Kicking Off the New Year with New Habits that Stick!

By Dr. Madalyn Otto

Have you set New Year’s Resolutions for 2020? Are you thinking that this is the year to lose weight, have more energy, save more money, have a better outlook, get a better job? Millions of us set resolutions to start January first, and only a fraction of us sustain them for more than a few months. Heck, most of us lose steam after just a few weeks! Why is this?!

Setting goals to help you be your best self is an essential part of being a healthy and successful adult. So why is it that we are collectively so inadequate at meeting them? My intention for every person reading this article is to walk away with the key elements needed to reach any health or life goal. We all can achieve any goal we set our minds to if we know what it is that we’re working towards and have outlined a plan to get there.

First, you need to know exactly what the goal is. What is the end result you have in mind? Sometimes, we accidentally make resolutions that are actually just new habits and are not end-goals in and of themselves. A new habit is confused for an end-goal. For example: you could theoretically decide that your end-goal is to have a lifestyle that includes 5 hours of physical fitness every week. But most of time and for most people, weekly physical fitness is actually an action step to get them to their end-goal. The actual end-goal might be having optimal energy, reversing heart disease, achieving optimal weight, etc. Do you see the difference? Here’s another example: “My resolution is to eat healthier and cut sugar out of my diet.” This statement is very different from “My resolution is to cure myself of my headaches and joint pain, and cutting sugar out of my diet is an important action step to achieve that goal”. Put another way, we need to know what our true goals are and delineate the goal from the action steps required to achieve the goal. This is important because if your new year’s resolution is only a bare-naked action step without any context to it, it’s much less likely you will stick with it. The absence of context and personal emotion makes it nearly impossible to maintain necessary motivation that results in persistent action. Let’s take yet another example: “My goal is to save 25% on groceries this year.” That could be your goal if you are a highly self-competitive person. But usually, a goal that sticks because it’s meaningful and has clear context would sound more like this: “My goal is to invest $2,000 more into my retirement this year. To do this, I will cut my grocery budget by 25%.” The goal is a bigger, targeted objective. The new habit you are forming (in this case, spending less on groceries) is the action step to allow you to achieve the objective of saving for healthy and prosperous retirement.

Okay, now stop. Reflect. Can you better define your own goal? Is it clearly distinct from the action step(s) needed to achieve it?

The second step is to make sure that the goal is objectively measurable. All too often, our goals are so ambiguous, it’s no wonder we beat ourselves up about not meeting it. We don’t even know what we met or didn’t meet! An easy example is the classic weight loss goal. “I want to lose weight” is not helpful. “I want to lose 20lbs by April of 2020” is clear and measurable. If your goal is to cure headaches and joint pain, you can measure that by having a pre-headache/pain journal and tracking your symptoms throughout the process. If your goal is to save $2,000 extra for retirement, you can monitor that manually or with a budgeting app.

While there are a few other fundamental features of goal-setting beyond this, I’m going to skip ahead to what I consider an often-forgotten component: identifying motivations. The only way to achieve a goal is to take action steps towards it. In order to take enough action steps to get you to the goal, you almost always need to create and maintain new habits. A habit is simply an action step made habitual or routine. To achieve your fitness or weight loss goal, you need to start walking to work not just today and tomorrow, but every day. That’s a habit. Turning an action into a habit is super hard for everyone! That’s just the nature of habits. So, you need to be motivated. Motivation gives you that invisible, magical, inner drive that propels you towards something even when it’s difficult. Why did you set this goal for yourself? What are the things driving you to desire that end-goal? “I want to lose weight because….”. “I want to save money for retirement because…”. If you don’t have solid motivations, you will quickly come up with reasons not to persist with making your action steps habitual. And, even worse, you will have a very easy time justifying your neglect of those action steps. Motivations are important throughout the entire process of goal attainment. Once you have a habit in place, you need to protect it. Can you recall a time where you were doing super well with a habit – exercising every day, eating clean, saving faithfully, and then “all of the sudden” you stopped? You went on vacation, you moved, you changed jobs, and that threw everything off. Once you break a healthy habit, there tends to be a whole lot of inertia to get that ball rolling again. If we protect our habits even after we seem to have them down pat, we are more likely to maintain the habit.

And that brings me to my final point: What happens when things go wrong? I had a patient a few years ago who was doing phenomenally well with her health goals that we outlined together. She was motivated, she was persistent with her action steps, she was cruising towards her health goals. Then, out-of-the-blue, her marriage in which she felt blissfully secure fell apart. As you can probably imagine, this is a situation that will knock all the wind out of even the very strongest person. This is one of the life situations I tend to call a grade-5 hurricane. Our good habits fall apart, our bodies start to malfunction and, worst of all, our spirits break. Life hurricanes of all categories inevitably set us back. And there is no magic pill to fast forward through the hurricane or to fix the damage right away. But what we can do is be kind to ourselves during these times. When the hurricane knocks you on your bum, you can and will have the opportunity to get back up. It might not be tomorrow, but you can stand back up and step forward rather than accept defeat and therefore slide back down the hill from where you had climbed. This is not a time to berate and criticize yourself. It’s a time to seek out support of every kind needed to help you get back on your feet and regain your inner strength.

Our tendency to want to constantly achieve things in our lives is a wonderful part of our human nature and results in impressive feats and new discoveries. By being more strategic and focused about how we set ourselves up to achieve our goals, we can improve our success rate. Acknowledge the role that habit formation has on achieving goals, and don’t take your good habits for granted! They require tending and maintenance long after they are established. And finally, be kind and patient with yourself when life knocks you off your feet. When you fall and hit rock bottom, the only direction to go is up!

For anyone interested in totally life-hacking their own goals and learning how to take charge of healthy habits, I recommend reading the book “Better Than Before: Mastering the Habits of our Everyday Lives” By Gretchen Rubin.

Happy New Year!

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