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New Year’s Resolutions Don’t Work. Here’s How to Set Goals That Stick

Coach Megan G.

Be honest: Does the prospect of the approaching new year fill you with a little bit of dread? You’re not alone. For those of us who feel urgently that we’d like to lose weight, get healthy, and get out there to enjoy life, the idea of setting a New Year’s resolution can be very tempting, and also a little scary. This time of year might dredge up memories of resolutions past, and remind us about what we haven’t been able to accomplish yet. From there, it’s no surprise we might double-down on extreme commitments: “This year, no excuses! Not a bag of chips nor a candy bar will enter my house. By next December, I’m going to be the perfect image of health. On January 1st, it begins.”

Believe it or not, that fear, and all of the big, unfeasible resolutions that grow out of it, is completely normal. But sweeping resolutions just don’t work—for almost any of us!

If you’ve heard of Quitter’s Day, the term originally came from the digital fitness company Strava. After analyzing 31.5 million user-logged activities from January 2019, Strava found that roughly 80 percent of people who made New Year’s resolutions threw in the towel by the second Friday in January—and an unofficial new “holiday” was born. The wellness website Verywell Health found that 60 percent of their surveyed users weren’t able to stick to their resolutions. The most often cited reason? Unrealistic goals.

We’re here to tell you there’s a better way. It starts with acknowledging the desire to set unattainable resolutions, and allowing that desire to pass through us. And then we can get real about setting resolutions that might actually lead us to success. Throwing out the term “resolutions” is a great first step.   

Meet the Bite-Sized Goal

If you want to start a new habit or make a positive behavior change, setting a “stretch goal”—something that takes a lot of effort and is way outside of what you’re doing now—is typically not the way to go. To use a classic example, you’re probably not going to go from a completely sedentary lifestyle to running a marathon in six months. Yet historically, media messaging around New Year’s implores us to set our sights on pie-in-the-sky resolutions like this. We say, forget resolutions. Instead, the key is to set specific, measurable, action-based milestones that, at least initially, don’t stray too far from what you’re currently able to do. 

That’s what we mean by bite-sized goals. In shifting your focus to incremental, bite-sized goals that eventually lead to a long-term outcome you’re after, you’ll set yourself up for success. 

Smaller goals you can actually achieve strengthen your daily routines and systems slowly and sustainably over time. Changes you make in bite-size goals can be small enough that they’re almost unnoticeable. More importantly, they should be manageable instead of wholly unpleasant. In the marathon example, that might look like walking for 5 minutes a day for two weeks, then working up to 15 minutes a day, and so on. If instead you try to dive in straight away, jogging two miles a day when your body isn’t accustomed to that, it’s probably going to feel pretty miserable. When you start small and build from there, that gives you a chance to train for the next natural bite-size change on the path to your long-term goal. 

Let’s look at another example. Say Amanda wants to learn how to love the taste of coffee on its own. Right now, she puts ½ cup of peppermint mocha creamer in every cup she drinks. She has a few choices to reach her goal. She could certainly set a grand “resolution,” throw out all her flavored creamers, drink black coffee exclusively, and hope that her taste buds get with the program immediately. But she might have to suffer through a couple months of unpleasant coffees before her taste buds actually adjust. So, in taking this all-or-nothing approach, she’s more likely to give up and go back to her ½ cup of creamer—deciding that the change wasn’t worth it. What if Amanda set a bite-size goal instead? Imagine she decides to reduce her favorite creamer to 3 tablespoons on January 1, 2 tablespoons on February 1, and 1 tablespoon by March 1. Instead of two months of unpleasant coffees (where coffee had initially been a treasured part of her daily routine), followed by a failure to achieve her ultimate goal, she might have two months of enjoyable coffees as her tastebuds slowly evolve with her. Plus, she meets her larger, long-term health goal in the process! Taking the bite-sized road is really a no-brainer no matter how you cut it. 

With this approach, the other great thing is that it works for everyone. Regardless of your job, environment, and life stressors, you can set small goals and work up. Remember—your coach is there for you to navigate through any barriers you have in goal setting, so reach out to them to help you come up with a game plan!

Why Bite-Sized Goals Actually Work

There are tons of reasons to break down goals into small, approachable steps. Doing so: 

 

  • Encourages you to start now. Rather than waiting for “the perfect time,” you’ll feel much more inspired to dive in, right here right now, if your first step feels doable. 

  • Honors your journey. Starting small acknowledges where you’re coming from, lets you set a goal that meets you where you’re at, and gives you a chance to succeed off the bat. 

