You already know that New Year’s resolutions do not typically last, but you have not yet heard our opinions as to why and what you can do about it.
A few weeks is not yet enough time for most New Year’s resolutions to have fallen apart, but if past statistics are any indication, by the end of the year only 8% of us will have been successful in achieving our resolutions. The poor rate of conversion from resolution to reality is partly due to the goals themselves, as Joanne will discuss below, but being honest with ourselves about how ready we are for change is of utmost importance, too.
According to the Transtheoretical Model describing behavior change, individuals can fall into any one of five stages. The preceding link gives detailed explanations of each stage, which I will concisely summarize below.
- Precontemplation: The person does not see a problem and therefore has no intention of changing.
- Contemplation: The person recognizes that a problem may exist but feels ambivalent about what to do.
- Preparation: The person has decided to make changes and is formulating a plan.
- Action: The person is implementing changes but has not yet maintained them for six months.
- Maintenance: The person has maintained the given changes for six months or longer. (Note: Some versions of the Transtheoretical Model also throw in an additional stage, Termination, but often this stage is considered part of the Maintenance stage.)
Classically, the idea is that a person moves from one stage to the next in the sequence in which I listed them, but in reality someone can jump from any one stage to another at any point in time. The Model is not perfect, but it expresses an invaluable truth: Not everybody is ready to change.
This truth, by the way, is perfectly fine. Change is a process, as the Model indicates. When Joanne describes our counseling approach to people unfamiliar with how we work, she often tells them, “We meet our patients where they are.” She does not mean that literally as if we make home visits; rather, she is referring to their stage of change. Recognition of said stage is critical to successful counseling.
What do you think would happen if I counseled a patient on the changes he can make to his eating (thereby treating him as if he is in the Preparation stage) while he does not even see a problem with his diet and came to my office only because his doctor insisted he see a dietitian (which suggests he is in the Precontemplation stage)? He would not feel heard, the session would be unproductive, in all likelihood he would not return for another session, and whatever health condition he is dealing with would remain a problem.
Conversely, if I listen to him without judgment as he shares his emotions and opinions, acknowledge the validity of his feelings and point of view, and discuss his doctor’s concerns with him, he may transition to the Contemplation stage and move closer to ultimately making and sustaining behavior changes that will improve his health.
Alternatively, perhaps after learning more about his condition and the potential consequences, he decides that he will maintain his current lifestyle anyway, at least for now. It is his life, he can do what he wants with it, and I respect his choice without judgment. At least he will have had an opportunity to weigh his options and make an informed decision.
Similarly, we each have to meet ourselves where we are at, too. In other words, when we make New Year’s resolutions, we have to be honest with ourselves about how ready we are to make the given change happen. The calendar’s flip from December to January does not automatically transition us to the Action stage. In all likelihood, if we were truly in the Action stage, we would have implemented the change before New Year’s rather than wait for the holiday. Willpower can only force change for so long. Whatever was holding us back before New Year’s will remain and ultimately catch up to us after the holiday and bring an end to the resolution.
Instead of setting yourself up for failure by setting a goal that is unfit for your readiness to change, use the New Year as an opportunity to be honest with yourself about your health and how you feel about it. In other words, meet yourself where you are instead of forcing yourself to take an action before you are truly ready for it. Reach out for whatever information or support you need. Consider the following examples:
- A husband in the Precontemplation stage might give in to his wife’s urging to finally make an appointment with a dermatologist to have his strange-looking mole examined if for no other reason than to appease her.
- Perhaps a diabetic in the Contemplation stage might decide to schedule an appointment with his doctor to discuss his ambivalence regarding monitoring his blood sugar at home.
- An individual in the Preparation stage might meet with me to plan specific and achievable changes to his eating that will improve his cholesterol, then go home and discuss the upcoming changes with his family.
- An osteoporosis patient in the Action stage might continue to use the package of personal training sessions she bought so she can continue learning how to lift weights safely and preserve her bone structure.
Most important, remember that New Year’s is just an arbitrary point, and one need not wait for a new calendar year to start the process of making change. Said differently, we do not need an exterior cue to trigger internal change. When we are truly ready, we will make the change happen no matter what date it is. One of my favorite quotes is from Andre Agassi’s Hall of Fame induction: “ . . . every journey is epic, every journey is important, every journey begins today.”
Mid-January through the beginning of February is a tricky time for many of my patients. Their motivation for keeping all of their nutrition resolutions is starting to dwindle, and many people feel like they have failed in one way or another. What I often find is that many of my patients had set the bar too high in terms of nutrition goals. They expect too much from themselves and have no other option than to not meet their goals. Most of these goals are so overly ambitious that it would be very difficult for almost anyone to follow through with them.
So what’s a person to do?
When my patients ask me for help setting nutrition goals, I tell them to think S.M.A.R.T., as in goals that are Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Relevant, and Time-bound. No, I didn’t invent this clever mnemonic; it has been attributed to George T. Doran who wrote a paper called There’s a S.MA.R.T. way to write management’s goals and objectives in the November 1981 issue of Management Review. But I really like the simplicity of this handy acronym.
Specific goals are those that are clear-cut and unambiguous. Examples of specific goals could be “I will make a kale smoothie for breakfast…,” or “I will prepare a new salmon recipe…” Measurable means that the goal must be quantifiable in some way so that you can clearly assess your progress. This can be accomplished by adding to the above goals; for example, “I will make a kale smoothie for breakfast 2 times….” and “I will prepare a new salmon recipe one night….”
Attainable goals are those that are ones that realistic for you. If, for instance, you know that making a kale smoothie for breakfast 5 mornings per week isn’t likely to happen (e.g., you often sleep late and don’t have time, you have difficulty going to the grocery store to get the ingredients, etc.), then shoot for something you absolutely know you can do. In other words, it’s much better to start with smaller goals and then build on them than to start with goals that are too ambitious for you.
Relevant goals are ones that are worthwhile and applicable to you. If upping your omega-3 intake isn’t that important to you, then don’t set a goal to eat more salmon. By the same token, if you are already succeeding at one area of your nutrition (say, getting your leafy greens), then maybe it’s time to focus on something else, like increasing your nut intake.
Finally, it’s important that your goals are time-bound, that there is a particular time frame for achieving them. You could add on to the examples given above: “I will make a kale smoothie for breakfast 2 times this week,” and “I will prepare a new salmon dish one night per week for two months.” By giving yourself a deadline, you will be more likely to achieve your goal on or before that deadline.
If the above seems a bit much, the one piece of advice I give all of my patients is to keep it simple. When goals are overly complicated and ambitious, it can be overwhelming. And be kind to yourself – you are human, after all!