If you made a New Year's resolution, the odds that you'll achieve it are not in your favor. While about 45 percent of Americans usually make a New Year's resolution, only 8 percent are successful in achieving their goal.1
This dismal success rate may come down to what Harvard School of Education professor Lisa Lahey aptly calls "the New Year's resolution approach." This starts out with a clear, reasonable goal and, as she told The Atlantic, "very principled plans for changing those behaviors."2
The problem is that once the behavior is changed, the change doesn't usually last. That's because the changes underlying most New Year's resolutions are not fundamentally behavior problems… they're mindset problems. As Lahey said:
"The mindset is the thing that has to change in order to alter the behavior."
If you figure out how to alter your mindset, your New Year's resolution is golden... this is why the psychological tricks that follow can be so effective in helping you achieve your goals – in the New Year or otherwise.
But remember you can make health goals any time of the year. This year I had two major ones that weren't even started until this summer and have been able to successfully implement them.
My first was to start walking at least 10,000 steps a day and stop sitting down so much. I am now averaging 15,000 steps a day and have logged in 2 million steps in 2014. Also, I have been able to reduce my sitting from more than 12 hours a day to less than one with the help of a stand up desk.
I have increased my sleep time, not just time in bed, but total sleep time to 8 hours per day. I used a fitness tracker to help me monitor my steps and sleep. It helped me realize that unless I am asleep, not just in bed, but asleep by 10 PM, I won't get my 8 hours. Gradually I have been able to get this down to 9:30 PM.
Finally, I also started meditating and have now been consistently doing that about 15 minutes twice a day. All of these were done after I turned 60 this year, just showing it's never too late to develop good health habits.
TIME magazine recently featured seven tips for making your New Year's resolution stick.3 Unlike most goal-setting advice, these tackle your resolutions from a psychological perspective, helping you to alter your mindset for lasting success.
1. Start on a Monday
Monday is the most popular day of the week for starting a diet or quitting smoking, and for good reason. It's easier to commit to a goal when it's started with a concrete benchmark in mind. New Year's day is a good one, but Monday, the fresh start of a new week, is also effective. According to The Monday Campaigns:4
"Research conducted by Johns Hopkins concludes that health promotions utilizing weekly periodicity and the unique cultural associations of Monday as the beginning of the week have the potential to positively affect a range of healthy behaviors.
People view Monday as a day for a fresh start and are more likely to starts diets and exercise regimes, quit smoking and schedule doctor's appointments on Monday than any other day. And a Monday start helps them carry out their healthy intentions for the week."
2. Make an Actual Plan
Your good intentions probably aren't enough. You need a concrete plan in place on how you're going to achieve your resolution; those who make such a plan have far more success.
Ironically, upcoming research in the journal Behavioral Science and Policy found that the more you want a goal, the less you're likely to plan for it.5 Now that you know this bias exists, you can use it to your advantage and counteract it with a set plan.
3. Nix Your Backup Plan
People who have a "plan B" are less likely to attain their original objectives, perhaps because using a backup plan seems less like a failure and more like a reasonable alternative. Do yourself a favor and avoid giving yourself this option.
4. Choose a Round Number for a Goal
Let's say you want to lose weight or increase your salary. Choosing a round, even number (such as 20 pounds or $400 a month) may work in your favor. Research in marathon runners suggests that "individuals evaluate outcomes as gains or losses relative to a neutral reference point."
In the case of a four-hour marathon, runners who thought they might go over the four-hour mark sped up considerably at the very end of the race in order to come in under this reference point. Those who thought they would easily meet the four-hour goal slowed down at the end of the race instead.6
It stands to reason that this theory might work for other goals, too, and setting a round number goal might make you work harder when you get close to the proverbial finish line.
5. Make a Monetary Commitment
People who agreed to pay cash if they didn't meet their weight-loss goals lost 14 more pounds than those without a financial incentive.7 You can apply this to any resolution, but if getting fit is your goal, try the free GymPact app.
First, you set goals, such as how many times you'll go to the gym in a week, as well as set a monetary amount you'd be willing to pay if you don't. If you reach your goals, you earn a cash reward. If you don't, you "donate" your money to a community pot that pays others who reach their goals.
6. Break Your Goal Into Manageable Parts
Making one massive goal can be overwhelming to the point that you don't know where to start. Breaking larger goals down into smaller parts makes them easier to achieve and is more gratifying, as you can check off each achievement as it occurs. For example, if your goal is to donate 100 hours to volunteer work this year, break it down into about two hours a week instead.
7. Use Your Willpower Wisely
Willpower is like a muscle in that you can only use it so much before you need to give it time to rest and recover. This is why you may have a harder time sticking to your goals at the end of the day, after you've already been putting your willower to the test all day long. In order to better resist temptations and keep your resolution, do your more challenging tasks first thing in the day when your willpower is fresh.
