Written by: Lori Kirwan, PhD in Exercise Physiology
I’ve spent the last month asking my clients and class participants if they are making New Year’s resolutions and I was surprised to hear that most aren’t. When I probed to find out why, the most common answer was:
“They don’t work. I always fail so why bother?”
When I looked at the research, it turned out this was actually true – it is estimated that more than 90% of New Year's resolutions fail! Dr. Norcross, a psychology professor that has spent over 30 years researching this and an expert on behavioural change, states that people are not successful with resolutions because they don’t know how to set goals and apply the process of behavioural change properly*. So, let’s examine his advice for making resolutions that will set you up for success.
According to Norcross, there are 5 stages to successful change.
Setting a goal would fall into phase 3 – preparation – of this model. The New Year is an optimal time for setting a resolution because it symbolizes a new beginning. Setting a date for change acts as an impetus for you to start, and can be one component to making your resolution successful! Additionally, since New Year’s Day follows the holidays, a time when we typically aren’t working and are indulging, you have an added motivation to start new healthy behaviours on January 1.
Tips for successful goal setting:
- Set realistic, small, and measurable goals. Instead of saying “In 2019 I want to be healthier,” break it down into smaller, measurable goals. Write down one or two things that you want to do to contribute to your health. (for example, I will go to the gym a minimum of 3 times a week, I will cut out alcohol on weekdays, I will cut out my 3:00pm cookie break, etc.)
- Adapt or alter your environment to encourage your goals. An example of this is if your plan is to cut out junk food, then don’t buy it. Empty your cupboards and clear out the culprit so that your environment is clean and not tempting. Another example is that if your goal is to cut out alcohol, then don’t go out for after work drinks.
- Replace a bad habit with a good one. Charles Duhigg, the author of The Power of Habit, talks about this as the golden rule to help you succeed and even overcome addiction! He states that habits are made up of initial cues, routines, and rewards. If your goal is to quit smoking or drinking, you will be more successful if you replace that habit with a new healthy one, such as exercise. A more specific example is if your goal is to give up alcohol on weekdays, instead of going out for after work drinks, head to the Adelaide Club or Toronto Athletic Club and replace the habit of drinking alcohol with working out. This will allow you to maintain your routine of doing something social after work and will continue giving you the feeling of reward because you’ll feel good after your workout. Alternatively, if your goal is to cut out your 3:00pm cookie break, then replace it with a 3:00pm boiled egg break! You can continue the habit of going for an afternoon snack, but you’ll replace your unhealthy snack with a much better one!
- Expect to mess up. Preparing for when you break your resolution should be part of your plan to succeed. In fact, slipping on your goal might actually help you to achieve it in the end. According to Norcross, 71% of successful resolvers said their first slip helped them learn from the mistake and become even more committed. One of my clients, who recently gave up alcohol, explained that a recent slip made him realize how crappy alcohol made him feel and reinforced that he was making the right decision to give it up.
- Success breeds more success. Keeping your resolutions small and achievable will actually lead to greater achievements. If your goal is “to be healthier in 2019,” start with something simple like drinking more water – I will drink 10 cups of water daily. Engaging in a simple health behaviour and succeeding will give you confidence and lead to the motivation you need to take another step! If you make the effort to be healthy in one part of your life and are successful, it will lead to you setting additional goals.
- Schedule it in. If your goals involve doing something at a particular time, add it to your appointment book. Block off the times you plan on exercising in your calendar so that nothing can interfere. If you know that going to the gym might not happen if left up to your own devices, make yourself accountable by going with a friend or group of friends, or book yourself into a class or a session with a trainer – make yourself accountable.
- Get help. If you don’t know where to start, ask for help. A trainer can set up a program and get you started. According to Norcross, fear of failure is one of the biggest barriers to success. You can address this fear by asking a professional for help. Our trainers can help you address your exercise, nutrition, and all health-related goals this year.
*Prochaska, J. O., DiClemente, C. C., & Norcross, J. C. (1992). In search of how people change: Applications to the addictive behaviors. American Psychologist, 47, 1102-1114.
Lori Kirwan, PhD in Exercise Physiology
Group Exercise Instructor & Personal Trainer, Adelaide Club & Toronto Athletic Club