Wouldn’t it feel good to be part of the 8% of people who actually follow through on their New Year’s resolutions?
Becoming part of that small group of Americans takes a lot of determination and willpower, but, truth be told, it’s going to take a heck of a lot more than that.
Thousands of people are determined and motivated to lose weight by working out. Gym memberships spike like crazy in January, but by February the crowds have thinned out, leaving behind the remnants of motivation and determination.
What was meant to be a place where people could get healthy and get fit suddenly becomes a reminder that most of us strike out when we decide to change our habits.
If you feel like we’re describing you, don’t lose heart. Head to the first of our trio of New Year’s resolutions articles to learn why most of us fail when it comes to resolutions.
The goal of this article, the second in our series, is to show you five steps to help you succeed as you forge ahead into the new year with resolutions firmly in place.
Our discussion will focus on workout-related goals, but the principles we talked about can help just about anyone’s goals.
Before you jump into January, though, we want to ask you a question: What’s the one part of your body most responsible for the success of your resolutions?
If you said brain, then you’ll love what we discovered when we talked to Jacksonville-based sports psychology expert Pat Moore.
Step 1: Use Your Brain’s Desire to Be Right
You’ve probably read at one time or another that people who write down their resolutions and put them in a visible place are more likely to achieve them. We think that’s a great piece of wisdom, and it’s super relevant to your New Year’s resolutions.
But did you ever wonder why writing down and seeing your goals on a daily basis is so effective? Easy, Pat Moore told us when we visited her practice.
“The greatest need of the human brain is to be right, and it will do everything in its power to make you right,” Pat told us.
Write Down Your Resolutions
Now, before you go running off to your spouse or significant other to justify why you need to win every argument, take a moment to reflect on the subject at hand: fitness and health.
Let’s say you want to lose 10 pounds and finish a 5K. So, you write it down on a piece of paper and tape it to your bathroom mirror so you see it every morning and night. What you’re basically doing, Pat says, is telling your brain the right way to go.
Once your brain is aware of that goal, it will do everything it can to achieve that goal. This works on the negative side of the discussion, too, Pat said.
“If you say you’re a failure, your brain is going to do everything in its power to make you do that,” she said. “If you say, ‘I’m going to be the greatest soccer player that ever lived,’ then your brain is going to do everything it can to make that happen.”
Pat gave us the example of record-breaking Olympian Michael Phelps. As a kid, he would stick notes to the ceiling above his bed that said he would be an Olympian and that he’d win gold.
Phelps’ brain took that seriously and committed itself to doing everything it could to make that happen. His brain and our brain want to be right.
Tell People About It
Writing down your goals isn’t going to get it done, though, Pat said. She used an example from her own life to illustrate the process.
Pat was practicing mental health counseling but wanted to do sports psychology. Shifting focus was only an idea, at that point.
“Then, one day, I said ‘I’m going to do sports psychology,’” she told us. “So, I wrote it down and then I declared it to my co-workers. Then I started working with athletes and teams and coaches, and I took some coursework, too. All that put me on a path to do it.”
What’s really interesting about Pat’s story is that, in the midst of the pursuit of her goal, she started to notice sports-related emails coming into her inbox much more than before she committed to her goal.
“You don’t notice things unless your brain wants to be right,” she said. “Anything that came into my email inbox that had to do with sports popped out at me. It brings that focus into your brain.”
The person who says they want to be the greatest soccer player in the world will start to notice ads for soccer camps, matches on TV and other things she wouldn’t normally have caught.
“That’s what the brain does,” Pat said, “because it wants to be right. And then, it’s motivating you.”
Step 2: Connect Your New Year’s Resolution to an Emotion
Tiffany Cruikshank, the founder of the Los Angeles-based Yoga Medicine, agrees with Pat. Goals and resolutions have to more than just ideas – you have to put them in your mind and be prepared for action.
But, in order to succeed with your resolution, you need to take one extra step between committing and doing – you have to connect emotions to your resolution.
“We know that there’s an emotional bias in the brain. It’s one thing to put it on paper – ‘I want to lose weight’ – but when you connect it to something sensory that you can feel and experience,” Tiffany told us, “it becomes much more powerful.”
Connecting to that emotion is a matter of envisioning what it would feel like to be the person you want to be when you accomplish the New Year’s resolution you set.
Tiffany tackled weight loss, since, according to Statistics Brain, it’s the number one New Year’s resolution in the United States.
“Some people want to lose weight so they can be healthier and some want to look better. If you want to lose weight to feel better, the key is understanding how you feel when you feel better,” she said.
If you’ve never been in a place where you actually felt good, it can be tough to imagine what that’s like, Tiffany said, but it’s worth the effort to imagine how that feels.
