Written by Astrid Naranjo (Clean Health Accredited Clinical Dietitian)
As the year comes to a close, there’s one question that always comes up in conversation, “What’s your New Year’s resolution?”.
The more cliché ones (exercise, eat better, lose weight etc.) are frequently mentioned, and it’s becoming more and more popular to simply not have or “believe in” having a New Year’s resolution.
Questioning the point of having a New Year’s resolution is reasonable, and this is because it seems that most people who make the same resolutions year after year actually never follow through. In fact, statistically, it seems that as many as 50 percent of people make New Year’s resolutions, but fewer than 10 percent keep them for more than a few months.
The reasons are clear, giving up on New Year’s resolutions is often related to a few issues: trouble breaking old habits (it takes something radical for them to change their ways), setting too many goals or unrealistic to achieve and/or not setting up SMART goals. People may also become victims of “false hope syndrome”. This false hope syndrome is characterised by a person’s unrealistic expectations about the likely speed, amount, ease and consequences of changing their behaviour (1).
However, I think we shouldn’t look at New Year’s resolutions in a negative light. In the contrary, I think we need the right perspective and approach to see these resolutions become a reality. Knowing that a resolution is nothing more than a strong decision to do or not to do something, this can serve as a great motivator to reflect on the past year habits and choices and help set new goals for the year to come.
In psychology, there is something called fundamentals of goal setting behaviour, and what it takes to accomplish goals.
There’s a lot more to setting a fat loss goal than simply your client saying they want to lose fat. If they want to set a real goal, they have to get SMART, and by SMART. Each goal needs to be Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Relevant and Timely.
Lets explain a bit further what SMART goals should be…
The more specific, the better. If a client comes to you saying they’d like to lose some weight, they have to be more specific: How much weight? Does it matter if it’s all fat or a combination of fat and lean tissue? Is it important to the client where the weight comes off? Does it need to be off the hips and thighs, or can it come from anywhere? Why does the weight need to come off? If it’s to reach a certain size or shape, is weight loss really the goal? What if the goal is actually to reduce waist circumference?
Any meaningful goal is going to take some time to achieve. Your client won’t enter your office with a body composition goal and walk out of it having achieved it. It will take weeks, months or even years to get there, and the human brain simply isn’t tuned to manage over long timelines like that. Our brains want immediate satisfaction, so we need to ensure we’re programming in opportunities to get that satisfaction as we go on our way toward achieving our goals. Making our goals measurable means we can periodically check our progress against the endpoint. Hitting specific milestones along the way become mini-victories in and of themselves, and help motivate the client toward the end objective.
This one should be straight forward. There’s nothing smart about setting a goal that’s not attainable. This is a recipe for disappointment and disaster. This is another important reason why you need to understand specifically what your client wants to achieve in their time with you. Your client may say that they want to lose 5kg of fat, but in their mind, they may want to lose that fat from a very specific place, something that you as a coach understand is not a realistic goal. Likewise, if getting down to a 32” waist in 12 weeks means losing 30kg of body fat, you may want to revise the measurement or the timeline in order to make the target something that can actually be attained. As a coach you will need to pre-frame to the client the workload involved, perhaps it is a 24 week process that requires ample time to diet and reverse diet or several dieting cycles.
It must matter to the client. Making sure the goal is relevant is an easy way to get emotional buy-in on the steps it will take to achieve the goal. This comes back to the client values. If they truly value health, fitness & aesthetics they will be more likely to achieve it as it is relevant and important to them. If their number one value is socialising and partying then you/they may experience an uphill battle to shift the weight.
Failing to put time bounds on a goal is like not having a goal at all. After all, if there’s no particular time when the goal must be achieved, then we have plenty of time to undo any mistakes we make today. It’s a lot easier to say yes to that double cheeseburger when you feel like you have unlimited time to get back on track. Keeping things time bound also helps with other aspects of goal setting. For example, setting a twelve-week goal forces the coach and client to think about what’s really attainable in that period of time.
By using this SMART model, I’ve created some dos and don’ts you should consider teaching your clients for setting New Year’s Resolutions that actually last:
DO make resolutions that are specific. For instance, a goal to exercise “more” may be vague and unclear. Committing to exercising 3-4 times a week for 30-60min a day, may be more helpful and more specific goal, and therefore you may be more likely to accomplish it.
DON’T assume it will just happen without a plan of action. Setting a goal without a plan of how to get there simply isn’t effective. Break goals down into tasks. What are the steps for achieving a fat loss of 15lbs? how will you distribute your calories over the week? Are you implementing refeeds or diet breaks? Etc. Having a plan of action of how you’re actually going to accomplish your resolution is key.
DO be flexible. For example, your resolution is to go to the gym five days a week. But, once you get started, you realize that maybe three or four times a week is more practical for you. Don’t let that discourage you! Going three times a week is definitely better than not going at all. Acknowledging that goals can shift and change over time is an important part of the process to avoid getting discouraged and staying consistent.
DON’T set yourself up for failure. Making resolutions that aren’t realistic for your lifestyle, preferences, needs, etc. will more than likely end in disappointment. For example, Following a Ketogenic diet when you know you may not be able to adhere enough or consistently enough may set you up for failure as if you just opted for a more balanced carb:fat ratio so you are more adherent. Be honest with yourself. Realistic goals are more likely to be accomplished goals.
DO write it down. With years of experience and working with hundreds of clients, I can assure you that writing goals down and placing them somewhere that you see every day makes it more likely to happen. I love using my consistency calendar where I write all my goals and I can see them daily and mark them when I am being compliant or not.
DON’T make excuses. If you truly want something to happen, you’ll make it happen. Get out of your own way. You are the only person that has the power to make your resolution come true.
Lastly, I think answering this five specific questions can give you a push in the right direction when it comes to sticking to New Year’s resolutions.
The questions are:
Why do you want to make the change?
Is your goal concrete and measurable?
What is your plan?
Who can support you as you work toward change?
How will you celebrate your victories?
So remember, January 1st is just a day in the calendar. You can reset your calendar every day for a fresh start. Go back to the beginning and revisit that first question to remind yourself of the rewards of making the change. Also, you keep in mind the SMART goal setting, this can increase your chances of achieving your New Year’s resolutions by setting realistic and achievable goals that will help you form new habits, as well as following all the needed steps for succeeding in your goals.
So, what are your New Year’s Resolutions?
- Polivy, J., & Herman, C. P. (2002). If at first you don’t succeed: False hopes of self-change. American Psychologist, 57(9), 677–689. https://doi.org/10.1037/0003-066X.57.9.677
- Day T, Tosey P (2011) Beyond SMART? A new framework for goal-setting. The Curriculum Journal 22(4): 515-34. https://doi.org/dx.doi.org/10.1080/09585176.2011.627213
- Chan M, Swann C and Donnelly JF (2019). Are S.M.A.R.T goals really smart? The psychological effects of goal-setting in a learning task. Front. Psychol. Conference Abstract: 15th Annual Psychology Honours Research Conference . doi: 10.3389/conf.fpsyg.2018.74.00020