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Harvard Commentaries
Harvard Commentaries
Reviewed by the Faculty of Harvard Medical School

Food for Thought Food for Thought

Recommit to Your New Year's Resolutions

August 28, 2012

By Marc O'Meara, R.D., L.D.N.
Brigham and Women's Hospital

Did you set a New Year’s Resolution last month to improve your health in some way? If so, are you having trouble sticking with it? Weight loss was the No. 1 resolution, made by 38% of people surveyed in research done at the University of Scranton. Other research at the University of Connecticut shows that over 68% of resolutions to lose weight or eat better are broken within three months and 85% are broken by the end of the year. This may sound like there are a lot of people without much willpower, but instead, it may just be a matter of poor planning.

If you have struggled to follow through with your New Year’s Resolution, remember it’s only February. It’s not too late to reorganize yourself and rekindle your commitment. Just follow these steps and you’ll be back on track to meet your personal goals and have a fulfilling year!

Step 1: Define Your Core Values To Add Motivation

Your core values are those things in your life that are most important to you. They take top priority over all other things in life and you’d be willing to sacrifice other things to maintain these core values. Here are some examples of core values that are often identified by people: independence in elderly years, spending time with significant other and family, looking good, seeing grandchildren or children grow up, and attending spiritual activities (for example, church or synagogue). The common theme among all these values is: You need to have good health to experience them.

What are your core values? Take some time to think this over, since they are not always obvious. When you identify them, they can be a great motivation to keep doing the things needed to stay healthy.

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Step 2: Define Clear Goals

One of the biggest mistakes that resolution-makers do is make unrealistic resolutions that are almost impossible to keep. They think that if the goal is difficult to reach then they will be motivated to strive to reach it. Actually, setting goals too high is one the biggest reasons people break resolutions, so bring your goal down a notch. For example, if you originally aimed to lose 10 pounds each month, drop it down to 5 pounds per month. Notice how good it feels to actually meet or exceed your goal month after month. If you kept the weight loss going all year, assuming you need to, you could reach a weight loss of 60 pounds or more! Five pounds per month doesn’t sound exciting but 60 pounds per year certainly does.

Another common problem with goal or resolution setting is choosing something that you are not particularly motivated to work on or willing to make sacrifices to reach. This goes back to core values. If you are choosing goals that are not based on enhancing one of your core values, then you may not find the motivation to keep striving towards that goal.

Even if your goal is core-value-based, sometimes you just aren’t in the right place in life to commit to that particular goal. Researchers call this a state of “precontemplation.” You want to change, but not at this time. Are you unconsciously weighing your need to change your diet with having the comfort of eating without regard? If you are in precontemplation, this sabotages resolutions, and you’re better off waiting until you’re ready to commit to the goal fully and avoid the negativity that follows breaking a resolution.

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Step 3: Develop a Specific Plan

Get beyond vague ideas such as “I’m going to lose 30 pounds this year.” The question that needs to be answered is, “How will I lose 30 pounds in a year?” You need a plan. How much exercise can you commit to per week (minutes per workout and days per week)? What time of day will you exercise? The key is setting specific, attainable mini-goals to help you reach your resolution or goal. For example, resolving to exercise more is too vague; instead, promise yourself, for example, to walk outdoors four times a week for 30 minutes before going to work.

Being more specific with each goal can help you to steer clear of barriers that may prevent you from reaching your goal. For instance, plan what specific physical activity you will do in the cold, winter months. Popular choices are joining a gym or walking regularly in a mall. Setting a specific plan also will help you to avoid the most common excuse for not exercising or not cooking at home: not enough time. Make a plan to eliminate something that you’re filling your time with but is not providing you with much benefit Long-term planning is important too in order to stay on track. Consider going to a weight-loss group or starting appointments with an outpatient dietitian. Some people find non-food rewards motivating, such as buying some clothing or going to the movies.

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Step 4: Write It Down, Then Persevere

Make a contract with yourself and write it down on paper. The saying goes “If you write it, you own it.” Place the contract where you’ll see it regularly, such as the refrigerator door or your desk. Look inward and persevere. If you fall off track, get back on track the very next morning! Lapses will happen — we’re all human, we all experience holidays or other bumps in the road regularly. It’s never too late to pick up where you left off or to restart. The big thing when you fall off track is to prevent the lapse from turning into a relapse (lasting weeks) or a collapse (lasting months or years). People who don’t beat themselves up, but instead, take lapses in stride and restart are the most successful at maintaining healthy lifestyles long-term.

Don’t be part of the 85% who drop their resolutions to lose weight or eat better by the end of the year. Get organized and restart your resolution today.

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Marc O'Meara, R.D., L.D.N. is a senior nutritionist at the Brigham and Women's Hospital and the Roxbury Heart Center, and also works in the lipid clinic at Children's Hospital Boston. He graduated from the University of Vermont in 1991 with a bachelor of science in dietetics. He completed his dietetic internship at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center in 1992.

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