Take Time Each Day to Think About the Emotional Connection
The next step is to meditate on that emotion every morning. Tiffany suggests using five minutes of every morning to count out deep breaths. At the end of the breathing exercise, spend time connecting yourself to the emotions you imagine yourself having once you’ve met your goal.
“What does it feel like? All of these things are motivating factors that help create an emotional connection that research says I powerful in helping us follow through,” Tiffany said. “I think being able to use that is a really powerful tool, and it sets a baseline for your day.”
So, if you used to be in shape and were a little more trim than you are now, take a few minutes each morning to remember what it felt like to be in shape and thin.
Remember the happiness you felt when you were able to play a full game of basketball, softball or soccer. Connect with what it felt like to be able to walk around for a day and still feel fresh and strong.
Step 3: With Your Mind Right, Seek Out a Trainer to Help You
Once you have the mental aspect of your resolutions in place – you can’t succeed without it – then you can get into the more practical side of achieving a fitness or workout goal.
One of the words you’ll hear a lot this time of the year is “accountability”, or making sure you share your resolution with people so they can encourage you to keep pushing to achieve your goal.
Many of the experts we talked to mentioned this aspect. Pat Moore said one of the first things she did when she committed to sports psychology was to tell her coworkers.
What does that look like for you? Two of our experts say that one of the best accountability systems is finding a trainer who works with you at the gym or at your home.
David Herskowitz, co-founder of California-based Sandbox Fitness and a 15-year veteran of the fitness industry, said people who’ve never worked out before should not step into a gym without a trainer.
Franklin Antoian, owner of iBodyFit.com and an ACE-certified personal trainer, said trainers not only help you navigate workouts appropriate for your skill level, but the simple fact that you’re meeting them at a certain time and paying for the session tends to be enough motivation for most people.
“What I find is that, when someone has an appointment, they go,” Franklin said.
Just signing up for a gym membership, on the other hand, doesn’t introduce accountability unless you plan to go to the gym with someone.
“Basically, there’s no one there waiting for you who will work out with you personally,” Franklin said.
Good Trainers Personalize Workouts for You
How do you find a good trainer? Great question. David Herskowitz says legit trainers will talk with you about where you’re at in your fitness journey and craft a workout program that will push you, but not push you over the edge.
The same goes for group fitness classes – make sure whoever is running the show can customize the program for you.
“Good instructors can push everyone in their own individual ways in the same hour-long class,” David told us. “They can run the same workout for everyone but tailor it to every single person.”
If the thought of joining a class appeals to you but you’re kind of afraid to start, David recommends talking with the instructor beforehand.
“Let them know you’re new to working out and what your issues are,” he said.
Over time, you’ll come to appreciate the help of a qualified, professional trainer. They’ll be able to bring out the best in your workout.
Now, once you’re in your groove, there’s always the danger of settling into a rut where you don’t feel like you’re getting stronger, faster or thinner. What happens then? Introduce adversity.
Step 4: Welcome Adversity as a Tool to Keep You Motivated
The human body is an interesting machine, David Herskowitz told us. It’s built for survival, so it will do what it has to do in order to stay alive.
“A long time ago our body needed to be strong enough to hunt and fight animals and endure long winters. Our bodies were strong,” he said. “Now, if you sit on the couch all day, your body is saying it doesn’t really need the muscles.”
If we’re confined to chairs and couches all day, the body adapts and gets rid of excess muscle. But once you start exercising, it’s amazing how quickly your body will replenish your muscles to meet the task set before it.
In other words, Pat Moore said, your body will respond positively to regular adversity; it makes you stronger both physically and mentally.
So, when you sprain your ankle and have to alter your workouts, you’re not only keeping your commitment to working out, but you’re also learning you can excel when you aren’t at 100%.
Mental Toughness Comes From Adversity
“Mental toughness is repeated exposure to adversity and coming back stronger than you were before the adversity hit,” Pat said. “We have to celebrate adversity because it’s through adversity that we really get stronger.”
We can’t see into the future, but we’re pretty sure there will be plenty of little and big injuries or aches and pains for the millions who make losing weight and/or working out their New Year’s resolution. Adversity is bound to come your way. Embrace it.
“Anybody can perform well when things are going well,” Pat said. “But it’s that first day when you don’t have a good workout or you sprain your ankle that will make you crumble or make you stronger.”
She closed with a story about Michael Phelps and his coach, Bob Bowman. To get Phelps to perform his best under any circumstance, Bowman would crack Phelps goggles so they’d fill with water during a race, pick Phelps up late for competitions so Phelps would miss a meal and swim hungry, and employed several other techniques.
Now, we’re not saying you should go to these great lengths to sabotage yourself; certainly not. But don’t miss the lesson here – adversity can breed toughness, and toughness is what will help you accomplish your New Year’s resolutions.
While we don’t know if Phelps listed “win a gold medal in Beijing” as a New Year’s resolution in 2008, we do know this: His goggles cracked during the 200-meter butterfly finals and he won anyway.
