Why Your New Year’s Resolutions Don’t Always Stick: Tips for Successful Change

Cheers to a New Year!

All I did was bend over to tuck in the sheet to make the bed when suddenly, “OUCH”! What did I just do?! My left lower back in a single moment seemed to just scream out at me in sudden pain. I literally stayed bent over in that position for a good minute, afraid to move. Did I pull a muscle, slip a disc, break a hip? It was a rude awakening that yes indeed, I was getting older. I slowly made my way to the standing position, but was unable to bop out of the room in my usual fashion. I moved slowly. It hurt, but was tolerable (barely).

Just having spent almost two weeks burning the candle at both ends on our yearly holiday trip to Florida, I thought I was doing pretty good until that moment. Not being one to make resolutions, I am one who does believe in re-assessing your life when something negative happens. This painful experience was an eye-opener. I thought “I need to do something. I can’t live like this”. I have always felt bad for people with random pains, such as knee issues, hip pain, neck pain, etc. My own husband has issues with his back as a result of an accident long ago and needs to do yoga, weights and a daily hot tub in order to avoid pain. My younger sister was very strong and loved her weight training, maintaining strength and fitness throughout her life, until eventually she needed a hip replacement (despite her strength and fitness). Lots of people I know have cartilage issues that affect their knees and ability to get around.Yes, I felt fortunate none of these ailments affected me. But now, here I am, with even more empathy for those with pain. I look back at how I have joked about how I dislike weight training, and how I don’t have the patience for yoga (which I once loved), but now am learning, the joke is on me. I tend to be a person who just likes to do what I enjoy, and so I have walked and jogged and biked and hiked and danced the night away, and it has served my lungs and endurance and heart and sanity well. But clearly, as we age our muscles tighten, our bones weaken, and if we want to avoid pain, and if a lifestyle change actually can prevent it (in my case I am hoping so) then maybe it is time to re-assess. Funny, it just so happens to be New Year’s, the time for resolutions. Do I make a specific resolution that I will do yoga and weight training for X amount of days a week? Like I said, I am not a fan of resolutions, but I am a huge fan of avoiding pain, so I need to do something.

I have looked into this topic before (what makes people successful at keeping resolutions, how do people maintain change,etc.).The answers and opinions are out there, however different for everyone. We know that positive thinking is important verses a constant negative “expectation” of failing. Always thinking “how long will this last?” predicts an end. Telling people about your goals motivates some people (not all….personally, I would hate the pressure). Having “SMART GOALS ” is a part of most behavioral change programs. Specific. Measurable. Attainable/Agreed upon. Realistic. Time-bound. Yes, there are lots of tips for accomplishing your goals, however I am also fascinated by what makes us fail….because I personally want to avoid that thinking. I don’t want to set myself up for failing so I have been doing a lot of reflection and soul-searching since feeling this pain.

I have been thinking about what I have seen contribute to failure to change in many of my former patients (or just observation in others). One mistake I see is being too specific with expectations. I have written about the “black and white, all-or-nothing” thinking before, and I still believe this is a huge barrier to meaningful change. Yes, according to the “SMART” goal guideline, being specific is supposed to be helpful. Yet, I have seen  when a person is unable to accomplish exactly what they had planned for even just one day, they feel bad. Feelings of not doing “good enough” contribute to “giving up”.

Another mistake we often make is in the “realistic” and “achievable” expectations. So many of my patients often have had a very specific weight in mind, for example, they designate as their goal weight. They come up with these number from various places, such as a magazine (“famous Suzy Q is my height, and she weighs blah blah blah, and so should I”). Or, “my doctor said for my height that is what I should weigh”, or “I used to weigh that in high school”, or “I don’t know, it sounds good”. People often like even numbers I have found. I have never heard “I want to weigh 147”. Also, people fail to take into account our bodies never weigh one number. We fluctuate (and it is normal, which is why daily weights are a bit silly and meaningless). But weight is only one area people get too unreasonable. I have been guilty of being quite unreasonable in my physical capabilities (which has likely contributed to my current pain issues). Oh yes, I made a casual bet with my husband that if I could do a back bend by Christmas, he would pay me 100 dollars. This never happened because I wisely gave up. What was I thinking? I also was under the impression I might be able to actually rank in a decent position in a yearly local road race if I started training. The first time I tried to up my jogging speed I felt a painful twitch in my hip which has taken months to fade. Yes, I have had to lower my expectations (as my age increases, my expectations decrease). But, that does not mean I am going to give up.

