By Sarah Faigle, MPH, RD, LDN
At this time of year—every year—commercials, friends, and social media are abuzz with talk of New Year’s resolutions. And these resolutions often focus on diet, exercise, and weight loss. As many of us have experienced, most New Year’s resolutions fail—and often within the first two weeks of January.
Despite the resolution failure rate, the diet and exercise industries bombard us with deals, success stories, and challenges that are aimed at signing us up for a product, and, of course, making them money! Often these advertisements are accompanied by before and after pictures and messages that shame us for “holiday eating.” This year these campaigns have a new quarantine spin but ultimately are the same message: “You need to lose weight and exercise more.” These messages can be very triggering for those with eating disorders and can also be shame-inducing for the general public.
What are some of the reasons New Year’s resolutions fail? Behavior change is difficult, and the demands on us and on our time don’t change between December 31 and January 1. Although personal reflection and assessment of our goals and values can be a helpful exercise, there is no reason to think that just because the date changed, your routine should be drastically different. Moreover, many common New Year’s resolutions involve grand changes that are not sustainable and are recipes for failure.
In addition to the usual barriers to change, the ongoing global pandemic, political upheaval, and increased unemployment have made it increasingly difficult for most people to maintain their health and well-being, let alone make drastic changes to improve it.
The reality is it’s a new year and the same you, and there is nothing wrong with that. So, how do we avoid the resolution trap and still make the new year meaningful?
Consider taking a pause on social media.
If the barrage of diet and exercise posts and political and COVID updates are getting to you, consider stepping back from social media for a bit. This may mean deleting apps for a few weeks, deactivating accounts, or simply choosing to check accounts less (if you are able to resist). Reflecting on the effect social media is having on your thoughts, feelings, and behaviors can be a powerful place to start the new year.
Take a time out.
Make time to quietly reflect on your behavior. Is your behavior consistent with your goals and values? Are you doing things that make you proud and are consistent with who you want to be? This type of inventory may be health-related, relationship-related, education- or career–related, or all of the above. Identifying current behavioral patterns and why they are important to you can be the first step to making meaningful changes. The goal isn’t perfection, but taking reasonable steps to develop or enhance qualities that are consistent with our values.
Make a plan.
If you identify a part of your life that you would like to change, start small and be specific. Refining your focus and making specific, measurable, achievable, relevant to values, time-bound (S.M.A.R.T) goals is a great place to start. For example, if you value your health and believe your current routine can be improved, think of specific health behaviors to add or change instead of focusing on weight loss. Try to refine your answer. If your health-related goal is “I want to eat more healthfully,” dig deeper to understand what that means for you. It could mean increasing the number of times you cook dinner at home (the “specific” of S.M.A.R.T goals)—maybe from 3 times per week to 5 (“measurable” and “achievable”). Give yourself a trial period of a few weeks (“time-bound”) and reassess at the end of that trial. You might continue with your initial goal or you may refine the goal if it was not achievable. Do you need to eat more overall? Do you need to eat on a regular schedule? Do you want to eat more vegetables? Try to choose one specific behavior to focus on.
Another example of a goal consistent with your value of health might be reducing your stress level. Does this mean adding stress relief activities, like starting a meditation practice? If so, when will you add it? For how long? 5 minutes? 10 minutes? How many days a week? What time of day? Do you want to use a meditation app or script to help you get started? Or you may want to reduce or even eliminate stress-inducing activities or interactions. Can you postpone or delegate work tasks to help reduce stress? Can you enlist help from family or neighbors with yardwork so you can shift your time and energy to other tasks?
Ditch the resolution!
In the past, many New Year’s traditions focused on making amends for past mistakes and improving one’s character, not one’s body. Perhaps 2021 is the year for us take a page from history and focus our goals on healing, forgiveness, love for self and others—not dieting or weight loss!