Your New Year’s Resolution Doesn’t Have to Stress You Out

You made it through 2020, so don't be so hard on yourself

Every year, you swear you’re going to give up cookies or go to the gym five days a week.

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And every year, you end up loving cookies even more or you ghost the gym by February 1.

Why do we do this to ourselves year after year? We set goals that are tough to reach, then beat ourselves up when we can’t achieve them. It’s like being on a pretty vicious hamster wheel.

But given how tough 2020 was and how many of us are still processing the events of the year, maybe we all need to ease up on those 2021 resolutions.

Don’t just take our word for it. Psychologist Adriane Bennett, PhD, has some sage advice for helping us set realistic goals for 2021 so we can be more successful. If you’ve already made your resolution, her tips could help you make it more achievable.

Should we even attempt to keep our resolutions this year?

There’s nothing wrong with still trying to accomplish something new during these “interesting” times. In fact, focusing on a goal might help take your mind off of what’s going on at home or out in the world. However, Dr. Bennett urges us to opt for smaller goals instead of going all out from the start.

She explains.

“Traditional New Year’s resolutions are often too big, too vague and they seem to be framed in all or nothing terms — you either do it or you fail to meet the resolution. Instead of focusing on one big or drastic change, it could be more helpful to focus on smaller steps or smaller indicators of change that are more concrete.”

To further illustrate her point, she gives this example.

“The traditional New Year’s resolution of ‘lose 25 pounds’ may be too big and vague. You’re not establishing how it’s going to happen,” she says.

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Smaller steps such as choosing to eat more fruits and vegetables, eating three nutritionally solid meals a day or walking for 10 minutes during your lunch break are more tangible. In addition, you can do them one at a time and build upon your own progress.

“Once eating more fruits and vegetables becomes routine, you can add on eating three nutritionally solid meals a day,” says Dr. Bennett. “Once walking for 10 minutes a day becomes comfortable, you can gradually add time and bump it up to 12 minutes. Weight loss will likely be a beneficial side effect of these lifestyle changes, which will be easier to maintain in the long run.”

Other unrealistic resolutions

According to Dr. Bennett, other examples of unreasonable or unrealistic resolutions are ones that are too big or ambitious given the timeline or the person’s experience level. Resolutions that involve factors outside of the person’s control can also be problematic.

For example, running a marathon by the end of the year may not be realistic if someone does not have a history of exercising, but participating in a charity event that has multiple entry levels (walk, relay, fun run) might be a more realistic goal that someone can easily prepare for.

Dr. Bennett adds that making a resolution “to be healthier” is very vague. 

“Instead, define what being healthier looks like to you or figure out the behaviors it entails. To be more specific, set smaller goals such as following up with doctor’s appointments, rescheduling medical appointments that were postponed due to the pandemic, taking medications on schedule as prescribed, walking the dog more, attending an exercise class or using a meditation app. These are all smaller, more realistic steps toward one’s overall health.”

She also says resolutions that hinge upon factors that are outside of a person’s control are also unreasonable. 

“We cannot change other people’s behaviors or emotional responses. We can, however, decide to make changes in ourselves and choose how we respond to others. For example, I can’t make my spouse decide to lose weight, however I can decide to cook healthier meals for the family and invite them to take walks with me.”

Is it possible to stop breaking our resolutions?

It is. It all comes down to setting more achievable goals from the start. Dr. Bennett believes that despite our good intentions, we end up breaking resolutions because we don’t have a plan or our current plan needs to be fine-tuned. She encourages us to think about the steps of our goal and decide if they are realistic. Also, if it takes a while to even get started with a goal, then it might not be the right one for you.

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Another thing to consider is if you’ll need motivation throughout the process.

“Sometimes, the end goal is too far in the future so people will need reinforcement to maintain their motivation. If you have someone who will keep you accountable, you know when you are partway to your goal —and they can celebrate the milestones with you,” says Dr. Bennett.

And how can we get our resolutions back on track?

Dr. Bennett believes that having a realistic expectation about breaking your resolution is just as important as making your resolution is. “It is not a question of if a person is going to fall off the rails. It’s more about when and by how much. There has to be some acceptance that falling off the rails will likely happen and it’s OK. Once it happens, we then need to focus on how to get back on track. We will need to be kinder and more patient with ourselves, especially as we try to make these changes more permanent.”

If you need motivation to keep going, she recommends thinking about the advice that you would give to a friend if they fell off track. You can then apply that advice to your situation and move forward.”

She also suggests examining what went wrong so you can set yourself up for success.

“It’s helpful to look at what happened when you got off track with your resolution. It’s possible that your goal might be a little too ambitious. For example, going from no exercise routine to working out seven days a week is not very realistic. It may be more helpful to start with three days a week and build from there. Then, think about if the workout is too intense or if the nutrition plan is too restrictive. Also, take into consideration if it’s difficult to remember when to do the new task or behavior. Sometimes, linking a new behavior to something that you’re already doing makes it easier to remember the new behavior. For example, you can take your vitamins when you start the coffee maker in the morning.”

Dr. Bennett adds that tracking can be a valuable tool for health-related changes. She says it can be as simple as marking the days on the calendar that you practiced a new skill or creating a detailed training schedule. You can also use an app to track your newly established habits.

“Behavior tracking can be helpful for motivating or reminding you to do the behavior and self-monitoring your progress. In addition, tracking can reveal additional information about major patterns and behavior that can help you adjust throughout your journey.”

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