I also think having “time-bound” expectations can be sabotaging. Things don’t always happen when you plan them, so how would this set anyone up for being successful (unless it is only me, but I doubt it). Saying “by Christmas, I will be able to do a back bend” clearly was not too smart. And definitely not doable. I failed. No, I am not a fan of a tight time table. Instead, I prefer the feeling of “movement” in a better direction.

So, what does all this mean as far as avoiding failure, feeling successful, and moving toward change? I can only share my feelings and experiences. Personally, I have realized that I am a very visual learner. That means, I need to actually “see” something to understand it. That is probably why I loved chemistry, because the molecules and reactions are all drawn out, and are actually structures I can see. That makes sense to me. And so, as far as making changes (for me, incorporating stretching or yoga as well as strength training) I need to visually look at my calendar/schedule/real life. For my walking/hiking I tend to look at the week ahead and then I know the days I can come home and do my thing. It does not matter if I have a holiday party on one day and a girls get-together on another. I like the flexibility of being able to be social as well as active. With a rigid schedule feelings of guilt and obsession often creep in for some people, so being flexible does not affect your health or your fitness in any big way. And, it leads to more success.

When it comes to fitting in my flexibility training (sounds official, really it is elderly stretching), signing up for a yoga class at noon will not work because I am at work. Before the holidays (after I tweaked my back the first time by trying to run fast) I found that instead of standing in the kitchen and watching the news on our small TV like I usually do while sipping my coffee, I could easily incorporate some stretching. I don’t count, it may be ten minutes, but it is a start. It has already helped (well, until I bent over to make that bed, now I have my left side to work on). The bottom line is, it is doable because it is realistic, not time-bound, and flexible (I may do 5 minutes, or maybe 20).

Another factor that leads to success as far as making change is creating an environment that is supportive of the change you are working on. I will give the example of hydration, since this is an issue for me. I am not a fan of water, however flavored seltzer I can do. When I run out of it, I forget to drink enough when I am home. At work, I have a large coffee cup which triggers me to drink (as I make a point to fill it with water after I finish my coffee and am pretty good with filling it 3 times at least). But at home, it is a different story. And, leaving an open bottle of my favorite chardonnay in the fridge door is a good example of a sabotaging environment! If it is my plan to drink less wine and more water, then replacing that bottle of wine with my favorite flavored seltzer is a good example of creating a supportive environment. The same applies to food. It is so much easier to eat healthier when there is food available. Looking at your schedule, calendar, life in general and planning that time to grocery shop and plan a menu helps create that supportive environment for healthier eating if that is a change you want to make.

Finally, how you look at changing behavior is really important, especially when it comes to making “mistakes” or “slips”. No matter what it is, eating, drinking, exercising, stopping swearing, getting to bed earlier, you will not be perfect. You WILL not do what you had planned to do for whatever reason. I choose to look at these instances as gifts. So-called mistakes can actually provide insights into reality. Real life. This is what we NEED to know. Instead of beating ourselves up for not doing what we expected, why not stop and reflect? Ask, “why did this happen?” Only then can we work on addressing the real things in our lives that need fixing (or adjusting). Over time, we get where we need to go. There are people who prefer very specific plans (when it comes to eating or exercising) and it is comfortable for them, or has worked in the past for them. Although I am not a fan of dieting, etc, because I have seen some negative consequences in my work, you are the only one who knows what you need. I only suggest that incorporating some of the flexibility and common sense into whatever plan you choose may help to prevent that “all or nothing” way of life many fall into in their lives. Movement, no matter the speed, is still change.

In a nutshell, what I have learned from my experience with myself and others:

  1. Don’t be too specific. Make goals but be flexible with them.
  2. Don’t put too much emphasis on time. Does it really matter if you exercised for 20 minutes or 30? And does it really matter if you weigh whatever by whatever date? Or run a mile in 8 minutes, or do a back bend by Christmas?
  3. Be realistic. Don’t go by what others are doing, or what they eat, or how much they weigh. Know yourself, that is all that matters.
  4. Look at your schedule, your calendar, your life. Every week is not the same, and so how can you expect to be able to do the exact same thing every day? Work on flexibility, not perfection.
  5. Create a supportive environment to help you accomplish your goals. If you want to eat more fruits and vegetables, you need to buy them. If you don’t want to waste money on buying lunch at work, you will need to bring it (which means grocery shopping and making lunch).
  6. Welcome the wealth of knowledge you can gain from your “mistakes”. This is the key to change. You have at your fingertips all of the lessons you need to learn to help you gradually create the lifestyle you want. You just have to stop wasting time beating yourself up and instead, say “hhmmm, that was interesting….why did I do that? what might help next time?” Yes, a gentler approach to ourselves always helps.

So here’s to you, and all your efforts at healthy change, and may you never make the mistake of trying to do a back bend after the age of 60.


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