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Health Matters: Why it's time to rethink your New Year's resolutions

It may be time to shift your mindset. New Year's resolutions shouldn't be about reinventing yourself.
Image: Healthy young female weight training in gym
Mike Harrington / Getty Images

It’s a phrase we hear this time of year: New year, new you. We make sweeping resolutions in early January and somehow run out of steam a few weeks – or even a few days – later. It’s time to rethink this negative cycle that’s familiar to all of us.

It’s not about reinventing yourself; it’s about building on what you have already achieved – whether it’s your physical or mental health, financial issues or career choices. Make changes that have personal meaning and not what’s trending or based on other people’s advice. Try these three practical steps to set yourself up for success in 2019, no matter what part of your life you’d like to improve.

Be specific (single task oriented)

One of the most popular resolutions is weight loss. And it usually fails, because “losing weight” is not an action step. Instead, identify specific steps to support this goal, whether it’s eating better, increasing your activity or adjusting your attitude. Then pick specific tasks, like cutting sugary drinks and choosing water, eating three fruits and vegetables daily or limiting snacks to once a day.

For fitness, think about the three pillars of activity: cardio, strength and flexibility. Try walking 30 minutes, three times a week, or take a weekly yoga class and jump rope for 10 minutes twice a week. If you have emotional issues that need improvement, think about how you can manage your stress better. Maybe that means avoiding triggers that cause you to emotionally eat. Or, maybe it’s adding more activities in your life to combat boredom eating. No matter what the topic, choosing specific tasks is the key to successful change.

Be realistic (what you are willing and able to do)

Avoid aspirational thinking, and identify goals that you are both willing and able to do. Focus on activities that have meaning to you. Effort counts – and you can learn from times you’re succeeding and when you’re struggling.

Get rid of “all or nothing” thinking. For example, if you’ve been on the couch for the past few months, telling your friends that you’re training for a half marathon may sound glamourous, but do what’s achievable. Maybe that means starting with a daily, 30 minute walk.

And don’t be afraid to tweak your plan. If that daily walk isn’t working, for example, aim for a more modest, three times a week schedule. Resist the social pressure of what others are doing, especially if it doesn’t resonate with you. A healthy dose of realism allows you to personalize your own needs.

Be patient (think short- and long-term success)

Making a change is hard, and it takes at least three weeks (and often up to three months) for a new action to become a habit. We all want a quick payoff once we’ve decided to make a change. But keep in mind that while the decision to make a change is a big one, it’s only the first step.

Consider setting up some short-term successes to keep you engaged. For example, with weight loss, have a short-term goal of trimming 250 to 500 calories a day from your present eating; this provides a daily reminder of what you can do in real time. And for most people, this small change will result in losing two to four pounds every month.

And keep your long term goal – let’s say losing 10 pounds – as an open-ended goal, with no specific time frame, to take the pressure off. It might take as little as three months, or as long as six months. The key is that you have a daily goal to keep in mind to sustain short-term success while working towards your longer-term goal. This concept applies everywhere!

Madelyn Fernstrom, Ph.D. is the NBC News Health Editor. Follow her on Twitter @drfernstrom.