For those of us in the fitness world, New Year’s resolutions are a running joke. Every first Monday of the year, diet books fly off the shelves and gyms are flooded with new members as hordes of (still hung over) people get after their New Year’s resolutions.
Big box gyms build their entire business plan off exploiting the New Year’s wave and desperately holding them for as long as possible. Within a couple of months, the diet books start collecting dust on the shelves, and the bench in the gym finally opens up so you can use it. A few fitness bloggers and New York Times columnists will write “I Told You So” articles, then snuggle into hibernation until they can write “Resolutions are Stupid” articles in the winter. Even Google searches on the topics blow up around January 5th… and then deflate like our New Year’s dreams.
At least… that’s the story. As a culture, we take it for granted that New Year’s Resolutioners (NYRs) will fail. After all, “if you were really committed, it wouldn’t matter whether it was January 1st or August 14th, right?” What if I told you that NYRs were more likely than non-resolutioners to stick to a goal? What if I told you that there are simple and effective (not easy) strategies to make your resolutions more likely to stick? What if I told you that today’s resolution could, five years from now, be your daily habit? They are, there is, and it can. Here’s how.
Don’t Ever Tell Me the Odds
Odds, probabilities, and statistics are funny things, especially when they’re based on bad data. We see NYRs fail all the time, so we assume that resolutions are crap. When your friend (the one you knew was doomed to fail) starts drinking again on January 24th with a “#yolo” Instagram selfie, you chalk that up as a “New Year’s resolution fail.”
What about your friend who starts with an Atkins diet January 5th, sees steady results until April 10th, gains a few pounds back, steadies out at a spot they’re happy with, and makes that the new, healthier normal for their life? Would you count that as a success? Would you notice? Would you see that partial regain as a failure?
Life change is hard. Many of the challenges are common and obvious- soreness, time, financial cost- but many won’t be. We are not only creatures of habit, but we structure our lives off those habits without realizing it, so we inevitably underestimate the impact of major changes. When the hangover and the passion dies away, the change will come down to choices, habits, and discipline.
Knowing all that, resolutioners are more (not less) likely to meet their new goals than people who commit to the same challenge at other times of the year. Using a 6 month follow-up survey, researchers at the University of Scranton found that between comparable pairs of goal-setters, one group starting at the New Year and another at random times of year, the non-resolutioners had only a 4% chance of sticking to their big goals for 6 months. The resolutioners, on the other hand, had a 46% chance of sticking to their goals. Why is this not a viral study result (or at least a TedX talk)? Because the public clicks things they already believe to be true, so sites summarizing the results with headlines like: “How Fast You’ll Abandon Your New Year’s Resolutions.”
If you decided to make a resolution this year, you can take advantage of this incredible effect to help you succeed. The question is how.
Today’s Resolution, Tomorrow’s Lifestyle
At 11:59 on December 31st, when you flipped 2016 the bird and promised to make 2017 “your year,” you were in a “New Year” mindset. Some of that mindset is helpful and some is not:
I’m honestly not a huge fan of ‘passion,’ ‘motivation,’ ‘blah blah blah.’ As a kid, I had a lot of passion for everything I started, and most of these projects fizzled out. When I decided 3 years ago to focus on getting stronger and creeped up from a 980 powerlifting total to a 1250 (and still going), it wasn’t because I hit rock bottom, lit a fire under my ass, or anything ‘rah rah.’
Still, there is something to be said for the power of motivation, especially for people who have struggled before and failed or are fighting ambivalence. In the heat of the New Year, there’s plenty of that passion and motivation to go around. “Screw 2016!” “2017 is our year!” “Shots, shots, shots!” The downside is that it can lead us to overreach and make goals that, when sober, seem unreachable.
When faced with a daunting, impossible peak, many newbies to dieting and fitness will drop their goal, sapping some of the energy from the New Year’s mindset. I recommend this instead:
- Keep your booze-laden “I’m going to be the next Arnold Schwartzenegger” goal.
- Build in a short-term goal, something you can do within 1 year (“I’m going to lose 30 pounds and get to 20% body fat”) and puts you in the direction of your Big Hairy Audacious Goal (to borrow a term from Built to Last.
- Build in a process goal, a routine that will get work you towards your short-term goal (I will keep track of what I eat each day on an easy app)
- Build in a ‘low-hanging fruit’ goal, something you can put on your calendar to execute in the very near term (“I will look into coaches and sign up with one before January 9th”)
Taking decisive action is not an NYR’s problem. Most NYRs sincerely take some action on their goals, and this is great! Indecision and perfectionism kill many a dream. The problems arise shortly after that first step.
First, it can be tempting to see that first action as the whole solution. “All right, I got a gym membership! Whew!” Now that action has been taken, the NYR starts to think of themselves as “a gym-goer,” and that shift in perception satisfies their need for the feeling of change. There’s just one problem: in the months that follow, they don’t actually go. This one’s simple to fix, though not easy: see your first action as just that- the first in a chain that will lead to your goal.
Second, committing to a first action without a plan can lead the tail to wag the dog. If your goal is to ‘get fit’ and you sign up at a Planet Fitness the next day because joining a gym is “what you do” when you want to ‘get fit,’ your routine will be limited to whatever Planet Fitness can provide (which pretty much consists of treadmills, Tootsie rolls, and tears of regret). To capture the benefit of that New Year’s excitement without starting off on the road worst traveled, commit to a future action. Make your New Year’s resolution to “Start a diet on January 8th” and spend that first week looking into getting the information, equipment, and help you need and establishing habits that will work.
A big piece of the New Year mindset is ‘getting over’ the previous year. We do our best to forgive ourselves of our mistakes and treat the new year as a brand new experience with limitless possibilities.
In many ways, this is a great mindset to take because we have to be willing to lose something of our old selves in order to change. It is not, however, a great headspace to be in while planning. In the ‘fresh start’ frame of mind, you might forget that the obstacles that prevented you from reaching your goals before will still be there after the hangover is passed.
At new beginnings: birthdays, New Years, new jobs, it is best to remember two things:
- There is only one thing you are in control of: you.
- The obstacles that faced you before will still be there and new ones will arise.
What makes new beginnings special is that we can approach these obstacles, new and old, from a new frame of mind without feeling required to be consistent with our previous actions and habits (including our mistakes).
You can’t do it alone. Let me say that again. You can’t do it alone. If you already had the skills, knowledge, habits, confidence, and motivation to effortlessly succeed, you probably wouldn’t be reading this article.
We make our resolutions in the privacy of our own minds or the company of friends who aren’t likely to follow up on our success unless we ask them to (both out of courtesy and the booze-tinged haze of forgetfulness). We follow through as a team.
Join a sports team, a Cheers-style powerlifting gym, or a diet support board. Surround yourself with people who are on your side and want to see you succeed. Get your family and close friends onboard, and do what you can to remove yourself from the company of those who will interfere. They are the enemy. Get a competent coach who you can trust. If you can’t find one locally, there are several great online options that can provide you the accountability and expertise you can’t always provide yourself.
This is one of the things that the New Year Mindset has in spades. There is a whole industry geared towards making you successful that ramps up every December. Be cautious, as hucksters abound, but the support structure is there if you have the humility and courage to accept it.
Resolve to be Resolute
Change is tough. Big commitments take grit, effort, and determination. That doesn’t mean you’re ‘destined to fail’ or that you should make yourself feel better by mocking those who try.
If you’ve already made a resolution, or if you’re on the fence, there is a way to do it right. Today’s resolution, executed consistently and effectively, can be tomorrow’s lifestyle. A dream with some ass behind it can even change the world. For that matter, it might be the only thing that ever has.