Hit Your New Year’s Goals

January 2, 2018 | In the News, Psychology

By Dev K. Mishra, M.D.

President, Sideline Sports Doc

Clinical Assistant Professor of Orthopedic Surgery, Stanford University

Key Points:

  • New Year’s goals can be achieved with the right set of guidelines to help you
  • Pick a relatively small goal and go bigger when you succeed with the smaller one
  • Use a visual key like a big red X on a calendar for each day you succeed
  • Reward yourself for successful days and weeks
  • Go easy on yourself if you miss a few days and then get back on track

This is the time of year when patients will come in to the office for a “tuneup” prior to starting an exercise regimen. This commonly happens for my 40-60 year old patients but it’s an occasional teenager who has the same objective. They’ve made getting fit and losing weight a New Year’s resolution. Unfortunately, the majority of those folks will fail, and will fall off their new program within a matter of a few weeks.

One of the keys to sticking with any new exercise or lifestyle change is to turn it into a habit.

Creating a new habit and then making that habit permanent can be tough but with some key steps it can be achieved by anyone. If you’re interested in making a major habit change I’d strongly encourage you to read Charles Duhigg’s book: The Power of Habit. In the introductory video you’ll see him describe the three parts of any habit, whether a good habit or a bad habit. There’s a cue (the stimulus), an action (that’s the habit), and a reward (the thing you get from the habit).

It’s interesting to think that a bad habit is associated with a “reward” but Duhigg provides compelling evidence. And so it is with diet and exercise. If you resolve to cut out processed sugar you need to make this a habit. Ditto if you have a resolution involving fitness.

Of the three parts of a habit, I find that the “reward” part is really underappreciated. Too often there’s a feeling that there has to be substantial pain involved in making a new habit but that’s not the case at all. On a daily basis you could give yourself a tiny reward for accomplishing a goal, and perhaps a bigger reward for a larger accomplishment. Just don’t make the reward something that undoes your hard work! For example, if your goal is to eliminate processed sugar during the day don’t reward yourself with a nighttime candy bar!

There are a lot of great people writing about the best ways to pick goals and change habits. Besides Charles Duhigg, I also really like Tony Robbins. There’s also a very nice set of guidelines by Jen Miller in the New York Times.

Here are my overall keys to success for any goal:

  • Pick the right goal. The acronym associated with good goal setting is “SMART”, which means pick a Specific goal and not something vague, make it Measurable, be sure it’s Achievable, choose something Relevant to your life, and put a Timeline on it.
  • Start small. This is related to picking the right goal. You’ll feel empowered to continue if you succeed in very small goals initially, then build with new goals. Many folks pick huge audacious fitness goals but this can be a setup for problems, especially if it’s something totally new for you. I find this is particularly true surrounding exercise. If you’re coming from a place of minimal activity, start with a 20 minute walk rather than a half hour fast run.
  • Use an actual calendar to mark off your progress. Believe it or not, paper actually works best. Keep a calendar where you see it every day. For every day you achieve your daily goal put a big red X on the day. Keep making X’s.
  • Reward yourself on a daily, weekly, and monthly basis for keeping your new good habit going.
  • Go easy on yourself if you have a setback. Things happen that are out of your control and even with the best of intentions you might miss a day or a few days with your new habit. This is not a failure, just a speedbump.

Here’s to your success- Happy New Year!