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We’re Gonna Start a Resolution (oh, yeah)

January is almost over. Have you broken your New Year’s resolution yet? If you’re like most people, the answer is yes. And you’re feeling guilty.

According to science, you are not alone. Only 77% of us stick with our resolutions beyond the first week of the new year. And only one in five actually manage to stay the course for two years or longer.

Even in the ‘successful’ group, 53% experienced at least one ‘slip’, but the average? 14. That’s right. The ‘successful’ people fell off the wagon an average of 14 times over two years. That comes out to something close to once every two months!

Why is that? Why do we start the year with such powerful intentions, only to have them fall apart before the first month is out?

The answer is willpower. We get it in our heads that if we just put our minds to it, we can stick to our resolutions. If we are just determined enough, that willpower is going to be enough to get us through. We’re smart, right? Successful? Strong? It doesn’t matter. Science has proven time and again that sheer willpower is not enough. Yet it’s our go to whenever we face a challenge.

Me? I blame pithy quotes such as “If you can dream it, you can achieve it.” No. No, you can’t. Dreaming alone has never resulted in success. Hard work results in success. Planning results in success. Realizing that you are going to screw it up results in success. But I’m getting ahead of myself. Sorry. I had resolved not to do that.

How to set goals that stick

According to Donald Edmondson, associate professor at Columbia University and principal investigator for the National Institute of Health’s Science of Behavior Change, “Change doesn’t come about because people want change so badly. It comes about because they plan it.”

That’s why I do love this quote scribed by trainer Ryan Peterlin on the wall of my gym.

The key here is having a plan.

What are S.M.A.R.T. Goals?

As teachers, many of us ask our students to create SMART goals. We are aware that, while young people have goals, they have little idea how to go about achieving them. Want to be a professional basketball player? Great! How will you get there? See a future for yourself at Notre Dame? Awesome! What’s the plan to get admitted?

SMART goals require creating a specific, step-by-step plan to accomplish objective. There are long-term versions of this, such as our long-term goal of saving enough money to spend a month in New Zealand when I retire in eight years. And there are those in the short-term – deciding the best location for a getaway weekend at the end of March.

S.M.A.R.T. Resolutions

Parade magazine has identified the top 10 New Year’s resolutions. Unsurprisingly, number one on the list is losing weight, and the resolution generally looks something like this: “My New Year’s resolution is to lose weight.”

Is that you? If so, you’re already in trouble. Your goal is not specific, leaving a huge opening for interpretation. Let’s say you weigh 160 pounds. You cut out all carbs for a week, drink a ton of water and drop three pounds. Woo hoo! Success! Check that off the resolution list.

The following week, you go back to eating carbs – even if you’ve cut back overall – and you gain those three pounds back. This is the point where many people give up. No surprise – they ‘failed’. What’s the point of continuing?

Try looking at this same resolution from a SMART perspective. First, you need to determine whether you actually need to lose weight and, if so, how much.

Photo courtesy of @eric_rapenchuk

Going back to our 160-pound woman. She has her doctor measure her BMI (body mass index), and learns it is 25.1. Not horrible, but it does put her in the ‘overweight’ category. If she loses just 10 pounds, she’ll drop to around 23.5, which is much healthier.

A SMART goal for her weight loss might look more like this: “I will lose 10 pounds in the next 12 weeks by modifying my eating and exercise habits.”

  • Specific: I will lose 10 pounds
  • Measurable: Start weight – weight at 12 weeks out
  • Achievable: Yes. Just under one pound a week is entirely doable.
  • Realistic: Minor changes such as replacing an Egg McMuffin (300 calories) with a bowl of oatmeal (about 180 calories), and replacing one Coke (150 calories) with sparkling water (0 calories) are examples of basic dietary changes most people can manage. Add in a reasonable amount of exercise, such as a 30-minute walk three days a week (approx. 180-240 calories burned) and two days of strength training per week at 30 minutes each (approx. 140-280 calories burned).
  • Time-framed: Yes. 12 weeks.
Check out our recipe for overnight oats! So yummy!

There’s an app for that!

On a side note: I am dedicated to my Fitbit app to keep track of exercise, and My Fitness Pal is perfect for figuring out what is really going into my mouth. Especially if I am eating out. Too many ‘healthy’ menu choices are so loaded with fat, and I can’t tell just by looking. The idea that a salad might have 1800 calories is beyond me. Checking ahead of time helps me figure out how to balance my desire for something yummy with my need to keep my body healthy.

