It’s officially 2023. You know what that means: Yes, it’s time to talk about New Year’s resolutions.
Or, more specifically, about how and why they tend to fail, plus what you could do as a health and wellness professional to help clients make lasting, positive behavior change (note: research consistently shows that less than half of resolution-makers stick to them).
Why New Year’s Resolutions Typically Fail
There are three reasons why New Year’s resolutions tend to fail:
- Not ready for change: One of the best-known approaches to change is the Transtheoretical Model. It organizes the process of behavior change into six stages: pre-contemplation, contemplation, preparation, action, maintenance, and termination. The arrival of January 1 often pressures clients into making resolutions, then jumping right into the action stage without giving enough thought or time to the contemplation stage, where they confirm their readiness and ability to change, nor the preparation stage, where they prepare a plan of action. Of course, you’ll find that some clients’ readiness to change coincides with the new year. But it’s rare.
- Inadequate planning: What happens when clients jump into the “action” stage? They’re unlikely to anticipate challenges and identify suitable solutions. For example, let’s say your client wants to eat healthier and exercise more. What happens if their friends invite them out for dinner? What healthier dietary options would they order? Also, how would they adapt their workout routine to unplanned circumstances? Goal-setting research suggests that those who plan for potential obstacles and pitfalls are more likely to achieve their resolutions.
- A lack of innate interest or value-based identification: Common New Year’s resolutions include losing weight, eating a healthier diet, exercising regularly, and quitting smoking. While there’s nothing inherently wrong with these resolutions, the truth is that, sometimes, your client may be setting them based on what other people think they should do (e.g., “my partner thinks I should exercise more regularly, so I’m doing it”). In other words, they’re not pursuing self-concordant goals. According to self-determination theory (SDT), this hurts your client’s chances of sticking to their resolutions.
What’s the Difference Between New Year’s Resolutions and Goals?
So, if New Year’s resolutions don’t help elicit lasting, positive behavior change in your clients, what’s the alternative? Answer: goals.
The following could help you better visualize how the two differ:
- Resolutions: Statements of intention. They’re often vague, like “I will lead a healthier lifestyle” or “I will get in shape.” They’re also often binary: I will do X, or I will not do Y.
- Goals: Statements of commitment. Often involves a series of calculated steps designed to help the goal-setter achieve the desired outcome.
When done correctly, goal setting is critical to success. Goals give your clients direction by focusing their attention on goal-relevant behavior—and away from irrelevant distractions.
Why the word “correctly”? Well, it’s worth noting that any goal can also share the same counterproductive features of resolutions (i.e., vague and unnecessarily binary), which is why you should encourage your clients to set SMART goals.
How to Make Goals SMART
The SMART acronym stands for the following:
- Specific: Vague goals have limited motivational value. So, help your clients set clear, precise, and unambiguous goals whenever possible. For example, if your client wishes to “eat better,” you could prompt them to get more specific by asking them how they plan to do so (e.g., limit consumption of ultra-processed foods and added sugar). That said, don’t tell them what they should do. Instead, leverage the power of motivational interviewing. Let them lead the conversation so they discover an approach that’s most suitable for themselves.
- Measurable: Ideally, your client’s goal should also be quantifiable. While “limit consumption of ultra-processed foods and added sugar” is specific, it doesn’t quite offer your client a way of measuring their progress toward their goal. A possible alternative would be, “I will meal prep breakfast and lunch with minimally processed, nutrient-dense foods five days a week.”
- Attainable: Do not mistake “attainable” for “easy.” Indeed, overly complex goals that lie out of your client’s ability level could become overwhelming and negatively impact morale and motivation. But surprisingly, the same also applies to easily achievable goals. Research shows that we are motivated by achievement—and the anticipation of achievement. Thus, your client is more likely to be inspired to strive for a goal if they know it’s challenging yet believe it’s within their abilities to accomplish (i.e., realistic).
- Relevant: Because self-concordant goals are more likely to be attained, try to have your client think about why they’re setting a particular goal in the first place. You could help your client clarify their motivations by asking the following questions:
o Why is this goal important to you?
o How will your life be better?
- Time-bound: Where applicable, your client’s goal should also be time-bound. Enforcing a deadline helps your client focus their efforts and develop a structured plan for achieving the goal and creates a sense of urgency that may be motivating. So, going back to our example of your client adopting healthier dietary habits, a specific, measurable, relevant, and time-bound goal can be “I will consistently meal prep breakfast and lunch with minimally processed, nutritious-dense foods five days a week within three months.”
Additional Tips on the Goal-Setting Process
Keep the following in mind as you guide your client through creating their SMART goal.
Put a Positive Spin on Goals
Have your client reframe negative goals, such as, “I want to stop eating so much fast food,” into more positive terms, like, “I want to nourish my body with the food it deserves and will change my diet to do so.”
