Right about now, it is very common for people to experience a bit of comedown from the optimism that often characterizes new year resolutions and goals. The new year hype is gone and we are now fully immersed in the sobering reality of our daily struggles. Maybe there's not actually enough time in the mornings to accomplish all 10 items on the list for the ideal morning ritual? Or, despite our best intentions, we might find that we are not sticking to plans for meal prepping, and the organic veggies we spend good money on may be going bad in the fridge while we opt instead for that simple and quick bagel fix that calls to us in line at the coffee shop.
My message to those of you that may be feeling discouraged by the bumps in the road of your new year wellness journey: stay the course! That said, maybe it's time to change your approach, particularly when it comes to how you think about your goals, because your cognitive approach can shape your likelihood for successes and failures. Here are some "hacks" and lessons borrowed from the current research:
- Think about the big picture: Thinking about our goals in terms of why they are important to us may be more productive than dwelling on the details of how we can accomplish them. In one study, researchers found that people asked to think about the reasons why they want to be more physically active ended up spending more time actually being active compared to people asked to think of specific ways they were going to be active . So think about your why's: what is that "big picture" purpose that drives you to put in the work towards your goals?
- Setbacks are inevitable: Years of research on goals finds that goal commitment predicts goal achievement, especially if the goal is difficult . However, staying committed to a goal can be hard when we run into challenges. It's easy to succumb to unrealistic optimism when we first set goals, because we all hope to accomplish great things. However, this kind of optimism can make us more likely to give up on difficult goals because we fail to anticipate challenges. Therefore, it's important to pay attention to your greatest challenges and take them into account when planning and goal setting for the future. What happens when you are tired and starving after a long work day and you need to decide what to eat for dinner? How do you soothe yourself when your job, family, or friends stress you out? Research finds that thinking about these kinds of "if/then" contingency plans makes goal success more likely, as this type of planning allows people to think more realistically about their goals and stay committed to them even when setbacks occur .
- Use your "autopilot" mode to your benefit - Behaviors become habits once we engage in them regularly and almost automatically, with little to no conscious thought or planning. It can take time to form a habit, and research finds that every situation is different in terms of the amount of time it takes for a behavior to become automatic . Many habits are triggered by contextual cues or signals in the environment that we may not even be aware of. Often times these cues work against us. For example, drinking at a bar may trigger your urge to smoke a cigarette. The good news is that we can also take advantage of this autopilot mode by intentionally rigging our environment with signals and cues that remind us to take better care of ourselves. One example of this would be to set your yoga mat out right in the middle of your living room (ideally between the bedroom and your coffees-maker) so that it is the first thing you see in the morning . These subtle prompts can make it easier for you to make good choices without having to make much of a cognitive effort.
These are just a few tips and tricks to consider if you feel your commitment to your personal goals may be wavering at any time. Although the "new year, new you" hype may be dwindling culturally, your personal motivation doesn't have to. I hope this helps to reset your focus and give you a little bit more hope and inspiration to keep moving forward on your wellness journey. I hope you find relief and freedom in this reminder that even after setbacks, in the midst of this sometimes frustratingly nonlinear process of transformation and growth, you can still make the decision every day (every moment) to take a step closer towards a healthier and happier version of yourself.
And who's to say you're wavering in your motivation? Chances are you are rocking it! In which case, don't be afraid to level up. If you find you are doing well with a goal of meditating for 10 minutes a day, maybe you can add another 5 or 10 minutes. Or if you find it easy to stick to your meatless Monday meals, maybe you can try meatless Monday, Wednesdays, and Fridays. Wellness is an ongoing, cumulative process that emerges over the course of many small and simple lifestyle changes. Ride the wave of success when you feel it hit you and use the momentum of one positive change to propel you into the next.
Wishing you all the best on your journey, wherever you are. May you continue, ever onward.
1. Sweeney, A. M., & Freitas, A. L. (2014). Relating action to abstract goals increases physical activity reported a week later. Psychology of Sport and Exercise, 15(4), 364-373.
2. Klein, H. J., Wesson, M. J., Hollenbeck, J. R., & Alge, B. J. (1999). Goal commitment and the goal-setting process: conceptual clarification and empirical synthesis. Journal of Applied Psychology, 84(6), 885.
3. Achtziger, A., Gollwitzer, P. M., & Sheeran, P. (2008). Implementation intentions and shielding goal striving from unwanted thoughts and feelings. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 34(3), 381-393.
4. Orbell, S., & Verplanken, B. (2010). The automatic component of habit in health behavior: habit as cue-contingent automaticity. Health Psychology, 29(4), 374.