Sticking to a New Year’s resolution can feel like a losing battle. A 1988 study from the University of Pennsylvania that followed 200 people for two years reported that only 19 percent successfully maintained their resolution. Fifteen years later, the same researchers compared those who made resolutions with those who didn’t; of the 300 participants, those who set goals saw more positive changes overall throughout the year—even if they didn’t stick with their initial plan.
Kristin Keim, a certified sports psychologist, warns against putting too much pressure on yourself. “Language is powerful,” she says. “We believe that the new year is a new opportunity.” But that doesn’t mean you need to adopt a go-big-or-go-home attitude. Instead of setting massive goals, Keim recommends starting with small habitual changes that can lead to big results over time. Lori Nedescu, a registered dietitian and founder of the Cadence Kitchen, also points out that resolutions need to be action statements. “‘Be more mindful’ is a nice New Year’s resolution, but intentions so often don’t really mean anything. You have to have a plan,” she says.
You don’t need to chuck the whole resolution out the window—just rethink it. Here are five goals to leave behind in 2018, and advice on how to make positive, lasting changes in your diet and training in the new year.
Cut Out Sugar
Why it doesn’t work: Negative resolutions are tough to maintain, because restrictive behavior keeps whatever you’re missing out on at the forefront of your mind. “If you go cold turkey, you end up with cravings,” says Nedescu. “It’s not a sustainable, long-term approach for most people.”
What to do instead: Keim suggests digging in to your motivations with a journal and some pointed questions. Why are you trying to cut back on sugar? What are the challenges? How will you cope with them? What can you do differently next week? “Educate yourself as to why you want to do something. If you don’t connect with that, you’re not going to be able to succeed,” she says. Then start with small, easy swaps, like opting for fruit instead of a nightly dessert or a seltzer instead of a cocktail.
Lose Five Pounds (or Ten or Twenty)
Why it doesn’t work: Weight fluctuates with training, stress, and hormones, so weight loss (especially in the five-to-ten-pound range) is a fast-moving target. Plus, Nedescu points out that dropping a few pounds isn’t guaranteed to make you stronger, faster, or happier. But most importantly, this isn’t a game plan—just an end goal. “It’s not bad to have outcome goals—like losing a certain number of pounds—but we need to move our language to be more process oriented,” Keim says.
What to do instead: “I’ve had Olympians set resolutions like ‘Walk every day,’” Keim explains. “You can have this big resolution, but what are the steps to reach it?” Instead of shooting for an arbitrary number on the scale, resolve to take one hike a week, or swap your Friday-night pizza for a salad. Before you choose a magic number, consult a physician to find out what your optimal body composition might look like based on your lifestyle and your overall health. Instead of losing ten pounds, you might be better off aiming for a lower body-fat percentage or a reduction in waist size.
Go Keto on January 1
Why it doesn’t work: Highly specific diets require dramatic changes. “Taking on a huge diet will [often] require a massive grocery bill, a pantry revamp, and a lifestyle change,” says Nedescu. “Wanting to be a little leaner and cleaner is fine, but that blanket goal isn’t realistic.”
What to do instead: “Use a tracking tool like MyFitnessPal for a few days, see what your diet really looks like, and decide on smaller changes that you can make that will be easier to stick to,” Nedescu says. Instead of a huge overhaul, start eating more vegetables and cutting back on processed food. “Start with where you are, and make one small change,” she says. “That’s a more of long-term, lasting benefit.”
Make January a Dry Month
Why it doesn’t work: Nothing is inherently wrong with a dry January, it’s just a hard act to follow. You’re setting a time limit instead of creating a long-term healthy habit, which means you’ll be in countdown mode through January and likely won’t make any lifestyle changes once February 1 rolls around. Short-term resolutions rarely have a long-term impact on your overall health, says Nedescu.
What to do instead: Make changes that will have impacts beyond a 30-day period. Even if you do hop on the wagon in January, create a game plan for when you reintroduce alcohol into your diet. Track your weekly alcohol intake and adjust it accordingly—if you typically have five drinks a week, aim for three. You can also introduce tried-and-true strategies like offsetting each drink with a tall glass of water or skipping your second weeknight beer.
Do a Dozen Things at Once
Why it doesn’t work: Setting new goals triggers the production of feel-good dopamine in the brain, Keim explains. It’s a nice bonus, but it can lead to resolution overload: this year you’ll podium at CrossFit, run a marathon, go vegan, and start composting. It’s fun to imagine coming out of 2019 stronger, faster, and better, but actually hitting those targets? Ain’t nobody got time for that. “You have one bad day and you say, ‘Screw this, I’ll go back to old habits,’” Keim says.
What to do instead: Start with one goal and remember that you can set new ones even when the New Year grows old. “I love people wanting to make change. Change is growth. Change is what gives life meaning and purpose. But I would encourage people to look beyond January 1,” says Keim. If you hit your goal early, choose a new one. If your first goal doesn’t go your way, recalibrate your resolution. “Look for when you’re in a slump during the year,” says Keim. “That’s when you can hit reset.”