Step 5: When You’ve Missed Three Days of Your New Year’s Resolution, Don’t Give Up
Whether your goal is to win gold, finish a 5K or lose 15 pounds, you’re bound to face adversity. One of the most dangerous hurdles is missing a workout or breaking your diet.
When that happens, we tend to think back to past failures and confirm the fact that we aren’t cut out to achieve our goals. One day passes, then two and, before you know it, you’ve missed an entire week of working out and/or eating right.
Should you quit? Franklin Antoian says no.
“People miss a few days or cheat on their diet and they say, ‘Forget it. I’m not going back to my plan,’” he said. “One bad meal or week doesn’t ruin your plan. Don’t let a couple bad days throw you off.”
The Three-Day Rule
Dr. Klapow says resolution-makers need to start using the three-day rule, which is a tool he says is successful in stopping behavioral drift, which is the brain’s tendency to return to old behaviors when you’re trying to establish new ones.
So, let’s say you’ve started a diet where you avoid sugars and fast food. A birthday rolls around and there’s cake. You indulge, and immediately afterward you beat yourself up for being weak.
Three sugar-filled and fast-food-filled days later, all that progress you made seems like it disappeared. This is where the three-day rule comes into effect.
“The only thing the rule requires you to do is to simply say, no matter what the reason is for missing three days, the reason why you stopped, write that reason down and then pick a date to get back into your resolution,” Josh said.
Picking a date is what really puts you in control. Most people react to their slip-up by saying, “I’m going to get back into it, I promise,” but they never set a date. Ambiguity gives your brain space to keep drifting to your old behaviors. And, before you know it, sugar and fast food are back in your life by Feb. 1.
Picking a specific date to start again puts you in control. Your mind wants to be right, after all, so identifying a deadline gives it the specificity it needs to bounce back.
21 Days Makes a Habit? Not So Much…
As we talked with Josh about behavioral drift and the three-day rule, he brought up the old belief that doing something 21 days in a row will establish a habit. Sounds great, but like many sayings thrown around during New Year’s resolution time, it’s flat-out inaccurate.
“The whole 21-day thing is bogus,” Josh said. “What it really means is that the research shows that three weeks of doing a behavior means you’re more likely to stick with it than if you did it for 14 days.”
The rule frustrates him because it makes people believe that hitting the 21-day mark will make them bulletproof.
Escaping behavioral drift is a matter of continually stacking the odds in your favor, not surpassing a set number of days.
“To be honest, research shows that over six months of behavior the risk of drift really goes down, but people don’t like to hear six months,” Josh said. “I always tell people that when you’re changing your behavior it’s a battle of probabilities and you’re trying to stack the deck in your favor. Nothing is for sure.”
Finishing Up Strong: Some Final Thoughts About How to Succeed With Your New Year’s Resolutions
Only 8% of Americans follow through on their New Year’s resolutions. And when we say “follow through,” we mean keeping them up for an entire year.
It makes a lot of sense as to why we don’t meet our goals – the brain is a tricky organ that needs the right motivation and direction to succeed.
Get Your Brain Involved
First off, your brain wants to be right. So, if you tell yourself that, by the end of the year, you’re going to weigh a certain amount or you’re going to be able to run a certain distance, your brain will want to achieve that standard.
But, in order for that resolution to become a reality, you’ll need to make it more than just an idea. Write it down, then think about what it would be like to actually reach that goal. How would your body function? How would you feel about yourself? What would it be like to actually feel healthy again?
Making those emotional connections will motivate your mind and body to accomplish your resolution. One of the best ways to keep this motivation going is to spend five minutes each morning relaxing yourself, then thinking about those emotional connections.
Get a Trainer
Once you’ve got your mind and body going in the right direction, hire a trainer to help you reach your fitness goals.
Setting up weekly appointments reminds you that someone is waiting for you at the gym, and that fact will do a lot more to motivate you than if you were going to the gym to work out alone.
Trainers will also help with the next bit of advice: adversity. Introducing increasing levels of difficulty to your workout routine will fortify your mental toughness and help you maintain focus on your resolutions. The more adversity you overcome, the stronger you’ll be.
Follow the Three-Day Rule
As the months go by, you’ll most likely encounter a dry spell. You’ll miss one day of working out or eating right and that one day turns into two, then three. Once you hit the three-day mark, you need to do two things.
First, write down the reasons why you’ve slipped up – acknowledge them and take responsibility. Second, pick a specific date that you’re going to start again.
Choosing a specific date and even a specific time on that day puts you in control of your resolutions and keeps your mind from drifting back into old behaviors.
More New Year’s Resolution Advice
Over the course of this article, we’ve mentioned our first article about New Year’s resolutions, which covers some of the main reasons why we seem to screw up our resolutions every year. We use many of the same experts we highlighted here, so read it when you get a chance!