Last month, friend and BYOL contributor, Sid Garza-Hillman, laid down some excellent advice on how to approach the holiday season. Since it’s now January 1, I want to build on his post with some thoughts about how to create realistic New Year’s goals and what is needed to stick to them.
First, I’d like to point out that New Year’s resolutions are completely arbitrary. If there is something you’d like to achieve, don’t wait - just start. Start today. It’s the most powerful first step you can take.
That said, I would argue that most New Year resolutions are set with little thought or planning about how to achieve them, and then, they are abandoned even more quickly then it took to set them. Just take a quick look in the window of any gym in January, and then again at the end of February to see what I mean.
It seems to me, there are two main problems at play here.
First, many people don’t know how to set realistic goals. While goals like, “I’m going to eat better,” or “I’m going to go to the gym more,” sound great, in reality, they’re not actually goals, but rather, they’re ideals. Ideals are statements which are too vague, and leave a person without a clear action plan towards actually achieving their desired end. An ideal can be a great end place for where you will be if you achieve your actual goals, but first we need to find and set those concrete standards. Naturally, before setting any goal, we should first reflect on what we really want to achieve. Then create simple steps that can help you walk your way to success.
If you really want to “eat better” think about ways you can do this. Perhaps your first step should be as simple as committing yourself to eating one serving (or one extra serving) of fruit/vegetables every single day for one month. The point is, you first need a realistic understanding of where you currently are, and then you need to find a way to actively work on achieving your goal (of eating better). For most people, going from zero to ten isn’t achievable, so be realistic. You need to be able to walk a mile before you can run a marathon.
The second issue is one of willpower. We often assume that to achieve our goal (especially goals where one resolves to be healthier and fitter) we need a certain amount of willpower. One needs to exercise their willpower to drag themselves out of bed and force themselves to the gym. Then we call upon that same strength when challenged later in the day with decisions about which foods to eat.
Part of the problem is, that every decision we make uses some of our brain’s energy. After a long day, many of us experience a mental fatigue where our willpower has essentially been exhausted. As a result, we begin to react more impulsively. At this point, you are far more likely to abandon your once quixotic resolutions. This is why at the end of a long day, a person is far more likely to skip their workout or binge eat on unhealthy foods.
As an example, one study took two groups of children. The first group spent one hour having fun and playing outside. The second group spent the hour performing challenging math problems. Then each group was placed in a room containing a table with a plate of cookies on it. The children were told the cookies were not for them, and were promised a reward if they didn't touch the plate. I’m guessing you know where this is going. The group that was more relaxed had less trouble resisting the tasty, tempting treats.
Your willpower works the same way.
When we exhaust our mental reserves, we lose our ability to resist temptation, even when we know we would be happier if we did. If, or more accurately, when we fail, we often self-flagellate, and then make excuses about our inability to achieve our goals. This often leaves us feeling even worse than before we even set the goal.
Instead of following this all-to-common path of abandoning your resolutions, try these two simple steps for maintaining your willpower.
Similar to the muscles of athletes, stress and mental taxation (ie: decision making) burn glucose. Mental fog is the result of depleting your brain’s glucose stores. Often, when this happens, the brain begins to crave sugary treats. Just as athletes need to take in fuel to continue exercising, having a healthy snack - like a banana, or an apple - can help replace the needed sugars your brain is craving. Before caving in and having a piece of cake that you might later regret (which will only increase your stress and further reduce your willpower), try eating something healthy first. It might be exactly what you need.
Another great strategy for helping to clear your brain and resetting your willpower is to take a short timeout when feeling overwhelmed or even just fatigued. While exercising itself can tax your willpower and be a cause of stress, by taking a few minutes to get up and walk around your home or office (or better yet getting out and walking around the block) can help you reset some of your mental prowess. It doesn't have to be high intensity, but you should aim to raise your heart rate, at least slightly.
By combining these couple of tips, you can set yourself up for a far more successful 2015! But remember, even when you stumble, the important thing is to learn from those occasions, not to be too hard or critical of yourself, and to keep going forward with new resolve.
Here is to a wonderful 2015.
Also, I’d like to add that BYOL Nutrition & Wellness Counseling is now open. There is a 10% off deal on all programs for the month of January. Visit here or contact me at Anthony@bringyourownlentils.com for more information.
As always the information presented in this blog is for educational purposes only. It should not be considered as specific medical, nutritional, lifestyle, or other health-related advice.