  • Keeps you engaged. With an approachable, simple, short-term goal in mind, you’ll be much more likely to stick to the process. You’ll also see the next logical step toward your longer-term goal, and each incremental step will feel easier to tackle than the last.

  • Builds self-trust. When you achieve that first step (e.g. walk for 5 minutes a day), you get a taste of success. You get the sense that you CAN do this. On the other hand, when you set your sights too high (run two miles immediately!) and fail, you might start to doubt yourself.

  • Makes more progress possible. When your attention isn’t split among multiple changes all at the same time, you can actually make solid progress. 

  • Lets you measure progress. When you can clearly see and celebrate tangible successes more quickly, and all along the way, you’re more likely to stay motivated. If science tells us anything, it’s that setting and achieving small goals actually increases dopamine—a feel-good neurotransmitter—in our brains. When you feel that dopamine spike, it’ll inspire you to keep going and achieve even more wins.

  • Gives you control. Setting a goal that focuses only on the outcome can leave you feeling helpless. Identifying action-oriented goals, on the other hand, gives you a sense of power.

How to Set a Bite-Sized Goal

If you feel like what you ultimately have is a long-term goal—a big, difficult one that’s overwhelming to think about—that’s totally OK. Write it down and share it with your coach, and then work on distilling it into achievable parts. It’s easier than you think. Remember, lose the word “resolution,” and follow these five steps. 

1. Envision success. Think about your long-term goal and imagine a person who’s already achieved it. Envision them clearly in your mind, going about their day, living out your goal. Example: I’m picturing Tony, someone who has lost 50 pounds. He’s maintaining that loss, while keeping a positive relationship with food.

2. Brainstorm. List some actions that person does every day to meet and maintain that goal. For example: Tony is keeping a food journal, meal-prepping breakfast and lunch to make healthy choices during the work week easier, grocery shopping every Saturday, moving his body for 15 minutes every day, and fitting in a serving of his favorite fun food—peanut butter cups!—once per week.

3. Set it. Pick one of those actions from your brainstorm. Look at where you are now. Create a specific, measurable, and action-based milestone to work toward first, e.g. I want to lose 10 pounds in three months and maintain that loss. To do that, you might determine what you can do to make healthier food choices: I’d like to go to the grocery store more regularly. Currently, I’m going only once a month, and often eating lunch and dinner at restaurants or fast-food spots. That might lead you to your initial goal: I want to go to the grocery store every week. So in February, that’s my goal—grocery shop four times.

4. Focus. Remember, you want to achieve your bite-sized goal with consistency before taking the next step. In this case, you’ll tell yourself: I’m not putting expectations of meal-prepping on myself right now. My only goal is taking the action of getting to the grocery store 4 times per month. Evaluate where you’re at at the end of month one and month two. Once you achieve it with consistency, you can choose your next bite-size goal.

5. Track your wins. Find a tangible way to mark your success every day that you meet your goal. Put up a chart or whiteboard at home, post about it on social media, log a celebration in the Found app, or text your coach—whatever works for you. It’s satisfying to mark off your goal as “done” for the day. Doing so will actually release dopamine in your brain, which we already know is connected to feeling good and motivation, and it’ll give you a visual track record of your wins that you can look back on every week or month. 

How to Keep Your Goals “SMART” 

Struggling to drill down on your first bite-sized goal? Another helpful way to think about this is setting SMART goals. The acronym was coined in the ’80s by the business consultant George T. Doran, and refers to a simple framework for defining objectives that’s often used in corporate settings. It also happens to work really well for goal-setting outside the office. A SMART goal is: 

  • S: Specific. The more specific the better. Reframing broad, vague goals in precise terms really helps.

  • M: Measurable. Easy to quantify in a way that allows you to check your progress along the way.

  • A: Achievable. Again, small, attainable wins, you’re more likely to succeed at an overarching change.

  • R: Relevant. It helps to clearly identify what results you can realistically achieve given your resources and abilities from the get-go.

  • T: Time-bound. Lay out an end date so you know not just what you want to accomplish, but also by when.

Let’s go back to the marathon example. If, as a sedentary person, “run a marathon” is your broad goal, that’s a great jumping off point. But it’s not “SMART.” The SMART version would be: Walk for 5 minutes a day for two weeks; then walk 15 minutes a day for two weeks; and so on. The latter ticks all the boxes: specific, measurable, achievable, relevant, time-bound. 

You may have noticed that bite-sized goals aren’t tied to a New Year’s Day timeline. You can set them any time of year! If you know you tend to put off your ultimate goals again and again, setting an easy and attainable bite-sized one is probably going to be a great first step. So join us in hopping off the New Year’s resolution merry-go-round—and set a bite-sized goal today.

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