With negative goals, the initial motivation often stems from a place of, well, negativity, for example, “I want to stop eating so much fast food because I’m dissatisfied with the way I look.”
These negative connotations may feed a vicious cycle of self-criticism and de-motivation.
Try Mental Contrasting
Mental contrasting is a visualization technique developed by Gabriele Oettingen, a motivation psychologist. It’s been shown to deepen an individual’s goal commitment, increasing their chances of attaining a goal.
For example, a 2009 study aiming to assess the benefits of a physical activity intervention randomly assigned participants to two groups.
While both groups underwent an information session, only group two learned the mental contrasting technique. After four months, researchers found that participants in group two (i.e., information + mental contrasting) were twice as physically active—nearly one hour more weekly—than those in group one (i.e., information only).
So, how can you put mental contrasting into practice for your client? Think of the acronym WOOP:
- Wish: Start with desire. Prompt your client to think about what they want to attain, then visualize it.
- Outcome: Next, prompt your client to think about the ideal outcome of having their wish come true. How will they feel once their goal is accomplished? How will achieving the goal change their life? Encourage your client to pause to imagine what this desired future outcome would feel like; research shows that this leads to higher motivation levels.
- Obstacles: Ask your client to reflect on the possible hurdles and difficulties they may face while striving toward their desired state. Encourage your client to focus on the internal aspects of the self that may hamper goal achievement instead of things beyond their control.
- Planning: Here, have your client make appropriate “if-then” plans in response to identified obstacles: If I encounter obstacle X, then I will respond with action Y. For example, if your client recognizes in themselves a tendency to make poor dietary choices in response to stress, they could plan to destress through exercise or practice mindful breathing.
Create a Detailed Action Plan
Your client has a SMART goal—now what?
Well, it’s time to create an action plan: a detailed list of steps your client must take to achieve their goal. It may be worth having your client draft up a timeline to visualize key milestones to hit as they work toward a goal.
This sets your client up for success in two ways:
- Breaks the goal into smaller steps: Without digging into complex neuroscience concepts, here’s what you need to know about the relationship between the brain and motivation: Medial prefrontal cortex (MPFC) activation allows your client to think about what they need to do right this instance to achieve their goal. If the goal seems too distant or future-oriented, MPFC activation lowers significantly. This, in turn, increases the risk that your client would lose interest in pursuing their goal or lose the vision of what might be the best ways to achieve it. Therefore, having your client lay out the exact steps to follow from start to end keeps their MPFC activation—and, thus, motivation—high.
- Allows them to anticipate obstacles: Creating a detailed timeline helps your client better identify and plan for potential obstacles and pitfalls (as previously mentioned, this increases the chances of successful goal attainment). This is especially crucial if your client hasn’t practiced mental contrasting.
Don’t Forget to Carry Out Goals
You and your client have already done most of the heavy lifting at this stage. All that’s left is executing the action plan. And when it comes to that, the one tip you could give your client is this: Don’t wait for the “right time” or for motivation to strike.
Contrary to popular belief, motivation is often the result of taking action, not the cause of it.
Simply getting started produces momentum. And, over time, this momentum can build and feed itself. If it makes things easier, you could explain to your client that “motivation” operates much like Newton’s First Law: Objects in motion tend to stay in motion. So, once they’ve begun pursuing their goal, it is easier to continue moving forward.
Provided that your client is okay with it, you could frequently check in with them and ask how they’re progressing with their goal:
- If they’re progressing well: Remind them to reward themselves (e.g., with a fun activity) whenever they achieve a significant milestone in their action plan. Note that rewards don’t necessarily have to be quantifiable, either. Don’t discount the power of positive self-talk (e.g., “I did it!”).
- If they’re having trouble: Encourage your client to take a step back and see what got in the way. Retrace the steps for goal setting. For example, is their goal realistic? If they set the goal too high, help them think of ways they could scale it back in a collaborative manner. Also, it’s important to discourage your client from thinking in “all-or-nothing” terms: Let them know they have not failed if they’re struggling. Help them see the value of everything they’ve achieved thus far and guide them into moving forward.
Very few individuals stick to their New Year’s resolutions for three primary reasons. They 1) are not ready for change, 2) fail to plan for challenges and obstacles, and 3) don’t truly identify with set resolutions.
This, in turn, explains why you should encourage your clients to set goals instead. When done correctly, goal setting addresses all the shortcomings associated with resolutions. Ideally, a goal should be SMART: specific, measurable, attainable, relevant, and time-bound. It should also be framed positively.
Once you’ve guided your client through the process of creating a SMART goal and detailed action plan, it’s crucial to put all that planning into good use. So, first, get them to take proactive steps in achieving their goals. Then, frequently check in with your clients on their progress (where appropriate).