I’ve made New Years’ resolutions for as long as I can remember.
I remember jotting down my resolutions as a nine-year-old kid in my pink flower notebook:
- Get better grades
- Be nicer to my sister
- Play with my favorite toys more
- Keep my room clean
(That last one never happened.)
It might seem strange that a nine-year-old had resolutions, but it was part of our family holiday tradition. Every year, my mom would ask us what our resolutions were, and eventually the idea caught on and I started writing mine down.
As I grew up, my resolutions evolved, and my high school years found me writing things like:
- Stop eating sugar
- Lose weight
- Don’t drink soda
- Exercise every day
Yes, in high school my resolutions revolved around my weight and size.
Every December, I would look back at my resolutions from that year and wonder what had happened. Why couldn’t I lose the weight?
It took years of struggle and frustration before I realized what I was doing wrong with my fitness resolutions. (Ignore the fact that my teenage self really did not need to focus on weight). The few changes that I made have made all the difference in creating results that last. Now my resolutions are really more about continuing the good habits I’ve established in the past than “starting over” or changing directions. If it’s any indication of success, I am happy with the path I have been on for the past few years.
As a nutrition and fitness coach, I’ve helped hundreds of women create a healthier relationship with food and a fit life. The success that my clients enjoy does not come from a secret formula or a perfect diet, but rather a mindset surrounding goals that helps foster a permanent change. And that mindset can be applied to resolutions for similar success.
Here’s what I wish everyone knew before starting new years’ resolutions:
1. The number on the scale is not a useful goal.
The majority of fitness goals revolve around weight. Whether it’s a loss of 20, 40, or 100 pounds, the scale tends to be a major focal point of these resolutions.
While I can completely understand the desire to lose weight, I will not be the first – or last – to tell you that goals that revolve around the scale rarely stick. That’s because the scale is a really poor indicator of success.
Our scale weight varies from day to day for a variety of reasons:
Eat a little extra salt? Your weight just went up.
Need to poop? Your weight just went up.
Is it that time of the month? Your weight just went up.
And all of these things, which are not entirely under your control, can make you feel like a failure when you step on that scale.
If you want to feel awful about yourself and frustrated by your goals, choose an arbitrary number that you only have a small amount of control over and let that be your definition of success.
If you want to create lasting success in your fitness and nutrition goals, it’s essential that your resolution be something that is entirely under your control. Otherwise, you’re allowing success to be determined by something other than yourself.
2. Action goals before aesthetic goals.
Just like with the scale, most resolutions focus on the results we hope to achieve in the coming year:
- Get visible abs
- Fit into size 4 jeans
- Feel confident with how you look in pictures
While there is nothing wrong with having aesthetic goals, the truth is they really are secondary to our action goals. In fact, they can’t work without them.
That’s because the actions we take will not only let us achieve results, but will also help us maintain them.
Imagine two scenarios with me:
Woman A: She has written down that she wants to fit into her old jeans from two years ago, but she doesn’t have any specific action goals for achieving it. The desire to fit into these jeans becomes her definition of success.
That means that she will do absolutely anything in her power to get down to that jean size as fast as possible. She spends money on weight loss shakes, tries diet after diet, and keeps yo-yoing up and down in her results. Why? Because all that matters to her is the end result, she hasn’t taken the time to think through the how and why of her goal.
Woman B: She also wants to fit into a smaller pant size. She’s taken the time to reflect on what kind of a person she will become in order to maintain the results she desires. She realizes that she will need to make some major changes in her thoughts and actions in order to achieve her goals.
Here’s what she plans to do:
- She will learn how to fuel her body well
- She will become a person who plans and prepares meals ahead of time
- She will find a way of exercising that she loves and enjoys
- She will learn to cope with emotion without using food as a crutch
- She will create a healthy relationship with food and her body
Because she’s taken the time to decide what kind of person she will be – not just how she will look – you can be sure that the results will follow her actions, and she will make changes that last. No yo-yoing or “starting over” on diets.
When you make actions your goal, the aesthetics will follow. But with aesthetics as your target, you will find yourself frustrated, repeatedly starting over, and unlikely to create permanent success.
3. Your actions must align with your values.
Now that we understand the importance of actions, we need to determine which ones to take. The truth is that there are many roads to sustainable weight loss results, and you need to find your path. No need to follow some fitness guru’s “proven formula” that has worked for exactly one person: themselves. You’re here to do what works for you.
While it’s obvious we want our actions to be aligned with our goals, a less obvious and equally important point is that these actions must also align with our values.
For example: You value time with your family, and family dinner is a crucial part of your day. Sharing a meal together is something you value. Does it make sense for you to plan to eat a pre-packaged meal replacement while your family eats a separate dinner?
Another example: You enjoy being with friends on the weekend and going out for dinner. Does it align with your values to follow a meal plan that requires strict rules and makes eating out impossible?
Without alignment between your actions and your values, you will find yourself struggling to create habits that stick because there will always be conflict between what you think you should be doing and what you truly find important in life.
4. Less is more – always.
Goals can be exciting. They are often fun to plan and think about and map out… and it can become really easy to plan a thousand different actions to take at once.
I’ve done it, and I’m sure you have too: You make a list of all of the things you’re going to do right now to change your life, and the list gets longer and longer and longer. At some point you look at your beautiful, shiny, exciting list and think: “I can’t possibly do all of that.”
It is completely normal to feel overwhelmed when we try to change too much at once. We can’t expect to simultaneously modify five hundred tiny things about our actions and our behaviors and not feel overwhelmed as a result.
In fact, chances are we can’t change more than one thing at a time in our behavior. By giving your entire focus to one change at a time, you will be much more likely to successfully master the behavior and create changes that actually stick long term.
5. Momentum is key.
Perfection is the killer of progress. If you’ve ever had a fitness goal in the past, you can attest to this. You’re going along making healthy choices and then all of the sudden, BAM! A rough day at work leaves you eating pizza and cookies for lunch, or an unexpected trip leaves you with no good opportunity for working out.
What’s the next step?
For many people it would be to “start over” at the next logical point (typically a Monday).
What this leads to is a lot of starting over and “on the plan/off the plan,” and that kind of flip-flopping prevents the consistency needed to form lasting habits.
When we create our goals with momentum in mind, instead of perfection, we can keep ourselves going after an unexpected overeating episode.
Using momentum as the goal post allows us to create a way of eating that moves us forward even in our toughest times.
It’s not about doing it perfectly. It’s about quickly forgiving ourselves on those one-off days, and continuing to take the smallest step towards your ultimate goal.