I would also add an eighth one, which would be perseverance. You need to stick with it for at least three months. Once you hit the 90-day window you can be virtually assured that unless you have some catastrophe you have created a lifelong habit.
People who make self-improvement or education-related resolutions are most likely to achieve their goals (compared to resolutions related to weight, money and relationships, for instance).8 You could actually achieve these latter goals (weight loss, money related, or relationship improvement) as well once you focus on first improving yourself. Forget about what you or other people think you ought to be doing and look at what you really want and how you want your life to be. Instead of focusing on one single goal (such as losing 15 pounds), think about making small alterations to your life for the better.
Little changes, across the board, can make a huge overall difference in your health. And when you commit to a lifestyle, it's no longer about meeting a particular goal; it's about making (usually small) alterations in how you live and go about your daily life that build upon each other as time goes on.
One of the key points that many people fail to appreciate for any goal, not just a New Year's resolution, is to write that goal down on paper or on your computer. That simple yet widely neglected principle will dramatically increase your chances of success. According to University of Scranton researchers,9 "People who explicitly make resolutions are 10 times more likely to attain their goals than people who don't explicitly make resolutions."
This year, I recommend you make a list of small healthy changes that can make a meaningful impact on your life. Then go about making one change at a time until you've checked them all off the list. You might want to try:
1. Eat Fermented Foods
The process of fermentation can transform ordinary vegetables into superfoods, a "secret" that has been embraced by many cultures for thousands of years. The culturing process increases the presence of beneficial microbes that are extremely important for human health as they help balance your intestinal flora, thereby boosting overall immunity.
Fermented foods are also some of the best chelators and detox agents available, meaning they can help rid your body of a wide variety of pernicious toxins, including heavy metals. Ideally, you'll want to include a variety of cultured foods and beverages in your diet, as each food will inoculate your gut with a variety of different microorganisms. Fermented foods you can easily make at home include the following, and you can find detailed instructions for how to ferment vegetables here:
- Cultured vegetables (including pureed baby foods)
- Condiments, such as salsa and mayonnaise
- Cultured dairy, such as yoghurt, kefir, and sour cream
- Fish, such as mackerel and Swedish gravlax
2. Include Sprouts in Your Diet
Sprouts are another superfood that can contain up to 30 times more vital nutrients than even raw organic vegetables. When seeds are sprouted, the protein and fiber content increases, as does the content of vitamins and essential fatty acids. Minerals such as calcium and magnesium also become more bioavailable. In general, sprouts have the following beneficial attributes:
- Support for cell regeneration
- Powerful sources of antioxidants, minerals, vitamins, and enzymes that protect against free radical damage
- Alkalinizing effect on your body, which is thought to protect against disease, including cancer (as many tumors are acidic)
- Abundantly rich in oxygen, which can also help protect against abnormal cell growth, viruses and bacteria that cannot survive in an oxygen-rich environment
Sprouts are incredibly easy and inexpensive to grow at home, making them a nutritional powerhouse that virtually everyone can enjoy. You can see some of my sprouting photos now.
3. Rethink Your Breakfast
If you're still eating a sugar-filled, grain-heavy breakfast (bagels, pancakes, toast, cereal) this is among the worst choices for the morning. One study found that eating a breakfast high in protein, such as eggs and meat, makes you less likely to binge on junk foods later that night,10 but even this may not be the best breakfast choice. However, omitting breakfast entirely, as part of an intermittent fasting schedule (see tip #4 below), can actually have a number of phenomenal health benefits, from improving your insulin sensitivity to shifting your body into burning more fat instead of sugar for fuel.
This is because eating first thing in the morning coincides with your circadian cortisol peak, that is, the time of day when your cortisol (a stress hormone) levels rise and reach their peak. The circadian cortisol peak impacts your insulin secretion, such that when you eat during this time it leads to a rapid and large insulin release and a corresponding rapid drop in blood sugar levels, more so than when you eat at other times of the day.
If you're healthy, your blood sugar levels won't drop to a dangerously low level (such as can occur with hypoglycemia) but they can drop low enough to make you feel hungry. So, although skipping breakfast goes against the conventional idea that you should not skip meals, omitting breakfast could actually make it easier for you to control food cravings and hunger throughout the day.
4. Try Intermittent Fasting
If you are one of the majority that struggles with insulin resistance then seriously consider intermittent fasting. Intermittent fasting does not necessarily mean abstaining from all food for extended periods of time. Rather it refers to limiting your eating to a narrow window of time each day. Simply eat all meals or snacks during a limited window of time. For instance, you can try limiting your eating to a window of about 6-8 hours each day (say from noon to 6 p.m.), which means you're fasting daily for 16-18 hours. This is enough to get your body to shift into fat-burning mode, and applies whether you're restricting the number of calories you consume during this time or not.
