Like millions of other Americans, you probably made some New Year's resolutions regarding your health. Maybe you wanted to lose some weight, or exercise more, or quit smoking.
And like the vast majority of Americans who made such resolutions, you probably haven't met your goal. Polls have found that by springtime, 68% of Americans who made a New Year's resolution have broken it. After one year, only 15% claim success.
But don't despair. The secret to self-improvement is persistence, not perfection. Spring is the perfect time to renew your resolutions -- or to make new ones.
"People do it all wrong," says Robert Butterworth, PhD, a clinical psychologist in Los Angeles. "The worst time to make New Year's resolutions is on New Year's Eve. We're exhausted after the holidays. We're stressed out. The weather is bad. Everybody is talking about it and watching what your resolutions are."
Still, at least half of Americans make New Year's resolutions, which is why health clubs, diet programs, and smoking-cessation clinics spend so much on advertising at the end of the year; they know millions of people on Dec. 31 are going to resolve to lose weight and get fit.
Spring, however, is a better time to set such goals, according to Butterworth.
"The weather is getting better," he says. "It's a less stressful time; we feel more energized."
Spring is also an ideal time to reassess your resolutions and modify your strategy for success, according to psychologist Stephen Kraus, PhD. Kraus is the author of Psychological Foundations of Success: A Harvard-Trained Scientist Separates the Science of Success from Self-Help Snake Oil.
"I do it quarterly," Kraus says. "One of the goals my wife and I set this year was to get back into meditation. We got off to a pretty good start in January, but one thing led to another and we fell out of the habit. Now we're coming up to the end of March -- the end of the first quarter. So it's time for us to look at our goals and make plans for the second quarter. And we're going to recommit ourselves to that goal."
Ultimately, Kraus says, success depends on two things -- desire and the right strategy. The trick, therefore, is to renew your desire to achieve your goal and keep modifying your strategy until you succeed.
5 Keys to Reaching Goals
The best way to pursue success, Kraus believes, is to focus on five techniques.
- Adopt a realistic vision of success. "No one can safely lose 50 pounds in a month," Kraus says. "Yet these and other unrealistic expectations about weight loss abound."
- Adopt an effective strategy. "Focus on relatively short-term goals," he says. "Instead of focusing on losing so many pounds over the coming year, tell yourself, 'I'm going to eat vegetables four times a day and do at least 20 minutes of cardio a day for the next two weeks.' A lot of research shows the benefits of such short-term goals."
- Renew your commitment. "I think if there's a problem with resolutions it's that people don't make them often enough," Kraus says. "Once a year is not enough for you to step back and take a look at your life and say, 'this is working well,' or 'this is not working well.' Do this at least quarterly, and better yet, once a month."
- Don't despair. "People are much more likely to overlook their success and to beat themselves up over setbacks," Kraus says. "Instead of saying, 'I did pretty well for two weeks so I'm going to forgive myself for this one little setback,' people start to think, 'I've failed.' That sets them up for the snowball effect where one little setback snowballs into a complete collapse."
- Learn from your mistakes. "As if the failures in the first four steps weren't bad enough, a lot of people then repeat the entire process," Kraus says. "They return to their unrealistic vision, pursue the same strategy without modifying it, and give up when things go badly. That's why by March, all those gyms and health clubs that filled up with new members in January are pretty much back to normal."
Long-Term Strategy vs. Short-Term Fix
Diane Vives, owner of Vives Training Systems in Austin, Texas, tries to avoid working with clients who have made New Year's resolutions because their enthusiasm wanes so quickly.
"New Year's resolutions are a short-term fix, not a lifestyle change," said Vives, a strength and conditioning specialist certified by the National Strength and Conditioning Association. "They create a false sense of urgency. People tend to be more successful when they make the decision at some other time of the year."
To help her clients remain motivated, Vives tries to break down their long-term goals into weekly goals.
"For example, if the long-term goal is weight loss, I help them create weekly goals regarding their weight and percentage of body fat. Or maybe we'll focus on preparing for a 5K race in the community."
Ultimately, the best advice about getting healthy is, "just do it … and keep doing it."
"Set well-defined and achievable goals, and then focus on participation rather than performance," said Cedric Bryant, PhD, chief exercise physiologist at the American Council on Exercise. "People should make exercise like punching a clock -- they should focus on doing things on a regular basis. Don't worry about reaching your target heart rate. Just focus on doing so many minutes of exercise a day for 30 consecutive days. Develop the habit of being physically active, and then readjust your efforts."
And if you need more motivation, Kraus suggests the technique known as the deposit and refund method.
"Give a good friend $500," he says. "That's the deposit. Then have the friend refund the money at the rate of, say, $50 for every pound you lose, or $5 for every visit to the gym. That way you reward your own progress and make instant gratification work for you."