Oh, those New Year’s resolutions. By this point you may well be struggling to stick to those precious promises you made to yourself only a few weeks ago. And you might have even sneaked in a few chocolates or crisps when you thought no one was watching.
But don’t worry, because a lot of people fail to follow through with their New Year’s health resolutions – with approximately 80% of gym goers who join in the New Year quitting their membership by the second week in February. So much for more exercise, right?
Clearly, when it comes to New Year’s health resolutions, good intentions are not enough. But fear not, because insights from psychological science can help you identify and understand how to avoid the pitfalls that lead to health goal failures. So rather than beating yourself up about what you should be doing, with the tips below, you can successfully adopt a healthier lifestyle for the year ahead.
Here, we have the five most common reasons people struggle with their health goals, along with the solutions for staying on track.
1. Taking on too much at once
Trying to take on too much healthy change at once, or aiming for a health goal that seems unattainable can be overwhelming. This erodes confidence and feelings of competence, which in turn can weaken intentions to follow through with health behaviours.
Solution: Start with one small health change at a time, such as increasing exercise levels slowly, or making diet changes in small steps. The confidence you experience from each smaller success can accumulate, and help you bridge the gap between intentions and actions. And this in turn can help you to make and maintain more challenging health behaviour changes.
2. Lack of specificity
Health goals that are too vague, such as “lose weight” or “get in better shape” are usually doomed to fail. Vague goals make it difficult to monitor how much progress is being made, and can leave you ill prepared for the inevitable temptations and bad habits that can derail best laid plans.
Solution: Be specific when setting your health goals – such as “I will lose 10lbs in two months” – along with how you plan to achieve this – “I will substitute crisps for vegetables at lunchtime”. Research has found that this formula of stating specific “if-then” plans for increasing your “five a day” was more effective for increasing fruit and vegetable intake compared to making no plans.
3. Going it alone
Taking a “lone wolf” approach to reach health goals means you don’t have a motivational backup on those off days when following through with your health goals is more challenging.
Solution: Get an exercise or diet partner to stay motivated and get healthy with. In one study, having an exercise partner predicted more effort and progress towards improving fitness levels.
4. Being overcritical
It’s a common misconception that being hard on yourself after missing a gym session or eating crisps instead of vegetables will help you stay on track. But evidence shows that reacting harshly to yourself after such violations can make you less, not more, likely to be successful in reaching your goals.
Solution: Accept your imperfections and practice self kindness to stay motivated after the inevitable lapses that occur on the path to a healthier lifestyle. In one analysis of over 3,200 people, it was found that being self-compassionate on a regular basis was associated with the practice of a variety of health promoting behaviours – such as eating fruits and vegetables, regular exercise, and avoiding junk food.
5. Living for the present self
Living in the moment can make you more susceptible to temptations that satisfy your present self – and more likely to neglect the implications of poor choices for the future self. According to one review, this shortsightedness is a key factor in why people procrastinate on their goals.
Solution: Think about how “future you” can benefit from your health goals to overcome the lure of temptations and curb health procrastination. Research has shown that people who feel closer to their “future self” are less likely to procrastinate in general. And that embracing the “future self” is associated with engaging in positive health behaviours.