Not even the matter of a still-hanging-around pandemic can puncture the fizzy promise of a new year. As the days of 2021 dwindle faster than your thumbs to a Cult Beauty flash sale, even those for whom resolutions represent a special kind of torture can find themselves seduced by the prospect of a fresh start.
But then January rolls around. And somewhere between the bleakness of mid-winter and the news cycle, making good on your goals feels like yet another task you have neither the energy nor the inclination to complete.
If you routinely pull a French exit on a personal pact, you’re in good company. University of Bristol researchers put the number of resolution-breakers at 88%, while 66% of those surveyed by the private healthcare provider Bupa revealed they called time on their goal within a month. So does the buck stop with our willpower? Or are we picking the wrong goals?
Why do we give up on our goals?
In fact, you've probably rolled those same aims out more times than Adriene Mishler's yoga mat for one simple reason: they’re not working. So says Andy Lane, professor of sports psychology at the University of Wolverhampton.
'Goals and resolutions direct attention, encourage you to push the boundaries of what you can achieve, and help you track whether you achieved what you wanted. But in order to be effective, they need to be sustainable.’ By which he means you need to be able to keep the behaviour up.
The reason you tend to set unsustainable goals? Your brain has a habit of overestimating your ability. Or, to put that in a kinder way: 'People tend to set big goals because the brain underestimates the barriers that hold them back from success,' explains neuroscientist-turned executive advisor, Dr Tara Swart, author of The Source: Open Your Mind. Change Your Life.
'The temptation, subsequently, is to fast-forward past all the emotional mastery, good decision making and resilience you need to cultivate in order to realise your ambitions.'
To paraphrase Albert Einstein, doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results is, if not insanity, then really rather daft.
The old goal: Go vegan
The new goal: Eat a more plant-based diet
Doing your bit to reduce the carbon emissions heating the planet? Commendable. But be honest about your existing relationship with food before switching to a lifestyle that requires dietary restriction.
‘People who’ve suffered with eating disorders or have tendencies linked to orthorexia [such as fixating on creating a ‘perfect’ diet and elimination of food groups] need to be careful, says Louise Symington, a dietitian specialising in sustainability (@sustainabledietitian).
‘The moral pressure to restrict - even when the motivation isn't body-related - could be psychologically damaging. If that's true for you, reorienting your way of eating towards being plant-based - basing the majority of your meals around something other than meat and dairy - is a better option. You won’t be setting strict rules around your eating but it’s still an effective way to reduce your carbon footprint.’
Your pivot to plant-based needn’t be centred on restriction; in fact, Symington insists that it can expand your culinary horizons. But she’s an advocate for starting small in order to make your dietary change sustainable. Think: meat-free Monday, then Tuesday and Wednesday.
Diet diversity is vital, too. Symington suggests planning your meals at the beginning of the week to ensure you don't default to a hastily-grabbed vegan sausage roll for your midday meal - and challenging yourself to incorporate a new vegetable into your cooking each week.
'And when you do buy meat, eggs or dairy, look for 'RSPCA Assured' stamps, which indicate good animal welfare standards.'
The old goal: Go to the gym four times a week
The new goal: Set a new PB, then improve on it
If your goal is just to blearily set foot on a treadmill every weekday morning, you risk falling off the wagon faster than you can say ‘fat burning mode'.
'Being consistent is important when it comes to achieving your outcome and tracking your progress, but it's not a goal in and of itself,' explains Professor Lane. ‘Key to effective goal-setting is choosing one that excites and energises you.’
In the words of a motivational meme, you need to find your ‘why’; something to light a fire in your belly warm enough to lure you out of your bed and into a workout.
Think about a physical challenge that you really want to achieve. It could be a race (bonus points for accountability) but it could also be something that’s more of a private challenge, like nailing your first pull-up or doing a headstand in yoga; something that you can visualise yourself achieving then look back on and feel proud.
Then? ‘Set yourself a deadline for when you want to achieve the goal and break down the process into small steps,' says Professor Lane.
‘What skills do you need in order to improve your performance? If it's hitting a running PB, the first step might be learning how to run more efficiently, the second might be identifying a training buddy.’
Finally, map out these actions onto a weekly schedule – keeping your why in your back pocket for those days when the duvet is just too cosy.
The old goal: Get a promotion
The new goal: Upskill your current role
Stepping up is an admirable goal, but hinging your success on a decision that only your employer can make outsources all of your power - and that’s not how professional ascension works.
Shifting your focus to excelling on your current rung increases day-to-day satisfaction, while also amassing the evidence you need come your annual review - or whatever your industry's equivalent.
‘Research shows people perform and feel better if they pursue goals they set for themselves, rather than working to tick other people's boxes,’ explains Caroline Webb, behavioural economist, senior advisor at consulting firm McKinsey and author of How to Have A Good Day.
‘The great thing about working towards getting more out of the job you’re already in is that you're in control of that process; someone else can deny you a promotion, but there's always something new you can learn or develop in yourself.’
