ll see it often (i.e. over my work space) and mark off the days I complete the habit. Alternatively, the habit might have its own tracking system: for example, if your habit is to track your food intake on MyFitnessPal everyday, that will have its own tracking system (and a good one, at that).
4. Skip the Honeymoon
Another important step is what I call “skipping the honeymoon.” There is a distinct stage at the beginning of building a new habit where everything feels peachy and you start envisioning this new life you’re creating for yourself. It is all too easy to abuse this phase and burn out.
For example, you might be so pumped to lose this weight (remember, that’s not a good goal to have) that you post about it on social media, hashtagging it #Journeyto100, and you invest in a nice weight scale and some motivational posters, and you go to bed each night thinking about how great this is going to be. Well, when reality kicks in two weeks later and you’re hungrier than usual without much weight loss to show for it, you have now built your metric for success up so high that anything less is considered a failure, and you find a convenient excuse to get out of it.
Instead, by skipping all those sensational habit preparations and choosing a small, easy, and “un-sexy” habit, you sidestep this success-killer and set yourself up on a path for constant wins. Boo-yah!
5. Hire a coach
I know, I know, sleazy plug placement, right? But in actuality, this can be unbelievably helpful, if for no other reason than that it keeps you out of your head. Having a coach can prevent you from constantly flip-flopping on which habit to stick to, what the best way to go about it is, and having to make on-the-spot decisions about your nutrition and health, all of which can be mentally exhausting to the point of just wanting to give up on it all (and surely, that’s the approach most Americans resort to a couple of weeks into their respective New Year’s resolutions).
A coach can help organize all of the conceptual information I’ve laid out thus far into an actionable, practical package. It’s not about babying you or being your drill sergeant, it’s about guiding you through your personal health and fitness journey and then taking off the training wheels to help you optimize your nutrition.
So, go into 2018 with confidence and a realistic plan for the change you’ve always wanted for yourself. And lastly, but most importantly, keep in mind that a New Year’s resolution is just a fun way of timing your habit building (i.e. the “new year, new me” sentiment). It is not definitive, and if you find yourself mid-February wishing you had started some habit, throw the New Year’s resolution idea out the window and start now. There’s something called the “power of imperfect starts” (another term coined by James Clear) that says you are actually better off starting a habit under suboptimal conditions, because this reinforces the durability of the habit (cementing the idea that you will do it no matter what).
Have a happy New Year’s!