There was a time when I used to scoff at those who set New Year’s Resolutions. When I was younger and much less understanding, I believed that the type of person who waited a year to take action on his or her life was doomed to remain unchanged. Today, while I still believe that Dec 31st is an exponentially more compelling date to commit to making a life change than on the following day, I think that anything that can spark your transformation is a good thing. I’m on team human, not team ego.
For the last five years, I have written an annual post with the best advice I can deliver to help a person set and achieve resolutions that matter. Here is the 2020 version of that post.
Be clear about what you mean, and don’t follow consensus definitions of health, professional, and personal success.
You want to get healthier. Great. But what does that mean? Does it mean you need to lose 30 pounds or fit into a specific sized dress? I’m all for cosmetic goals, but be wary of setting a resolution that deep down you are hoping will protect you from the judgment of other people, and yourself. That is a zero-sum game that you will never win. I suggest setting meaningful goals with specific actions attached.
For example, I want to have the energy necessary to get to the gym at least five days per week and still have enough left over to play with my kids every night. To do this, I’ll need to start going to bed by 10 PM each night, so I can get up at 5:30 AM and get to the gym. If I wait until the end of the day, I’ll never go. I also need to have my breakfast prepared the night before; otherwise, I’ll end up rushing out the door, eating in the drive-thru, and demotivating myself.
Actions: Be in bed by 10, up by 5:30, breakfast prepared, cut out the drive-thru breakfast. That is what clear, actionable goals look like. Setting a goal without the necessary commitments that go into achieving that goal is an arbitrary waste of time.
Be honest about how and why you’ve failed in the past
Have you noticed that you set similar goals for yourself each year, and you rarely reach them- yet the following year, you set the same goal expecting a different result? You’ve probably never really thought about it because human beings are avoidant when it comes to assessing our painful shortcomings. Without understanding those shortcomings, however, we can never change our path and succeed.
Perhaps you tell yourself you’re going to go to the gym after work on most days of the week. But when the end of the day comes, you’re so drained that you end up going home instead. A few weeks of that failed commitment, and you’re going to quit on yourself. You’ll likely tell yourself that fitness isn’t for you because you assume that a more committed, healthy person would be able to get to the gym at the end of the day. This is a false assessment of your problem. Some people aren’t end-of-day exercisers. Ignoring the writing on the wall and trying to stick to a habit that isn’t going to work for you is a recipe for disaster. In this scenario you should have found a way to get to the gym first thing in the morning, on your lunch break, or spent a few hundred bucks on some exercise equipment for your basement. If you dropped the judgment and honestly assessed the issue (in this case, I cannot motivate myself to exercise after work), you could’ve made the proper adjustment and made a path that worked for you. Taking a hard look in the mirror and saying to yourself ‘this is where I fall short, and these are the things I will never be able to commit to, but these are the things that I CAN commit to’ is an essential practice. Focusing on what you can do and what is ‘easy,’ especially at the beginning of your journey will take you much further than trying to ram a square peg into a round hole. Assess your weaknesses and past failures and adjust your approach so you can get some wins under your belt.
Don’t attach urgency or strict timelines to your goals
Setting expectations is making a future promise to suffer. I don’t recall who I first heard this from, but in my experience, it is true. I would say the biggest mistake most of us make when goal-setting is attaching urgency and a timeline to what we want to achieve. I would go as far as suggesting that specificity can be unhelpful. When it comes to your body, I am convinced that the whole S.M.A.R.T. goal setting model should go in the trash. When you say that your goal is to lose 30 lbs by June 1st, you are setting yourself up for disappointment if your body does not respond to your arbitrary timeline- which for most of you- it won’t.
In most cases, soon as you get the slightest whiff that you are off track, you will quit. ‘I’m three months into this life change, and I am only down 11 lbs, I’ll never lose another 20 by June!’ If you set a goal to lose 30 lbs in 6-months, and after six months you only lost 1/2 that much weight, is that a failure? Of course, it isn’t, but that’s precisely how you’ll see it. On top of that, weight loss is not a linear process. Your weight is going to go up and down along the way, and if you get rattled every time the scale comes back up one or two pounds, you’ll never survive. What you need is a trajectory. Better is better. If your goal is to lose weight, set a goal to lose weight. Every month look at a four-week average of weekly weigh-ins, and if it is less than your starting weight (or the previous month’s average), you are succeeding. If it isn’t, you need to adjust.
On top of that, you need to become motivated by the act of taking care of yourself. If your only motivation to eat well, exercise, and drink less alcohol is to look good in the mirror, you are playing a losing game. If you can’t find value in moving and eating well for its own sake (being autotelic) you will never retain any of the progress you achieve. Set trajectories and lose the timeline. A forgivable means of goal setting is going to take you further than rigid ideologies.
Let go of useless relationships (and recognize when you are the problem)
If you have a drinking problem that you are trying to get under control, you stop going to the bar. You also stop hanging around people who are continually striving to pull you back into the world of drinking for their selfish reasons. The same goes for personal health and habit-breaking of other kinds. You may have to spend less time going out to eat and drink with your friends if their M.O. is getting shitfaced and eating street food at 2 AM. Try seeing these friends at earlier times in the day when this sort of behavior is less likely to happen. Explain your need to change your health and what you need from them to assist you in your success. Failing those interventions, make new friends. Just know the difference between people around you who can’t help but drag you back into their world of gluttony and excess and your desire to be around people who enable you to remain in that space. Quite often, we blame others for our lack of commitment when deep down, we seek out those who tell us that it is O.K. to be overweight, unhealthy, and hungover every weekend. There is still a time and place for indulgence, celebration, and cocktails- but it should not be the underlying theme of your social life if you are trying to live well.
Pivot on the approach, but not the goal
Sometimes you make a real effort, and the result doesn’t come. If you’ve been at it for at least three months, and little has changed, you may need to change your approach, but NOT your goal. This is a pivot strategy that I pulled from the business world that most people misunderstand. The nature of pivoting is to keep your plant foot in one place while changing the angle- it is not a complete uprooting of what you are trying to achieve. You hear these fantastic brand success stories like Instagram, who succeeded in a completely different space than what the company initially intended. What you don’t hear about is the 99% of other companies who attempt this strategy and fail. The same should go for you and your health. If your goal is to lose weight, and you don’t lose weight, a pivot is not now deciding that you are going to take up bodybuilding. A pivot is a change in strategy that gives you a new angle to approach your goal. Let’s say your goal is to lose weight, so you decide to join a pilates gym. After three months, you’ve gotten a bit stronger, and your energy levels are up, but you are no closer to the goal you set. Perhaps your body will respond better to a different style of exercise. Maybe you need to run or lift weights. Please don’t throw away the goal, and don’t throw away the basic structure of needs (in this case, exercise), change the most superficial action first, and see where it takes you. That is a real pivot.
In all the posts I have written about transforming yourself in the New Year, there is one thing that has always stayed consistent: if you want to change your life, you need to change the way you think. You need to quit looking for strategies and techniques and get introspective and do the hard work. If you don’t, you’ll be in the same body (or worse) at this time next year, looking for the same magic bullet. Health and fitness begin in the mind, and if your mind does not change, your body will remain stagnant as well. It’s a new decade. Perhaps it is time to take a different approach.