January 3, 2021

Willpower-free tricks to keep any new year's resolution

What’s your strategy for maintaining your new year’s resolution? Have you set yourself up for long-term success? Whether your goal relates to health, fitness, career, travel or any other life area, there are certain psychology tricks you can use to make desired changes without relying on willpower.  

What type of new year’s resolutionist are you? Do you make the same ones every year (hoping that this year you will miraculously find the motivation to keep up healthy habits)? Maybe you’ve stopped making them after too many failures? If you feel as though new year’s resolutions are a losing battle, take heart. It’s not you. It’s them.

Simply, popular culture’s concept of new year’s resolutions is fundamentally flawed. Radical lifestyle overhauls ignore how the human mind and body work. First, there is no such thing as a ‘quick fix’ (progress is evolution, not revolution). Second, successful, lasting change requires real motivation. Superficial prompts such as feeling obligated to quit junk food won’t last when you’re craving a burger. Third, many popular practices often relied upon for resolutions are doomed to fail (for instance, research shows that dieting actually causes weight gain in the medium-to-long term).

So should you abandon your goal to get fit or lose body fat or join a netball team? No! Soaring Health provisional psychologist Rebecca has compiled these expert tips to stick your goals long term.


Clever goals 

When it comes to setting goals at any time of year, SMART goals (goals that are specific, measurable, achievable, relevant and time-bound) are more likely to succeed than vague ones. It is also helpful to break large, overarching goals into smaller sub-goals. If you’ve made a resolution or are considering setting goals for the year ahead, check your ambition against these goal-setting guidelines. You’ll be glad you did when you’re running 5km or sliding into your old jeans or bounding out of bed in the morning.

S-Make goals specific. Think going to the gym twice a week or reducing alcohol consumption to two glasses, one day per week or taking a home-made lunch to work four days a week.

M-Make goals that are measurable (as above). Frequency and markers such as distance, duration or speed are solid, quantifiable targets.

A-Ensure that goals are achievable and realistic. As you set them, consider your schedule. Record the actions you commit to taking (e.g. attending gym straight after work on Tuesdays and Thursdays) in your diary and tick them off.

R-Check that goals are relevant to your true desires, ambitions and values. If you’re not fussed about your weight, skip weight loss goals. Maybe what you really want is to have enough energy and/or fitness to go on a skiing holiday or to get through each day without fatigue. Review your goals periodically to check that they are still relevant and adjust if things have changed.

T-Make goals time-bound. A timeframe, or mini timeframes or deadlines for progress, helps to create and maintain motivation and effort and keeps you accountable (again, write down your planned actions and tick them off). Will you exercise for 45 to 60 minutes twice a week for three months? Make sure timeframes are realistic.

Think small

As well as setting SMART goals, it pays to keep goals small. One reason that many of us tend to ‘fall off the wagon’ or ‘give up’ on our desired habit changes is that the goals we set are too big and overwhelming. It is important to break overarching goals (superordinate goals) into smaller, manageable ones (subordinate goals). That is, once you identify a main goal (lose 5kg by April 1), chunk it into mini goals (e.g. lose 0.5kg a week for 10 weeks). This makes it possible to assign steps and actions such as creating a caloric deficit of 18,000kJ a week through a combination of diet and exercise. From there, you (and possibly an accredited practising dietitian and/or fitness trainer) can identify and follow healthy, sustainable action steps based on your lifestyle and science - not wishful thinking or guesswork.


Swap willpower

Quite often making a resolution and taking the first step is manageable. After all, you’re fired up and fuelled by the prospect of losing weight/running 5km/relieving symptoms. But as weeks go by and life happens, maintaining that resolution becomes harder. (It is estimated that up to 80 per cent of people who make new year’s resolutions abandon them by February.) A common explanation for ‘falling off the wagon’ is lack of willpower. However, it is a mistake to rely on willpower alone to sustain habit changes. Why? Because it is exhaustible. When the going gets tough (you get busy or tired or miss your favourite chocolate biscuits), waning willpower is unlikely to win out over going straight home or sleeping through gym hour or grabbing a sneaky pack of Tim Tams. Research shows that factors such as fatigue and energy deficit can erode willpower and decision-making. There are many well-researched theories and principles to reduce reliance on willpower and reduce the ongoing effort required to practise new habits (which in turn means less chance of burnout or giving up). Try these tips to achieve your goals with less effort.

  1. Take a cue. ‘Nudge theory’, or nudging yourself towards healthier behaviours, can help to reduce the conscious effort required to keep working towards your goals. A key tactic is creating ‘cues’ in your environment. For goals such as reducing emotional eating or boredom eating, this may be sticking reminder notes on the fridge (e.g. ‘Ask whether you’re really hungry’). It could include placing healthier foods at the front of the pantry and putting temptations out of sight (or throwing them out). For fitness, cues may include placing your sneakers and gym bag by the front door. Tailor cues to your goals.
  2. Be accountable. Being accountable to yourself and to family and/or friends and even social media contacts can help you to stay the course. Once you’ve set your goal, tell friends and/or family members and ask them to help ‘cheerlead’ and support you. Once you’re underway, share your progress with this support team or with an online interest group (e.g. Melbourne runners). If your goal relates to weight loss or eating habit changes, record a daily food diary on an app, online or in a regular notebook. Seeing ticks, notes or items in your calendar that show you have achieved something sends positive signals to your brain, making you feel good about yourself, which fuels motivation to keep going.
  3. Make it personal. Your personality and preferences are crucial considerations. If you prefer working out with another person or in a group to running on the treadmill with headphones, your chances of maintaining exercise are probably higher if you choose a team or group activity, from bootcamp training to a group gym class or a sport such as volleyball. Alternatively, consider recruiting a friend or fellow member of a local running or walking group as a ‘buddy’. You may even have a family member or partner who enjoys the same activities as you, from tennis to cycling to running. Even if you don’t share the same goals, having others accompany you in the actions you take towards your goals can make those actions more sustainable by changing them from ‘chores’ to enjoyable, social events. It also builds in a sort of ‘give-up-proof’ clause as neither of you will want to let the other down.
  4. Expect imperfection. Placing too much weight on the outcome can create paralysis (for fear of failure) or undermine motivation, which compromises results. It can be equally damaging to expect your progress to follow a steady, straight, forward path. In reality, most of us are likely to move back and forth between the stages of motivation and experience different rates of progress at different stages (two steps forward, one step back). Being aware of this in advance can help to prevent ‘giving up’ when progress isn’t as rapid as you’d hoped or you miss a few workouts. If you do slip up by eating half a pizza or skipping training, know that a single instance is unlikely to have any significant effect. Rather than turning it into a week of bingeing or inactivity on the premise that ‘I’ve blown it’, forgive yourself and promptly  return to your healthy new behaviours. If you repeatedly find yourself struggling despite putting in place appropriate supports, consider reappraising your resolution. Maybe it really isn’t the right time. Or it doesn’t fit with your lifestyle or values. And that’s okay too.

If you are looking for ways to sustain new health and fitness habits and behaviours or need extra support, consider consulting a psychologist for assistance with goals and motivation. An expert such as a physiotherapist (for fitness) or dietitian (for food and nutrition) may also provide the support you need to set and achieve realistic, personally-meaningful targets.

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We honour the strength and resilience of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples and pay our respects to all Elders, past and present.
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