Health & Wellness

Psychologist’s Tips for Setting Achievable New Year’s Health Resolutions


Psychologist’s Tips for Setting Achievable New Year’s Health Resolutions

Expert from global health system Cleveland Clinic advises focusing on the motivation for change, and ensuring goals are ‘SMART’ to encourage long-term success


New Year’s resolutions are often abandoned almost as soon as they are made, but according to a psychologist from global health system Cleveland Clinic, the problem could lie in how the resolutions were formulated, rather than a perceived lack of willpower.

“To improve the chances of long-term success, individuals can carefully consider why they want to achieve a certain lifestyle goal, being as specific as possible, says David Creel PhD, who is a clinical psychologist, exercise physiologist and registered dietitian. “Regularly revisiting the ‘why’ behind the objective can help people keep up the momentum after the initial enthusiasm has worn off. Even if individuals have already broken their resolutions, they can reformulate these in a way that supports a successful outcome.”

Once clear on their motivation, individuals can improve their chances of success by reviewing their work-life balance and committing to prioritizing self-care in the same way they would do for work success, for example.

The next step, says Dr. Creel, would be to formulate the health objective using the concept of SMART goals, meaning goals that are Specific, Measurable, Action-oriented, Realistic and Time-bound. He gives the following example of goal that is SMART: “I am going to get up at 7am, four days a week, to take a 30-minute walk.” 

Another useful approach, says Dr. Creel, could be to reframe outcome-oriented goals as behavior-oriented goals. “Sometimes people start out with an outcome goal such as wanting to lose 15kg, whereas it could be more effective to identify behaviors that need to change to achieve this goal. For example, they could aim to walk on the treadmill, rather than sitting on the couch, when watching a favorite TV show.”

Keeping up the momentum

Building in a timeframe for the regular reevaluation of goals is also important, especially when overarching goals have been broken down into short-term, measurable goals, says Dr. Creel. This reassessment can be done by the individual themselves, or with support from a loved one. Other options are to join a virtual or in-person group, program or app that holds them accountable or keeps them motivated.

“This has to be well thought out, so your choice of accountability partner is not counterproductive,” says Dr. Creel. “For example, if you are new to exercising and decide to work out with a friend who doesn’t enjoy exercising, you could easily end up talking each other out of any activity,”

Another helpful measure is the use of rewards. “In general, internal motivation is more powerful than external motivation,” Dr Creel says. “However, when it comes to starting something new, judicious use of rewards can be really helpful. A non-food reward, such as a massage, after a certain number of weeks can keep you motivated as you head towards achieving your overall goal.”

Setting some ‘one and done’ goals, such as signing up to complete a 5km walkathon, could also help support the achievement of a long-term goal, says Dr. Creel. He says that by achieving several smaller, realistic goals, the person can build their confidence and motivation.

Preparing for success

To increase their chances of success, individuals can also prepare and rehearse for temptations and challenges. “For example, if you want to commit to taking an exercise class every second day, but have previously found that some days leave you too tired to exercise, you could decide beforehand that on days like these you will do at least 10 minutes of exercise, which you can easily fit in while watching a TV program,” says Dr. Creel.

Similarly, he says, a person can identify obstacles such as moods that interfere with good intentions and then think about what has helped to overcome this obstacle in the past, for example socializing might help if someone feels down. If people normally ‘stress-eat’, they could anticipate this by having a prepacked calorie-controlled treat at the back of the cupboard to reach for, which helps eliminate the ‘all or nothing’ feeling that could lead to overeating.

“If there are specific mood disorders that get in the way of success or a person is experiencing an ongoing struggle in an issue such as managing their weight, they could consider seeking support from a psychologist specialized in that area to help them to explore and manage the issue,” Dr. Creel concludes.

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