For many of us, January is all about changing our lifestyles for the better.
That might mean giving up smoking, swearing off alcohol for a month (or indeed, indefinitely), taking up exercise, or losing a certain number of pounds.
In a YouGov poll from December 2014, of the 63 percent who were planning to make resolutions in January, 35 percent planned to lose weight, 33 percent to get fitter, and 31 percent to eat more healthily. 11 percent wanted to either stop drinking alcohol or do so less; and 5 percent were planning to quit smoking.
And while in the first few days of the year, we might embark on our missions of individual self-betterment with optimistic aplomb, by the time mid-to-late January rolls around, our enthusiasm may have waned; sticking to the changes we’ve imposed on ourselves may in actuality be much more difficult than we first thought. One recent survey found that, of the 63 percent who had tried and failed in the past to keep a resolution, 66 percent had broken it in a month or less.
Of course, those who manage to adhere to their New Year pledges long term, and successfully incorporate them into their regular routines, are a testament to the potential of making resolutions. But for the above-mentioned two thirds who don’t succeed beyond January, making but then not sticking to resolutions can have a detrimental effect on motivation, and make our personal goals seem a little more unattainable.
In cases where a person’s New Year’s resolution is comparatively less vital, or not directly related to health (‘I will keep a journal’, ‘I will go to art galleries more often’), this might not be of significant consequence.
However, in those cases where a hard pledge is made to implement important health change (such as to quit smoking, or to stick to a specific diet and exercise programme in order to lose weight) and subsequently broken, then this demotivation to pursue better lifestyle practices can have an adverse effect on realising our health goals.
There are several reasons why a better lifestyle habit can seem more difficult to sustain in the New Year, which we’ll discuss; along with some methods those looking to improve their health might consider, to make these changes easier to stick to:
Taking on too much at once
December tends to be a month of excess for many of us, in more ways than one. As we’ve discussed previously, the typical diet someone keeps during the run-up to Christmas might be much more calorific or higher in sugar and saturated fat than the one they kept during the preceding eleven months.
Similarly, a common consequence of a congested social calendar is that people tend to drink more alcohol during December than they normally would; and, while in the act of doing so, it’s not inconceivable that those who smoke might smoke even more than usual.
Furthermore, the ‘in-for-a-penny’ psychology of all the above might also lead us to visit the gym and exercise less. ‘January is coming,’ we might tell ourselves, ‘we can take care of the damage then’.
The resulting temptation might be not to take on one New Year’s resolution but to take on a plethora: someone might decide to give up smoking, go dry, adopt a calorie-restricted diet, and commit to an intense exercise programme all in one fell swoop.
But of course, the more changes we make to our lifestyle simultaneously, the more of a shock to the system it is, and the harder they are collectively to stick to.
A better approach might be to break these goals down into separate elements, and attempt to achieve one or two at a time. Introducing desired lifestyle changes in stages can also make them easier to implement and sustain.
Someone who is quitting smoking, for instance, might find it difficult to give up alcohol at the same time. They might find it easier instead to commit to drinking less (the lower risk guidelines for alcohol consumption are no more than 14 units per week), rather than not at all; at least until they’ve gotten the first difficult couple of weeks of not smoking under their belt.
To provide another example scenario, someone who is adopting an intense programme of exercise might do well to acclimatise their body to this first, and not to cut their calorie intake too drastically at exactly the same time. For some, starting with a healthier diet and then working in an exercise programme (or vice versa) within the first few weeks might be a preferable option.
January peer pressure
While New Year’s resolutions might be individual pledges, the fact that we all make them on the same day makes them something of a communal exercise. When we take them on, many of the people we know will do so too.
Some people relish camaraderie when adopting lifestyle change. Smokers trying to give up may find it easier to succeed with a quitting buddy. Likewise, we might be more inclined to keep up attending gym and exercise classes when spurred on by a workout partner.
But taking on a healthier, new practice at the same time as friends, family or colleagues isn’t always conducive to success. For some, the mental pressure not to fail may become more pronounced. In other cases, where a person takes on a healthier resolution with someone else, and their running mate falters first and throws in the towel, the person may be less motivated to continue on their own.
