[This article was written with Tish Wakefield, Licensed and Certified Mental Health Clinician on Amwell]
Happy New Year readers!
Hopefully 2019 is off to a positive start, and is shaping up to be a year that brings fond memories and good health, especially for those who set health-related goals as their New Year’s Resolutions.
Whether it’s a resolution to lose weight, exercise more, or find a new job, the goals people resolve to achieve in a new year usually are set with the best of intentions, and with a plan to better oneself. Unfortunately, most resolution-makers fly off track at the first sign of adversity. In fact, according to a 2015 article in U.S. News, & World Report, approximately 80% of resolutions fail by the second week of February.
So why exactly do four out of five people abandon their New Year’s Resolutions after five or six weeks?
“Like with any type of goal setting, when people create huge, overly ambitious goals for themselves; they’re just asking for total failure and setbacks,” says Tish Wakefield, a licensed and certified mental health clinician, who conducts online telemedicine sessions with Amwell’s clients. “They also aren’t really prepared to change. They think that somehow January 1 will be like a light switch that they can just flip and they’ll suddenly be able to change their habits. It doesn’t work that way. You need to train your mind to change your behavior and build on positive experiences.”
Wakefield says this is true not only of New Year’s Resolutions, but also of goals set throughout the year.
“When faced with the stress and challenge of the whole goal, it’s easy to get very negative very fast, and become self-defeating,” says Wakefield. “Instead of doing better or taking better care of yourself, you wind up doing worse.”
The way to combat the road to self-sabotage is to break goals into what Wakefield calls “micro goals” – incremental steps that lead to your final goal. She says this makes the task seem less daunting and tends to provide opportunities for success early in the goal attainment process.
“You need to set and frame goals in a positive manner,” says Wakefield. “Saying you’ll go to the gym and do an hour on the treadmill every day is setting the bar really high. Instead, maybe set the goal at a couple of days for 15 minutes at a time, and in addition to the 15 minutes, have a friendly conversation with someone at the gym. If you work in some pleasure, you’ll be more likely to repeat the action.”
Wakefield says that achieving these micro goals and enjoying your time doing them builds a strength-based approach for the overall task. It conditions you to think positively, assess what you’ve done right or wrong, and learn the skills you need to continue. She says this is particularly important after a letdown – whether it comes from being anxious or depressed about slow progress or from sheer boredom – because you’ll need the coping skills built from the micro goal successes to look back upon, and to remind you that you are capable of achieving your ultimate goal.
So whether you are looking to lose weight or lift weights, here are some tips that may help you set and attain your goals:
- Be Prepared: Working on micro goals – even ones not related to your ultimate goal – helps you develop the success and self-discipline that will strengthen your resolve, and create a positive outlook. If you procrastinate cleaning up after dinner, make a pact with yourself that on this one night you will not watch TV until all the dishes are done. If social media keeps you up late, set a timer for 9 p.m. and shut down when it goes off or use tools like Chrome’s “Stay Focused” app or Microsoft’s screen time settings to hold you to your limits until they become habit.
- Be Reasonable: Set goals that are challenging, but still attainable, particularly at the start, and adjust the goal as you achieve success. Rather than the goal being to go to the gym seven days a week for the whole year or lose 100 pounds by July 4th, try going to the gym twice a week or losing 15 pounds by spring, then build up from there. Wakefield notes, “It’s better to succeed at a smaller goal than to fail at a larger one. Besides, there’s nothing that says you can’t make a ‘Mid-Year Resolution’ if you’ve already achieved your original goal.”
- Be Positive: Even if you have set a reasonable goal for yourself, change may be slow in coming. This is the point where you need to remind yourself that any progress is positive; embrace even partial success as achievement rather than failure. If you are only getting to the gym once all week, remind yourself that you did go and there’s still next week or over the weekend to go again. If you don’t lose weight one week, remind yourself that plateaus do happen, and you didn’t gain weight like you did many weeks of the previous year. It is far better to count mitigated success as a victory than to derail your entire effort.
- Be Self-Aware: Working on micro goals will reveal to you many strengths and weaknesses. Learn from them and use them to help keep you on track. If you realize that you spend more time on the recumbent bike than the treadmill, make that your main exercise apparatus. If procrastination is a problem, set reminders or engage a “workout buddy” to encourage you to go.
- Be Amazed: Remembering your achievements – even partial ones – can help you overcome roadblocks to your overall success. Finding the best way to do this is something you may also develop through micro goal achievement. “Keeping a log or a journal is a common means many therapists recommend for people to remind themselves about their achievements, but I have patients for whom keeping a written record would be the thing that derails them,” says Wakefield. “For some, it’s better just to talk about it with a person close to them or with a therapist.”
Wakefield adds that, “People want accountability and emotional support while driving for a goal, and getting it from someone other than themselves can be very validating of their efforts. Behavioral health visits can be good for this because therapists can help frame things positively and also remind the goal setter about past successes and lessons learned.”
She also says that technology can be helpful.
“Things like FitBits or smartphone apps that automatically track your progress can provide reminders of success,” says Wakefield. “For those who want the support of a behavioral health professional, telemedicine solutions – like American Well – provide the opportunity for you to discuss your efforts with a licensed and certified therapist wherever you are most comfortable and at a time convenient for you.”
With these suggestions, you should have what it takes to achieve most, if not all your goals for the year ahead. If, however, you need help with goal setting and attainment, or if you could just use some validation to inject positivity into your efforts, we are here for you. Just visit Amwell.com for more information, or to arrange for an online visit with one of our clinicians to discuss strategies for success.