First thing's first, here: you need to work out why you want that promotion. Do you want responsibility, flexibility, training opportunities?
Whatever it is, use that to inform the skill that you'll aim to master over a specific period of time. 'It could be a technical skill, or something behavioural like learning how to stay more centred when you're in tense conversations,' Webb suggests.
Establish how you’ll measure your success, then put a recurring monthly meeting in your calendar with yourself to (honestly) assess your progress.
Sharing your aspirations with your manager increases accountability, while signalling with actions - rather than words - that you're motivated about your professional development. When it comes to promotability, that's priceless.
The old goal: Lose a stone by March
The new goal: Reach a healthy weight range - and stay there
If you're scale-stepping on the daily, this habit could be due an update. 'The weight on your scale does not reflect your wellbeing,' explains GP Dr Naghete Boukhezra from London Doctors Clinic. 'Genetics, medical conditions, water retention and hormonal changes can all cause it to fluctuate.'
Even if you are one of the 62% of women in England who are either overweight or obese and is looking to lose weight, this still may not be the best strategy.
'Focusing on achieving one number can encourage people to take more drastic actions in order attain their desired weight,' adds Dr Boukhezra.
Enter the crash diet; identifiers include extreme calorie restriction, cutting out entire food groups or living off soups and juices. ‘This can leave you tired, unable to focus and - especially if you’ve removed carbohydrates – irritable,’ she adds. And, ironically, will likely lead to weight gain.
The goal of reaching a healthy weight is not to tick off some metric, but to feel like your healthiest self. If you're sleeping well, enjoying steady energy levels, having a regular menstrual cycle and your clothes fit, you might want to save yourself the bother of attempting to shift the dial a few dashes to the left.
If you’re struggling to keep your weight stable, see your GP; that way, you’ll get evidence-based advice as well as a good understanding of how lifestyle changes will impact on your blood pressure and heart rate.
Not overweight but very much the tabs-keeping type? Dr Boukhezra recommends thinking of healthy as a half-stone range, not one number, to allow for your body's normal fluctuations.
The old goal: Stop snacking and keep to three meals
The new goal: Set a snacking schedule
A free-for-all when it comes to inter-course eating isn’t wise, with research in the journal Lipids In Health And Disease suggesting that flooding your body with a near-constant supply of calories may cause your liver to store more fat, which could lead to insulin resistance and diabetes. But a total tasty morsel moratorium isn’t the right response, either.
‘Snacks are important when it comes to sustaining blood sugar levels throughout the day and if you remove them completely, you’re likely to overeat at meal times and experience feelings of deprivation in between,’ explains Anna Groom, sports dietitian and spokesperson for the British Dietetics Association.
‘If you're someone who has similar meals on rotation, they’re important for upping your nutrient diversity, too.’ Yup, snack smarter and what you eat between meals can help you reach your health and fitness goals – be it body-composition or performance-based.
Snacking with purpose requires planning, so decide on snacks and purchase their composite parts alongside your weekly shop.
'If you're a regular snacker, making a habit of having one mid-morning and one in the afternoon is a good starting point,' suggests Groom. 'But, in order for your snacking schedule to be sustainable, it needs to meet your specific energy and nutritional needs.'
In other words, you don't need to be super-arbitrary about it. If you're not hungry after a big lunch, you might skip your oatcakes and peanut butter in the afternoon; if you've done a tough weights session at lunch, you might have a tub of Greek yoghurt alongside your afternoon Braeburn and cashew nuts. If your hands are the wandering kind, stock up on mini-Tupperware and prepare single portions.
The old goal: Be more productive
The new goal: Have more focus
Getting stuff done requires concentration. So, in an epoch where your attention is more in demand than data from Chris Whitty, pledging increased productivity isn't enough; upping your output requires you to focus on, well, your focus.
The first step is getting all up in your feelings, says Nir Eyal, lecturer at the prestigious Michigan Institute of Technology and author of Indistractible.
'Time management is pain management,' he explains. 'You need to manage that internal trigger, that uncomfortable feeling of anxiety, stress or loneliness that causes you pick up your phone to escape that psychological discomfort,’ he explains.
It's a bit deeper than the Pomodoro Technique, sure, but that's why experts believe it's more likely to stick. 'Until you're able to acknowledge that discomfort [and not react to it by engaging in a comforting behaviour] you will always be distracted by something.' he adds.
While hacking back external triggers - constant checking of email, for one - matters, you need to first tackle the emotional side.
Try logging the times when you tend to get distracted: what are you feeling, what distractions do you reach for, what purpose do they serve?
Then, Eyal suggests creating a pact with yourself for what you'll do when you'll feel that urge. 'The antidote to impulsiveness is foresight,' he says. 'You can’t rely on self-control and willpower alone, so set up systems.'
Perhaps it's repeating a mantra to yourself that reminds you of the bigger goal that you're working toward, taking eight slow breaths or looking at a motivational image on your laptop or phone screen. Hey, whatever works for you.
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