Big Resolutions, Small Changes: What Science Tells Us About Changing our Behavior

2020 brings the opportunity for fresh starts and resolutions, but every resolution brings the question: How will we keep the promises we make to ourselves?

If we have made a resolution in the past—and according to an NPR/PBS NewsHour/Marist poll, that’s about 44 percent of Americans—chances are we also had the experience of failing to keep it. In 2018, according to the same poll, 32 percent of Americans survey failed to keep any aspect of their resolution.

The vast majority of New Year’s Resolutions involve health goals. According to an online survey conducted by market research firm Statista, the most popular resolution for 2019 was to “exercise more,” followed by “eat healthier.”

Those who make resolutions are more likely to reach their goals than those who don’t, but simply expressing a desire to be healthier is only half the picture, according to Jessica Matthews, an assistant professor of kinesiology at Point Loma Nazarene University in southern California.

“If we want to reach our health and wellness goals we have to look inward because the way we think affects how we feel, and in turn, how we act,” said Matthews, who is also the founding director of the university’s Master of Kinesiology in Integrative Wellness program.

Redefining Your Goal: From Product to Process

Enacting and sustaining change starts with framing your goals in a helpful way. Many resolutions, Matthews told HealthyWomen, are focused on a single long-term “product” rather than a “process.”

If your goal is weight loss, for example, a “product” goal would be to lose, say, 15 pounds. Failing to achieve that specific goal—or not seeing the end result as quickly as you hope—can lead to a demoralizing sense of frustration and failure.

“We often overlook process goals,” which are about everyday behavior change that help us arrive at our big goals, said Matthews.

For example, Matthews pointed out, research on obesity has demonstrated that poor sleep is associated with weight gain, particularly in women. For someone who wants to lose weight, a good process-oriented goal may be to get seven or eight hours of sleep per night. “That’s a goal you can start reaching right away,” said Matthews. “You can continue to build on that success to generate more positive momentum forward.”

Building Trust in Yourself

Small successes build up our belief in ourselves, said Matthews. “In the world of behavioral science, we call that ‘self-efficacy,’ and there is overwhelming evidence that self-efficacy is central to changing behavior.”

Matthews, a national board certified health and wellness coach, also encouraged resolution-makers to reframe goals in a positive way. “Instead of saying you are going to ‘lose weight’, focus on what you are going to add to your life.”

For example, said Matthews, you can make a commitment to increase the number of vegetables you eat every day. “Get focused on what you are going to eat more of, rather than what you are taking away.”

Small goals like getting more sleep or eating more vegetables can also be easily tracked.

According to Matthews, a board member of the National Board for Health & Wellness Coaching, research shows that some form of “self monitoring” is vital to reaching long-term health goals.

“Whether you use a journal or an app or just make notes on your calendar, it’s important to find a method that works for you to track your progress and check in on how you’re doing,” said Matthews. “You need a mechanism that increases self-awareness and prompts you to ask, ‘What is working well? And what could be optimized?'”

Overcoming Obstacles: Progress Is Not Linear

The fitness app Strava claims to have pinpointed the day in mid-January, nicknamed “Quitter’s Day,” when people are most likely to slacken their effort to exercise more. But Matthews emphasized the importance of remaining flexible in pursuit of your goal.

“The health behavior change journey is not linear; and everyone’s path will be different,” she said. “I can’t tell you how many times someone has told me they were making great progress toward eating healthier or exercising more and then ‘Life just got busy.'”

Anything that disrupts your routine can interfere with progress toward a goal, said Matthews. In some cases, those are unexpected negative events like a serious health condition or being thrust into a caregiver role. “But even exciting, positive things, like traveling, moving or having your child join a new sports team, can potentially disrupt your momentum,” said Matthews.

The key to flexibility is overcoming what she calls “black-and-white,” or all-or-nothing thinking. “Say your goal is to work out for 60 minutes every day. Then you miss several days in a row due to a busy work schedule and family commitments,” said Matthews. “It’s easy to think, ‘I’ll start fresh at the gym next week,’ but in the meantime do nothing.”

At times where you have deviated from your short-term goals, said Matthews, it’s important to refocus on what you can do right now to continue moving forward. “When you are at your child’s sports event, you can get up and do a lap around the field or some bodyweight exercises instead of sitting,” she said. “That’s what’s exciting about wellness: We can always—at any given moment and amidst whatever is transpiring in our lives—explore new ways to flourish.”

Remembering Your ‘Why’

When Matthews works with people who want to change their health for the better, she said she is always curious about their motivation. “Everyone has a different ‘why’ and it’s important to understand each individual’s personal reason for change.”

Matthews said she also asks people to envision what their life would look like in the future if they were able to achieve their goal. “Sometimes it takes people a little while to answer. Say their goal is weight loss, upon deeper discussion and reflection they might say things like, ‘I will feel more confident in my body,’ or ‘I will have more energy to play with my kids.'”

When challenges arise, Matthews said that people tend to persist with their behavior change efforts when they remember that vision they have for the future. “We are all experts on ourselves, we know what truly matters most to us. This ‘true north’ is ultimately what continues to guide our action forward.”

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