Yes, I know it’s just one meal. And if it stopped there, you’d be right, no big deal. But for me, if I start making excuses, it is far too easy to just keep making them. I totally gave into my cookie cravings over the holidays. I don’t regret a single bite, but I didn’t feel as energetic as usual. My body felt sluggish and my pain levels went up. Now, I’m back to normal, my food choices are cleaner, and I’m feeling better. It’s not about the pounds, it’s about how I feel.


But what about…?

‘Exercise’ and ‘eat healthier’ were numbers three & four on Parade’s list, and easily fit into the SMART goal-setting formula.

“I will walk three times a week, for 30-minutes, for the next three months.” Note that the goal didn’t say anything about getting up at 5am (because, ugh!) or which days the walking had to occur. Remember, you need to be realistic. Plans change. Allow your goal to include the ability to be flexible.

“I will limit my desserts to one per week for the next month.” This sounds like a great goal, and it’s one I’ve made. But why do it at all?

Scientists have discovered that people are more likely to sustain change when they do it to feel better. That makes complete sense to me. In fact, the past two years have been all about feeling better. Yes, weight loss was a part of that journey, but it wasn’t the focus. Making dramatic changes ‘just because’ leaves me baffled. Why would anyone limit dessert if he didn’t have to?!

If you’re cutting out desserts just because you feel like you should, the likelihood that you will sustain that interest for 30 days is not very strong. Is the “Oh, I really shouldn’t” philosophy going to hold against the birthday cake in the staff room? Or the Girl Scout Cookie order form your co-worker brings in? If it does, you’ve got me beat. I’m just not that strong.

However, if you are trying to cut back on sugar due to a health concern, this is a good goal to have. Just don’t forget to look at your overall sugar intake. There is a lot of hidden sugar out there!

Or maybe cutting back on dessert is a smaller step in a longer-term SMART goal associated with weight loss or overall health. Looking forward to that one dessert makes it far more satisfying than a mindless plunge into a bag of Oreo’s. Trust me. I am all to familiar with the shock that hits when you look down to find two of those neat rows are suddenly empty.

Over the past two years, I have found far more pleasure in a single piece of cheesecake or two scoops of creamy ice cream on a Saturday night than I ever did in a package of Oreo’s. It’s as if the flavors become more intense. I appreciate them more because I don’t have them every day.

And by the end of that first month, you’ve begun to develop a habit. Go ahead and extend your goal. What have you got to lose?


What if my goal isn’t about health?

Not every goal needs to be about food or fitness. Finances are another common resolution. In fact, it holds the number two spot. Again, the typical resolution is pretty vague – “I will save more money” or “I will pay off my debts.” Great! But how?

A SMART goal version of this might look like this: “My wife and I will pay off our lowest balance credit card by June 30, 2020.”

This meets all the requirements. There is a specific, measurable goal with a time-stamp. And unlike a goal of paying off all of your credit cards, it is more realistic for the average person.

I have a S.M.A.R.T. goal, now what?

Experts suggest breaking your SMART goal into smaller chunks. Just as I outlined with our 160-pound woman above, specify what steps you will take. It might be helpful to think about these questions:

  • What can I do today to achieve this goal?
  • What can I do this week to achieve this goal?
  • What can I do this weekend to achieve this goal?
  • What can I do this month to achieve this goal?
  • What can I do in the next three months to achieve this goal?
  • What can I do before the end of the year to achieve this goal?
  • What can I do in the next 12 months to achieve this goal?

I also like the idea of reverse thinking. For example, Jeff and I know we need roughly $10,000 for our New Zealand trip. We decided that, each month, we will each kick in $50 to a savings account specifically for that trip.

$1,200 per year x 9 years = $10,800

We are also dedicating our change jar to this fund. Every time it fills, we cash in the change and add whatever is in there to the account. Usually, there’s roughly $50.00 in there when we empty it, and we do this a few times a year.

$150 per year x 9 years = $1,350 + $10,800 = $12,150

These two decisions were simple, logical steps we could take to build our dream vacation fund.

Go ahead, try it!

So that’s it. Don’t let 2020 be the year you make yourself another empty promise. Whether health and fitness or finance and travel – or even learning a new skill, setting a SMART goal can help you get there. Dreams are great. Give your dreams a chance by making a plan to help them come true.

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