Typically, you start by not eating anything for three hours prior to going to sleep. This will give you a head start to the fasting process so if you sleep for 8 hours you've already fasted for 11 hours when you awake. The next step is to wait as long as you can before you start your first meal or "break" your fast. You can gradually extend the time that you have your first meal by 15 to 30 minutes a day. So after several weeks you will be having your first meal at lunch. Generally, the more your body uses carbs as its primary fuel rather than fat, the longer this will take. Once you shift to fat-burning mode, modern research has confirmed some of the benefits to be:
- Normalizing your insulin sensitivity, which is key for optimal health as insulin resistance is a primary contributing factor to nearly all chronic disease, from diabetes to heart disease and even cancer
- Normalizing ghrelin levels, also known as "the hunger hormone"
- Promoting human growth hormone (HGH) production, which plays an important part in health, fitness and slowing the aging process
- Lowering triglyceride levels
- Reducing inflammation and lessening free radical damage
5. Take Time to Chew Your Food
A good portion of your digestive enzymes is actually produced in your mouth, not in your stomach. Digestion actually begins in your mouth, and chewing your food longer allows the food to be broken down better. As you chew, enzymes from the salivary glands also begin chemically breaking down food molecules into a size your body can absorb. If you often find your stomach feels like a big knot after you've eaten, you're probably swallowing your food in pieces that are far too large.
Chewing your food properly has a number of additional beneficial side effects. For example, chewing your food twice as long as you normally would will instantly help you control your portion sizes, which naturally decreases calorie consumption. You're also likely to find that you actually enjoy the taste of the food more if you eat slower.
6. Eat Locally Grown and Organic Food as Much as Possible
There are a number of reasons why eating locally grown organic is better for you and the environment. Organic foods expose you to fewer pesticides -- about 30 percent on average while organic meats also reduce your risk of antibiotic-resistant bacteria by an average of 33 percent.11 Plus, research has shown that organic fruits and veggies can be more nutritious and better at fighting off diseases like cancer. For instance, one recent study showed that fruit flies had greater fertility and longevity when fed organic food.12 Another major benefit of organically grown foods is the reduction in your toxic load through reduced exposure to agricultural chemicals, such as synthetic fertilizers, herbicides and pesticides, which can cause a wide variety of health problems.
From an environmental standpoint, organic farming is far better for the health of the planet and the animals being raised for food. If you're on a tight budget but want to improve your diet by shopping organic, animal products like meat, raw dairy, poultry and eggs are the place to start. Since animal products tend to accumulate toxins from their pesticide-laced feed, concentrating them to far higher concentrations than are typically present in vegetables, I strongly recommend you buy only organically raised animal foods, ideally from a small farmer or food co-op in your community.
7. Wake up at the Same Time Every Morning and Go to Bed Early Enough to Get 8 Hours of Sleep
Getting up at the same time every day (preferably an early time) is deceptively simple. Doing so will help regulate your circadian rhythm so you'll have an easier time waking and likely feel more energized. Plus, the habit of rising early every day is one shared by many successful people, as it enhances your productivity and focus. You can use one of the new fitness trackers that are exploding on the market to help monitor this and keep you accountable. Jawbone makes some of the best, as their software is truly top notch.
8. Express Gratitude for What You Have
People who are thankful for what they have are better able to cope with stress, have more positive emotions, and are better able to reach their goals. The best way to harness the positive power of gratitude is to keep a gratitude journal or list, where you actively write down exactly what you're grateful for each day. Doing so has been linked to happier moods, greater optimism, and even better physical health.
9. Dream Big and Surround Yourself with Positive People
Go ahead and dream big, as you'll be more likely to accomplish your goals. Rather than limiting yourself, when you dream big you're opening your mind to a more optimistic, positive state where you have the power to achieve virtually anything you desire. And while you're at it, surround yourself with positive people. The saying "misery loves company" is entirely true. That's why you need to choose friends who are optimistic and happy themselves, as you will be surrounded with positive energy.
10. Take 7,000-10,000 Steps a Day
You may be surprised to realize just how little you move each day. Setting a goal of say 7,000-10,000 steps a day (which is just over three to five miles, or 6-9 kilometers) can go a long way toward getting more movement into your life. A fitness tracker can help you monitor your progress. Remember that this should be in addition to your regular exercise program, not in place of it.
11. Sit Less
There are now more than 10,000 well-documented peer-reviewed studies showing the damage of excessive sitting. Don't be like me and wait till you're 60 to wake up to this fact. It turns out that regular daily movement may be every bit as, if not even more, important as regular exercise. It's not that you need one or the other; you need the synergy of both. It wasn't until I reduced my sitting to less than one hour a day that my chronic back pain finally disappeared. This goal merges well with the one above, as it is far easier to move and step when you are not sitting.
12. Live in the Present
Allow yourself to be immersed in whatever it is you're doing right now, and take time to really be in the present moment. Avoid replaying past negative events in your head or worrying about the future… just savor what's going on in your life now.