New Year’s resolutions: Four steps to get on track and stay there in 2019!

The new year is almost here and with it the traditional season for starting new nutrition plans and exercise regimes after the excesses of Christmas. Despite sincere good intentions on January 1st, not many of us actually manage to stay the course and get the results we had originally hoped for.

Losing weight and eating healthier tops the charts of New Year resolutions each year, but only about 10% of people manage to stay on track and make lasting changes. So how can you be in that successful group against all the odds? Just setting a New Year goal is a fantastic start. Goal setters have higher levels of mental and physical wellbeing than non-goal setters.

I am a clinical psychologist and specialize in helping patients change behavior, especially in relation to health and lifestyle. Here are some simple steps to help you make those changes that can result in a lasting difference to your health and wellbeing in 2019 and far beyond.

Step one: Connect to your motivation

The first step to success is to really connect to your motivation for making a change. Evidence and experience show us that willpower is not to be relied upon in changing behavior. Willpower is easily used up at the end of a long day at work or if temptation is right under our noses. What does work is having a very clear mental image of the future you want for yourself. This gives you a strong emotional motivation to make the right choices, not just now but in the long run, too.

Motivation is the foundation of all successful behavior change and the good news is that we are all motivated for something! Don’t make your goal solely about how much weight to lose but how that weight loss would change the quality of your life. What difference would it make to be at your goal weight? What do you REALLY want more of in your life?

People often tell me that they want to enjoy their retirement or play with the grandchildren, for example. Find something you can emotionally connect to. I asked one young woman about her motivation recently and she told me with tears in her eyes that she wanted to be a good role model for her young children. I’m pretty sure she’s going to stick to her goals!

Here are some questions to explore your motivation for change. Perhaps write down the answers to refer back to:

  • If 2019 is the year that you finally make the changes you wish to make and stick to them, what difference would that make to your life? What else? Why not make a list?
  • What would other people notice about you if you made these changes?
  • What would be better in your life if you achieved your goals in 2019? What is it you REALLY want more of?
  • What are your very best hopes for 2019? What would 100% success look like?
  • Imagine yourself in a year’s time having achieved 100% success. How did you do that?

Pink paper sheet on the string with text You Can over colorful background

Step two: Acknowledge your success

The second step is all about acknowledging what is already going well. What is already working and who is helping you already? How can you build on that?

We are never starting from zero. Evolution, not revolution! All of us already have some good habits and character strengths. What are yours? Are you already at 10% or higher in terms of your overall goal? We have all had degrees of success on other nutrition plans and things we know already that work for us. So what works for you? What successes have you had in the past? What could you easily re-instate? What sort of meals, foods, planning ahead, people etc. etc. help you stay on track? Try to get as much of that in place as possible, before you start!

Can you join a group or get a friend to support you? Social support makes a real difference. Take advantage of online group support if that works for you. Are you an organized person? Use those skills to help you be successful. Read up on success stories and try things other people did that might work in your own life.

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Step three: Add small changes and form habits

The third step is adding in further small changes in the right direction. So, if you want to achieve 100 % of your goal in a year and you are already (say) roughly 10% of the way there; what would 20% look like? Habits work better than willpower and take less mental energy once they are established. What small habit changes can you make? Maybe you could be adding in an exercise session? Walking more? Fasting another hour each day? It’s important to think of adding things rather than taking them away if you can.

If you were spending less time eating and thinking about food, what would you be doing instead? Often people have stopped doing the things that make them happy or bring purpose to their lives. What might you do more of? Over the years I have taught myself to crochet and then started teaching others and also volunteer as a walk leader. All of these things are incompatible with eating and bring real satisfaction! What non-food related, mood-boosting hobby or activity might you consider? There are endless possibilities!

Can you clear out foods you don’t want to eat from your cupboards or at least hide them away if other members of the family insist on them being available? Stock up with the kinds of foods you want to be cooking and eating. It’s important to be honest about foods you can’t moderate, even if they are low carb! Peanut butter is something I just can’t have a bit of, so I don’t buy it anymore. Engineer your environment to support the choices and habits you want to make. If high-carb foods are available and visible the chances are willpower will fail you at some point. Portion up things like nuts and dark chocolate if you find it hard to just have a small amount because it is cheaper to buy in bulk.

Does it help you to plan out your meals and prep in advance? Have food with you on the go so you don’t have to rely on take-outs that are usually carb-heavy.

Guide: A low-carb diet for beginners

Keto Snacks

Step four: Notice improvement

The fourth and final step is to keep looking out for what is working well and tiny signs of improvement. How is your sleep? How do your clothes feel? Are people complementing you? Do you have more energy? What are the small signs that you are moving towards your overall goal? It’s human nature to focus on problems and things that go wrong, so make a special effort to focus on successes, as this will encourage you to keep going. You will soon start to notice improvements and then keeping going is easy!

Celebrate small victories. Maybe take the time each evening to think about what went well that day and why? Encourage family and friends to reflect on their own ‘sparkling moments’ at the end of each week.

A note on the concept of “failure”

A final note about the importance of how we deal with the idea of failure! We all fall ‘off the wagon’ and give into temptation from time to time but this doesn’t mean we are back to step 1. Why did it happen? What would you do differently next time? Did you feel better or worse? Get straight back to doing what works and noticing what’s better!

Patients in the low-carb group I run with my husband, GP Dr. David Unwin, tell us that they think of low carb as a lifestyle, not a diet with an end date, and that makes it easy to keep going! It’s important to notice self-critical thoughts like ‘I’m useless’, ‘I’ve messed up’, ‘I’ll never do it’ etc. and quickly dismiss such thinking. Swipe left mentally whenever you notice such thinking. Dismiss it immediately. You would never speak to your friends and family in that way, so don’t allow such talk internally. Zero tolerance!

good job, well done, way to go

The bottom line

So to sum up how to make lasting changes in just four steps: Connect to a future goal you really believe in, do what you know works for you, focus on next small steps in the right direction and notice all the positive changes along the way. Be your own cheerleader. Let us know how you get on so we can cheer you too!

/ Dr. Jen Unwin