For others trying to adopt a healthier diet in January, for instance, the abundance of healthy diet coverage in the media, combined with a sharp rise in diet product marketing, may drive them to the point of saturation; and to subsequently get sick of their healthy diet, or to lose confidence in it because conflicting commentary on the subject seems to be around every corner.
With this in mind, the New Year is not always the best time for everybody to make healthier resolutions; and the pressure to succeed in the presence of others may make success harder to achieve.
There is a way someone looking to implement healthier lifestyle habits can sidestep this; by implementing them during a month which isn’t January.
Someone looking to give up smoking for instance, needn’t necessarily wait for the New Year to arrive before trying to quit; they should try to do so as soon as possible.
Similarly, January isn’t the only month when gyms take on new members; in fact, due to significantly increased demand, January is the busiest and, can in turn be, the most counterproductive time of year to sign up.
Instead, you should make a commitment to adopting new healthy habits at a time which suits you, to give yourself the best chance at succeeding.
Completely cutting out treats
A healthy eating regime can take on many forms. Some may interpret healthy eating as the complete omission of ‘treats’, whether it’s a meal out, a sweet food, or an alcoholic drink.
But entirely swearing off such items, particularly after the indulgences of December, can be difficult; and the danger of giving them up in totality means that as soon as you succumb to temptation once, you run the risk of becoming demotivated and going back to your old ways.
They key then is to aim for a sense of balance. Treats should by no means be a frequent or regular occurrence, but your new eating plan is more likely to be a success if it permits you to indulge occasionally. Whether that’s one ‘comfort food’ meal per week, or a dessert or a glass of alcohol at the weekend depends on your preference; but allowing yourself the odd treat provides an incentive for you to stick to your new healthy eating regimen the rest of the time.
Total success or total failure
The term ‘resolution’ is one with quite binary connotations; for many of us, it’s something we either stick to or we don’t. There are two outcomes: outright success or outright failure.
Consequently, resolutions can inadvertently generate a psychologically negative sense of eventuality. All we need to do is slip up once, and the sum total of our hard work has been for naught.
A slip up could be anything depending on your interpretation. It might be one drag on a cigarette, or one drink, or one piece of chocolate cake, or a missed gym session.
Once the person trying to keep the resolution has ‘failed’, they may once again become demotivated and less inclined to try and sustain their new healthy habit following a blip.
It can be useful instead then to adopt new healthier habits as ‘commitments’, rather than resolutions. Striving to achieve goals through positive actions, as opposed to focussing on the negative ramifications of not staying within strictly-imposed limits, might be a better way to maintain a healthy lifestyle.
For example, rather than pledging to go to the gym five times a week without fail, with no achievable end result, instead you might try signing up to a charity run in the Spring, and pledging to train at least three time times a week. This gives you a real, attainable goal to work towards (and means you won’t be kicking yourself in that week you only manage to go to the gym three or four times).
Establishing a time frame can also help for those healthy changes which focus on avoiding certain things. For instance, as opposed to strictly giving up chocolate cake forever come January 1st, you might instead commit to simply eating none for the month of January. Once you’ve achieved that first chocolate-cake-free month, you can try pushing yourself further, and go for two chocolate-cake-free months, and so on.
Many of us might view negative reinforcement as a useful tool in the sustenance of a healthy lifestyle habit.
Perhaps the best example is the expensive long-term gym membership. The psychology behind signing up for the gym for an entire year in advance might be: ‘I’ve paid for 12 months, so if I don’t exercise it’s a waste of money.’
Another example might be loading the fridge at home with excessive amounts of fruit and vegetables: ‘If I don’t eat it all, it will go to waste.’
However, this can encourage us to think of healthy habits in a negative way; instead of being good for us and our well-being, we’ll view them as expensive commodities or as a laborious task.
When embarking on a healthier lifestyle, it’s again better to only make positive commitments, which suit you and your situation as it stands.
So this might be signing up for a one-month trial at the gym, then extending your membership when you’re certain that the mode and environment of exercise the gym offers is right for you.
Instead of cramming your pantry with fruit and vegetables and challenging yourself to eat it in time, just buy an amount you know you can eat comfortably. Then you can always get more if you run out.