Why you should focus on habits not resolutions this new year

Healthy Habits New Year resolution

It’s likely that most of us have made a new year’s resolution that’s been abandoned after a couple of weeks. The resolution is often a broad pledge to lose weight, drink less alcohol or do more exercise.

According to the experts, vague unfocussed goals can set us up for failure from the start. Brisbane-based nutritionist and health coach Lulu Cook recommends “cultivating a new habit” rather than “adopting a resolution that will be forgotten by the end of the month”.

Research shows it takes most people at least 21 days (some longer) to establish a new habit and more than three months to lock it in as a behaviour that becomes automatic and involves less effort. But how do we go about adopting new, healthier habits?

Plan for success

Dr Peta Stapleton, associate professor in the School of Psychology at Bond University, believes successful new habits are those that are thought out and planned; otherwise they’re difficult to sustain.

“Sit down and ask yourself, ‘What would I like to achieve this year?’ If you’d like to lose weight, define what you mean and think about what it would look like. For example, visualise yourself in a particular size outfit,” Dr Stapleton says.

She recommends using a S.M.A.R.T approach where a goal is Specific (an exact goal), Measurable (“one sugary drink” per week is measurable, “not many sugary drinks” isn’t), Achievable (be realistic), Relevant (will this goal change your life for the better?) and Timely (put a date on your goal).

Focus on little things

“Small and specific goals will be more successful than big and broad goals,” Lulu Cook says. “If you want to lose 20 kilograms, be gentle on yourself and start by going for regular walks or eating more vegetables.

“These things are achievable, whereas you can’t control that big vague end goal.”

Nicole Dynan, accredited dietitian and owner of The Good Nutrition Co in Sydney, says a big hairy audacious goal to lose weight is best broken down into achievable chunks to achieve positive outcomes.

“Set yourself up to experience success. Look at the smallest possible changes you can make that will work for you,” Nicole says.

She gives the example of the busy mum who wants to lose weight and get fit but has limited free time. The gym is out of the question, but what about taking the dog for a walk around the block three days a week? That could be manageable.

Once this small habit becomes an established routine, we’re buoyed by our success and gain more confidence to set more challenging goals, she says.

Find a cheerleader or go it alone?

Nicole says there are two types of people.

“There are those who love and need a support network, which can be diverse and come from friends, family, colleagues and health professionals.

“Then there are those who fear judgment and other people’s expectations, and hate telling people about their goals. They may just rely on a health professional or a fitness coach and check in regularly to keep on track.”

Monitor your journey

Keeping a journal or simply recording your progress can help “unpack the habit”, Lulu Cook says. If writing isn’t your thing, there is an array of health apps to monitor your progress. Likewise, you can just use an old-fashioned star chart to monitor your progress.

Go easy on yourself

Put self-care and self-compassion on the menu. Dr Stapleton says it helps to reward yourself for adopting and maintaining a positive new habit. “Get a massage or buy or do something special to recognise the effort and achievement,” she says.

The end goals are good health and a positive outlook

While we all like to think and plan big - the experts agree it helps to think and start small when it comes to establishing new habits. Make small changes, work towards achieveable goals, get support along the way and monitor and celebrate success.

For while we might have a specific target – perhaps to achieve a healthy weight or a particular fitness goal - the ultimate outcome is to improve overall health and wellbeing.

So ditch the resolutions this new year, and adopt small easy changes that you can incorporate into your daily life for long-term lasting success.


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