We all like to start anew once in a while, get a makeover, leave behind what doesn't suit us anymore, or simply try something different. Then there is also that nagging feeling that we should change our "evil ways." When people make promises to themselves this time of the year, it is often about the latter.
Among the most popular New Year's resolutions are losing weight and getting in shape, followed by kicking bad habits like smoking and drinking. Other favorites include making more time for family, charity, education, travel, and other goals of personal improvement. Interestingly enough, working harder, finding a better job, and earning more money do not even make most top-ten lists.
The unfortunate thing about these good intentions is that they usually don't last and cause only more pressure and stress, according to Achim Achilles, a professional athlete and author of books and columns on sport and fitness issues.
For example, he says, "I will exercise more" is a classic resolution. That's why gyms and fitness studios are so crowded in the early days of January. But soon things quiet down again. The reason is that such plans are much too vague. They don't offer specific objectives that can be clearly defined and measured in terms of progress. Consequently, most people lose interest because there is not enough to hold their attention. A better idea would be to take up one particular activity that is fun and provides concrete benefits.
Also, some goals aren't realistic. If your aspiration is to run a marathon by spring, even though you've not been performing on that level for some time (or ever), you're bound to fail. And if you train too hard, the outcome will be equally as frustrating. The best approach is to have reasonable expectations and work diligently towards fulfilling them. If that means being able to run one, two, or five kilometers at a time, that is a great accomplishment and should be appreciated as such, Achilles says.
Another of these classic vows is: "I will lose weight." It's too ambitious and too prone to failure, again, because there is no clear definition of success. If losing weight only means lower numbers on the scale, that won't suffice. Rather than starving yourself for days and weeks on end, ask yourself how the unwanted weight gain occurred in the first place and how its causes can be eliminated. Listen to your body and understand its needs first, Achilles recommends. Then act accordingly.
What you hear often after the holidays is, "I will never eat cookies or candy again." This, too, is a good intention, but not very practical. Yes, it is helpful to understand how sugary treats contribute to weight gain, and the same goes for other less-than-healthy items like snacks and fast food. But nutrients like sugar and salt are hidden in countless foods we consume every day, so they are not easily eliminated. It would be more constructive to ask yourself how much of these temptations you are prone to fall for and why. Do they give you a boost when you are tired or bored, do they come in handy when you are stressed? If so, perhaps you can find better solutions than reaching for the sweet stuff.
After all the stress from shopping and preparing for celebrations, a lot of people pledge "to spend more time on what really matters." This one, by contrast to many other resolution ideas, may not be so hard to realize. But it takes discipline and a willingness to set priorities, says Achilles. First, you need to figure out what you want to make time for. It shouldn't just be another activity or distraction but rather something you can truly profit from. That can be as simple as sitting still by yourself, meditating, or finding something meaningful to do that helps others but also gives you pleasure and a sense of purpose. There is no definition of "what really matters in life" -- there is only what you can do to fill the void.
Happy New Year, and best of luck with your plans, whatever they may be.
MORE ON HUFFPOST: