Tips from Research on How to Achieve Your Goals
New Year’s resolutions about health have a bad reputation. To investigate whether New Year’s resolutions deserve their reputation, some researchers in Pennsylvania followed over 200 individuals starting on New Year’s Eve and for the next six months.1 The resolutions, which were about everything from losing weight to making better use of time, had been formulated in advance by the participants – so these were not just bubbling impulses at the stroke of midnight. How many do you think kept their resolutions?
After a week 33% had broken their resolutions. After a month the figure was 45%, and after six months 60% had given them up.1
As consolation for anyone who has bad experiences of their own or family members’ New Year’s resolutions, there is extensive research on how lifestyle changes are best implemented. Let’s see if that research can provide any guidance.
Many people put a premium on health without actually letting health goals guide their living habits.2 One reason may be lack of awareness of the health effects of various habits. Another reason is that you get overwhelmed or confused by all the available health information. Studies also indicate that some people have difficulty identifying with society’s ideal of a healthy life and if anything resist it for that reason.2
In many cases the healthcare system sets health goals that are important based on a professional, medical perspective, but which perhaps are not always perceived as relevant for the individual patient. For that reason a first step to increase the possibilities for living in health is to set personal goals for what you yourself want to achieve, and which does not simply express someone else’s wishes.
What does a Good Goal Look Like?
It is customary that health goals are simply about maintaining health. “What is your goal? That life should continue as it is now.” Such a goal however is hard to live by. Both the body and environment are constantly changing, and in order to be able to experience the same degree of health in the future, we may need to make major changes in our living habits today. It seems that it is never too late to do something to improve health.
Studies show that it is better to set positive goals, such as go on walks regularly, than negative goals, such as be less sedentary.2 Goals that focus on skills instead of a specific end result are also better. When the goal focuses on an end result, such as lose 10 kg, we can easily get disheartened in case of setbacks. When on the other hand the goal focuses on skills, such as eating more moderately, a temporary setback can be a learning experience and a spur to test new approaches.
It is debatable whether the goals should be easy or challenging. Some studies assert that we are inspired by tensing the bow hard3 while other studies show that this can reduce motivation instead4. Which type of goal has worked for you previously in your life?
How Can We Stick to Our Goals?
The study on New Year’s resolutions shows that it is very common to give up health goals. In certain cases it is naturally reasonable to let go of the goal – it may be more rational to set a new goal than to stubbornly pursue goals that are unrealistic or made for the wrong reason.
In other cases it may be that the health goals compete with other life goals.2 Making time for exercise can sometimes be hard to combine with the time demands of a career. Goals that do not directly compete for the same resources can still be hard to combine, such as the goal to reduce quantity of calories and the goal of being polite (when you are offered a cookie).
Several methods have been shown to increase the possibility of sticking to goals
One method is to create an inner picture of how the goal will be achieved.2 This is frequently used by athletes, to visualize in advance how they jump over the bar or make the perfect corner kick.
Another method is to think through what obstacles exist along the way and remove them.2 This may involve choosing a different route to work so as not to be tempted by going past the snack bar or getting an indoor exercise bike if bad weather is often an obstacle to exercise.
A third method is to make a concrete implementation plan and decide in advance how we should act in various situations.5 ”When I feel stressed, then I will take a walk (instead of eating something sweet).”
A fourth method is about resisting distractions. This can be very difficult. Studies show that the more we think about avoiding a distraction, the more often we succumb to it!2 It has also been shown that when we are tired, upset or divide our attention by doing several things at the same time, we eat less nutritiously. The best is to actively remove the distractions, such as putting away the candy dish, and focus on the long-term positive consequences of the goal.
Setting goals is to a large extent about being honest and open about your living habits today and what you really want to prioritize in the long term. This is one reason why on these pages we focus so much on self-knowledge. In most cases there are many ways to reach health – just as many as there are New Year’s Eves! Perhaps your questions can help in testing various goals – and sticking with them.
How can you make sustainable lifestyle changes?
1. Norcross JC et al., Addictive Behaviors, Vol. 14, pp. 205-212, 1989
2. Mann T et al., Health Psychology Vol. 32, No. 5, 487–498, 2013
3. Linde JA et al., Obesity Research, 12, 569 –576. 2004
4. Latham GP et al., Organizational Dynamics, 32, 309–318, 2003
5. Gollwitzer P. American Psychologist. Vol. 54. No. 7, 493-503, 1999