Want to achieve great things this year?
Step one: Get real.
At this posts writing, it’s late January. The holidays and the chaos of a new year are retreating in your rearview, and you’re settling into the groove of a new year. If you’re like 45 percent of Americans, according to a study published in the Journal of Clinical Psychology, you made a resolution, and it most likely had something to do with improving your physical wellbeing—eating better or exercising more. If you’re like half of those resolution-makers, you’ve already strayed off course, if you started at all.
But, say the experts, straying off course or making an occasional misstep isn’t analogous to failure. Unfortunately, says Dr. Holly Wyatt, medical director at Aurora’s Anschutz Health and Wellness Center, people too often suffer from what she calls black-and-white thinking, assuming that missing one day’s workout or hitting the drive-through in a moment of weakness renders the resolution null-and-void. Wyatt’s mission at AHWC is to help patients rethink how they make and pursue resolutions. First things first, she says, get real about your expectations and your behaviors.
Step Two: Accentuate the positive.
The key, says Wyatt, is to avoid the pit of despair that you’ll inevitably fall into if you only focus on what went wrong. “Doing something once is not bad,” says Wyatt. “It doesn’t ruin your whole week.” Instead, lead with what you did right and remind yourself of your successes—big and small. Did you go to the gym several other days this week? Did you take the dog for a walk instead of watching television? Did you pack your lunch instead of eating out? Did you swap mayo for mustard on your turkey sandwich? Pat yourself on the back for all the things you did right and don’t beat yourself up about what you did wrong. Upholding a resolution isn’t only about adjusting your behavior but also your mindset. Then figure out why you went wrong. When you focus on the why of your mistake, you’re less likely to put yourself in the same position again. “I say, fail fast; fall forward,” says Wyatt.
Jamie Atlas, a gym owner, personal trainer and official Rally Man for LiveWell Colorado, agrees. “When you make a mistake, take the information and learn from it,” he says. “Maybe your mistake is that you went to a party and you ate poorly. Well, why did you eat poorly? Because you hadn’t eaten all day and were overly hungry at the party. So did you set yourself up for that failure? Yes. Can you prevent this from happening next time? Yes. How? You can plan better ahead of time, making sure to eat well throughout the day and maybe eat a healthy snack before the party so you don’t stuff yourself on junk.”
Step 3: Cut yourself some slack.
Both Atlas and Wyatt encourage their clients to build allowances into their resolutions and goals. To that end, Atlas came up with the Best of Seven concept, a unique approach to avoiding the black-and-white, all-or-nothing trap so many resolvers fall victim to. He uses hockey tournaments, tennis matches and even Rock, Paper, Scissors as examples: You can lose a round or two or three and still win the series. “As long as you have more successes than failures, you’re winning,” says Atlas. “That’s positive reinforcement. And with that, says Atlas, comes a cascade of commitment.
Likewise, Wyatt encourages her clients to allow themselves one indulgence a week. The catch? It must be planned. “You can say, ‘This Friday I’m going to have date night, have a glass of wine and order whatever I want,’ within reason,” she says. “What isn’t ok is to have an impulse transgression or indulgence. Walking by a Cinnabon in the mall and deciding then that’s what you want for your weekly indulgence doesn’t count. If what you crave is a Cinnabon, plan that as your indulgence meal.” A lot of times, Wyatt says, people get to their planned indulgence and, buoyed a week of good choices, no longer want to splurge. “If you think you’ll never have a Cinnabon again, that’s not going to work because it makes you a victim. If you say when you’re going to have it, you take the power and control back.”
Step 4: Start smart. Start small.
Sticking to a resolution may be the hard part for most people, but Atlas and Wyatt agree that the seed of failure is often planted much earlier—that making the resolution is often where folks go wrong. “The main place people fall down is they think back to what they wanted to do at the beginning of last year, and they just reload the cannon and try to shoot that out again,” says Atlas. But if that goal was too big last year, it’s probably still too big this year. Atlas and Wyatt encourage their clients to start small. “What’s the easiest change that could have an impact?” says Atlas. “Start there because success breeds success.” If you’ve never been able to find an hour in the day to work out before, making 60 minutes of daily exercise your goal is probably unrealistic at the outset. Instead, start by getting up five minutes earlier every day. That’s attainable, and after you do it for a few days, you’ll have the confidence to add five more minutes and then 10 until you’re regularly up an hour earlier. “People set themselves up for failure when they look at the top step, not the one in front of them,” says Atlas.
Another pitfall Wyatt warns her clients about is focusing only on the scale. Although your ultimate goal might be to shed pounds, that isn’t the only metric of improved health. “Moving improves your insulin resistance, lowers your blood pressure and your stress level,” she says, “And that can lead to a snowball effect of other benefits, including weight loss.” To that end, Wyatt and her colleagues at Anschutz Health and Wellness helped to create America on the Move, a program designed to stop weight gain.
The concept is simple: increasing your physical activity by 2,000 steps a day can help prevent the one- to two-pound-a-year weight gain typical for most Americans. “We know that the biggest bang for our buck is taking someone who’s sedentary and getting him or her to move even a very small amount,” says Wyatt. Her greatest tool in that battle isn’t the scale; it’s the pedometer. “It quantifies the small things you do,” she says. “Even if it’s just small bouts of activity throughout the day, you can incrementally adjust so that each day you’ve done a few more steps than the day before. People need that feedback to know it’s worth it a lot of times.”
Wyatt starts by getting a baseline for her patients—how many steps do they take in a week doing their normal routine. Then she tells them to add 500 steps—roughly five minutes of walking—a week. In one month, a patient can easily add 2,000 steps to their weekly routine. The beauty of the pedometer is it lets you adjust your behavior, not just measure it, Wyatt says. “When you look at your pedometer at noon and it’s low, you figure out how to adjust. Sometimes I tell patients, don’t go to bed until you reach your goal.”
WHY ASK WHY?
Just as asking yourself why you went wrong can keep you from making the same misstep twice, distilling the why of your resolution can make it feel more approachable and personal. “Think about what you want to achieve, determine your why by asking a series of four or five questions, then create a touch point that will help you stick with the why and the what,” says Atlas. If your goal is something big and vague, such as ‘I want to eat better,’ keep digging. Why do you want to eat better? Maybe it’s because you need to lose weight. Why do you need to lose weight? Perhaps a doctor has told you you’re at risk for heart disease or because it runs in your family. Why don’t you want heart disease? Because you don’t want it to take you away from your kids the way it took your dad away from you at a young age. Now your goal isn’t really about the food; it’s about your kids. Your touch point can be a picture of you and your dad or you and your kids. You’ve discovered your why.
“Keep your motivation, your why, in front of you at all times. Print it out and put it on your mirror or at your desk or in your wallet,” says Atlas. When you see it, it will hold you accountable.