Holiday resolutions: To do or not to do?

Beth Olson and Lacey Wedell
The holidays are coming. Are you ready to set achievable goals? Here's how.

Resolutions are popular as the New Year approaches, with a recent survey finding 44% of US adults intended to set a New Year’s resolution.   

The most popular resolutions are about physical health, including improving our exercise and eating habits, although people also make resolutions related to work, finances, personal relationships.

The coming New Year provides the “fresh start” many people look to in order to create habits they want to have to live a healthier life. 

People also make resolutions after life events, such as a health scare, a financial crisis, or having a baby. Using times or events to make a change is not a bad thing, but how many of those promises do we keep? 

In a recent study, people who made resolutions were followed up on a year later, and it was found 55% considered themselves successful in sustaining their resolutions. This rate of success may be in part because people agreed to be in this study, and may have had more motivation than people not in the study. 

But even with that motivation, not all people succeed. And how do we increase the chance we’ll stick to our resolutions?  Recent research has given us some ideas.

People were significantly more successful when using approach-oriented goals versus avoidance-oriented goals. Approach-oriented goals focus on positive outcomes while avoidance goals focus on avoiding something.

An example of an approach-oriented goal is deciding that you will eat a vegetable at every meal for a year. Avoidance-oriented goal example is not eating any more sweets. It is often easier to “do” something than to “stop doing” something. Doing something brings a sense of success, where inability to stop doing something may feel more like failure.

It may be easier to reach a clearly defined goal, versus a broad or vague goal. For instance, the goal to try one new vegetable each week gives an interim, measurable goal compared to a goal of “eating better.” 

Having interim goals on the way to a larger goal may help you see success early and motivate you to continue on your path. Having a goal that is measurable in the short term can make us more accountable to ourselves, where something like “eating better” may let us fool ourselves into thinking we are making progress when we are not.  It can also let us postpone or procrastinate our action – thinking we can always “eat better” NEXT week!

Realistic goals are important as well, including those that consider the many things you have going on in your life. If you’ve not been regular with exercise, a goal to run a marathon may be overwhelming, and put too much stress on your busy life. 

Working to make walking a part of your life everyday may be a much better place to start. Consider changes that include something you think you could sustain because it suits your lifestyle. If you are an early riser, walking in the morning may be more realistic than trying to do it after work.

Sometimes it is easier to make a change if you have support or do it with others.  Perhaps a friend would like to walk with you, or you could enlist the help of your children in selecting new vegetables at the store and a new recipe to prepare them.  Other people can encourage us, but we also feel a sense of accountability when we talk about our goals with others.  Helping others achieve their goals can also motivate you to keep going.

Developing new habits takes time, so if the first try doesn’t work, try again! Small steps over time will help you achieve your goals.

Beth H. Olson
Lacey Wedell

Beth Olson is an Associate Professor and Extension Specialist while Lacey Wedell is associated with UW Madison Department of Nutritional Sciences and Division of Extension