search button
newscenter logo
Tuesday, September 26, 2023

Follow SDSU Follow SDSU on Twitter Follow SDSU on Facebook SDSU RSS Feed

When we set goals and make resolutions, starting small and planning carefully will help us achieve them. When we set goals and make resolutions, starting small and planning carefully will help us achieve them.

New Year Resolutions: We Made Them, How Do We Keep Them?

Looking at them as intentions to work towards will help us make changes gradually and keep them.
By Padma Nagappan

“A lapse doesn’t have to turn into a collapse.”

We’ve all been there. You set big goals and made idealistic resolutions right around January 1, with high hopes of becoming fitter, organized, and scaling new heights in the newer, improved version of ourselves.

Pretty soon we find ourselves falling short, and struggling to stay on track. 

To make 2020 the year we stick to our goals, SDSU NewsCenter spoke with an exercise behavior researcher, a behavioral nutritionist, and a psychologist focused on motivational behaviors. Here are tips from San Diego State University’s experts on how to succeed with our New Year resolutions.

Fitness – the universal goal

Hitting the gym more often, or taking up running regularly are common goals for many of us, driven by the urge to be fitter and healthier. It’s also one that many fall short of, rolling it over to the next year, and the year after that.

Susan Levy, a physical activity behavioral scientist with the School of Exercise and Nutritional Sciences whose research focuses on motivating people, especially older adults to remain physically active, suggests it’s because we often set poorly defined goals. But the secret is in being specific.

“Saying ‘I want to exercise more’ is not very specific,” Levy said. “It’s realistic only for someone who’s been inactive. But if you’re already active and want to increase your fitness, spell it out. If you want to do strength training thrice a week, where will you do it – at the gym or home? Which days?”

She suggests writing down goals with a clear plan – work upper body on Tuesdays and lower body on Thursdays, for example. Be sure your goals are measurable, so you know when you’ve met them. 

Starting slow and building up is key, so the goal doesn’t feel intimidating. Ten minutes is the sweet spot many health coaches recommend for a new regimen, because it's easy to start with and stay committed. 
“You have a higher likelihood of being successful when you start small and it’s something that is achievable,” Levy said. “As you accomplish these things, that builds your confidence that you can actually do it.”

Thinking about it as a chore can derail us too. As children, most of us played sports as a fun activity with friends. But as adults, when we begin thinking about it as a ‘must’ or a ‘have to’, it stops being fun. So Levy suggests we choose options we actually enjoy doing – if you prefer being outdoors then don’t set goals to hit the gym.

“If it’s a hectic work week, see where you can fit in 15 to 20 minutes for a walk or strength training,” Levy said. “If you slip up, it’s just a slip up. So a lapse doesn’t have to turn into a collapse.”

Eating healthy

Losing weight or switching to a healthier diet is another common goal, but it can be challenging in the face of temptations and stress.

“We often make resolutions that are too ambitious, lack a clear plan, do not consider barriers to progress, and/or are externally-motivated – for example, my doctor told me to lose weight, or the media portrays celebrities a certain way so I should look like that too,” said Amanda McClain, a behavioral nutritionist with the School of Exercise and Nutritional Sciences.

Her research focuses on reducing health and nutrition disparities among low-income and minority populations. 

Food choices are complex. Cultural and societal factors influence our food choices, and certain foods are tied to positive or negative memories and emotions. So we need to remember to take all this into account when setting dietary goals, and planning for progress through those goals, instead of gunning for a quick fix to lose weight. 

“If I set a goal to reduce my ice cream intake, consider what are the factors that prompt me to want to eat ice cream. Am I tired and stressed when I get home from work?” McClain said. “If yes, I need to identify a healthy substitute behavior for eating ice cream, like going for a walk or calling a friend.” 

Staying motivated

Right around the new year is when friends or family ask us what our goals are, so there’s societal pressure to start afresh and set targets. But those questions disappear a couple weeks into January, and so does the pressure to stick with something, explained Dustin Thoman, a psychologist who researches how people sustain motivation over long periods of time.

Whether it’s financial, fitness, or career goals, finding an accountability partner or an online group, and making it fun to pursue will help us stay motivated.

“Take financial goals. If you join an online group where people budget or work on reducing debt, you’re not only the one being helped, you also end up helping others when you discuss your goals and issues. That’s very important to us as humans,” Thoman said. “No one likes being the one needing help all the time, we like helping others. That’s why workout partners or online groups work well.”

Thoman has observed that many of his students have a hard time saying no when friends invite them to a social event when they planned to study, or they don’t plan for the unexpected. What it comes down to is knowing when to say no, and offering an alternative: "I can't do it today, but how about we try for next Saturday?"

So why do we fall off the bandwagon? Because we set very vague or very detailed goals, both of which can derail us. 

“With goal setting, there has to be a happy medium between vague and specific, with some flexibility,” Thoman said. “When you set a goal, you need a plan to execute it, and integrate it into your daily life. So if you plan to hit the gym after work, figure out who makes dinner and takes care of the kids.”