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Step Off The See-Saw Of Guilt-Inducing New Year's Resolutions

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Written by Annie Hoang, a registered dietitian with the Sunnybrook Academic Family Health Team

It is that time of year again -- when many of us have resolved to start doing what we have been meaning to do. The eggnog is gone, the sugar cookies have been eaten, and you're feeling about as bloated and stuffed as that turkey you had three servings of. It's no surprise that new year's resolutions often include goals like weight loss, "clean eating" or cutting out sugar or alcohol.

But there's a downside to these types of lofty resolutions -- they simply don't work. These goals are often drastic and leave little room for compromise. They are often all-or-nothing plans that set people up for failure, and once you fall off the wagon, so to speak, you can't help but feel discouraged.

They simply don't work.

This year, I propose we scrap the new year's resolution mentality. Instead of making a brand-spanking new plan that calls for a major change, how about we try small changes? Baby steps?

Deprivation versus guilt

When we create all-or-nothing plans to change our diets, here is what usually happens. Evelyn Tribole, a dietitian and expert in intuitive eating describes this see-saw:

As we start our new diet plans, we create some sort of deprivation -- cutting out sweets, caffeine, alcohol, sugars, carbohydrates, fats, or [insert any new trendy diet]. The more we stick to the deprivation, the better we feel about ourselves for following the rules. Eventually though, we break that rule, because life happens.

Maybe you didn't have much choice at a restaurant, at your friend's house, or you just craved that food. And so the deprivation side falls, and you no longer feel good, but instead that feeling is replaced with guilt. When the guilt rises high enough, we deal with it by getting back on the deprivation side again. And so the see-saw continues up and down.

avoiding dessert

How do we stop the see-saw? Get off of it altogether?

We need to get rid of this idea of deprivation. Banish the all-or-nothing thinking style. Without deprivation, we will also reduce the guilt associated with eating. Instead of setting major diet plans that require cutting something out, start making small changes that you can likely actually sustain for the long term. In other words, set yourself up for success, not for failure.

Unrealistic Goals Realistic Goals
Major change to lifestyle Gradual adjustments
Short term results Long lasting results
Quick results Slow change
Feel guilty with failure Motivated by each small success

Try creating a SMART goal instead.

Specific

Measurable

Actionable

Realistic

Timely

Specific
When creating your SMART goal, ask yourself What will I do? When will I do it? How often? The more detail that goes into your plan, the more likely it is you will follow through.

Measurable
Choose an action plan that is measurable, it will be a way to track your success. For example, if you are planning to increase your fruit intake, instead of planning to eat "more," plan to have two fruits each day.

Actionable
The best goals are ones based on actions, not results. All too often, people set goals to feel better, or to lose weight. These are examples of results. Think about what you want to do, and what behaviour you will change in order to achieve the desired results.

Realistic
In order to set ourselves up for success, it is important to be realistic in what you do. If you have not exercised in a long time, now is not the time to start training for a 10k. Start with increasing your physical activity in a way that will be achievable and enjoyable, like adding a walk at lunch, or taking a dance class.

Timely
Having an end point in mind can be motivating. Set your goal within a short period of time so you can look back and reflect on how you did. You can take that opportunity to evaluate if the goal was easy and you can continue it, or if it was too challenging and you may need to revise your next SMART goal.

Compare these goals:

"I will try to get more sleep in 2016."

"I will be in bed by 11:00 p.m. three nights per week for the next month."

The first statement is vague and not measurable. The second statement is specific, measurable, action-oriented, realistic, and can be re-evaluated after one month. You can use a journal or calendar to track the days you have completed your goal. Telling somebody else about your goal, or writing it down can even further increase your commitment.

Setting SMART goals has been proven to be more effective than making a drastic change cold turkey.

Above all, your SMART goal should be something you want to do. Find something you are truly motivated to do, and you will be more successful. Extrinsic motivation does not go very far. There have been research studies that tried motivating people to exercise by paying them. It worked only for the short term, but if you truly did not enjoy the exercise, you would not likely continue. We all crave personal growth and good health, and setting SMART goals has been proven to be more effective than making a drastic change cold turkey.

Dr. Mike Evans has a great video about new year's resolutions. People who make them tend to be more ready for change and end up more successful at maintaining their change after six months. He also recommends making small changes at a time. Remember, building a healthier lifestyle is like a marathon, not a sprint.

You are in it for the long run, so choose behaviours that are enjoyable and sustainable.

Check out the video by Dr. Mike Evans:

Happy New Year!

Find more healthy living advice from Sunnybrook experts at health.sunnybrook.ca

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