New Year’s resolutions – why not just give up now?

Dr Paul McGovern - OHP Medigold Health


Our Specialty Registrar in Occupational Medicine, Dr Paul McGovern, offers you some no-nonsense advice on how to achieve your 2020 resolutions.

January gym-goers always leave me feeling somewhat conflicted. On the one hand, they appear en-masse like a carpet of spandexed cicadas, to fill the gym on January 2nd. The sheer volume of humanity excreting Yule’s remnants makes the changing rooms disgusting, and it becomes impossible to book onto classes.

New Year's Resolutions_2020

On the other hand, the people that sign up in January vanish just as reliably on February 1st. Because gyms insist you sign up for a year, these people subsidize my gym membership, meaning it’s cheaper for regulars between February and December. All those memberships, all those direct debits…I should be grateful really.

If you make a New Year’s resolution to get fit and healthy, or lose weight, or stop smoking, you’re almost certain to fail. While this sounds defeatist, it doesn’t change the fact that nearly all those people Instagramming themselves in the gym mirror with the caption “#newyearnewmeLOL” will not succeed. February’s pretty grey and miserable anyway – how can anyone be expected to keep up self-discipline when they barely even see daylight?

So, what to do?

One might forego any change and continue to languish in Christmas crapulence for the whole year, but that wouldn’t be very healthy. It’s the resolution itself that needs a makeover. 

A New Year’s resolution on its own is effectively meaningless, a bit of puff to pretend to ourselves that we’re going to change. At its core, it’s an outcome. And outcomes are useless without a clear idea of how to get there. 

Quit smoking 2020

Lost 5 kilos. Double my salary. Go to the gym more. Get a better job. Stop smoking. Watch less TV. Read more. Quit Facebook. Eat more vegetables. All examples of resolutions, of outcomes, which have not a shred of substance to them without a plan behind them. 

How are you going to do this thing you’ve promised yourself? Really, how? The answer to this is usually superficial and just as meaningless – I’ll eat less, I’ll go to the gym more, I’ll just quit the cigs and go cold turkey.

Time to get SMART...

For a resolution to work it needs a plan. For the plan to work it needs a SMART Goals_2020structure. There are all sorts of structures you can use but at their core they allow you to identify what happens now, what is going to change, how you measure success, and – critically – what you will do when you inevitably slip up. You’re human. You will slip up. It’s OK, especially if you plan for it. 

One structure you can use for a resolution is a SMART goal – one that’s Specific, Measurable, Achievable Realistic, Timely. Let’s take a January gym goer’s resolution to “Get fit.”

Well, “Get fit” isn’t specific. It doesn’t have any measure of success or failure, so it’s easy to change the goal posts. Specific might be “Be able to play football with my kids.”

OK, we’ve made a start…

Measurable – the more you can think about what success looks like and how you will get there, the better the plan becomes. Playing football with the kids for 5 minutes may be enough, but they’d probably prefer it if you could manage half an hour.

Achievable – this is your resolution, so you’re the person that’s going to do it. But as it’s your responsibility, how are you going to get there? If you haven’t exercised in 10 years, you’ll probably pop your Achilles tendon if you push yourself too hard. Are you going to start slowly and build up? Are you going to think about what exercise you actually enjoy, or enjoyed when you were younger? Are you going to do something that’s sociable, or work on your own?

This brings us on to…

Man playing with family_2020

Realistic some sources quote the “R” of SMART as “relevant” – you can use either but for a resolution, realistic seems better. If your plan to give up smoking is to go cold turkey and you’ve tried to do this 10 times before, stop kidding yourself. There’s unlikely to be anything different this time around – why set yourself up to fail? Get help and make sure that you don’t set a plan that’s so impossible you’re guaranteed to flop. For big projects (e.g. lose 30 kg of bodyweight), break the task up into smaller sections which are realistic. Do some research on the internet as to what’s plausible and what’s fanciful.

Timely – this relates closely to being realistic. If you want to lose 30kg in 2 weeks, you’re setting a completely unattainable target. If it’s a long term goal, again, break things up so you can measure progress over smaller timescales – if you plan to make a project a year-long, there’s a lot of opportunities to do nothing until July as you pretend you’ll get right to it. Even for things like quitting smoking, set sub-goals (no smoking for 2 months, then review and make a plan for the next 2 months) to give you something in the near future to aim for.

Fail to plan, plan to fail...

So, “Get fit,” put through the SMART sausage-maker, becomes “By the Target_Achieve Goals_2020end of March, be able to play football with my kids for half an hour without getting too short of breath. I’ll do this by taking a bit of exercise twice a week in January, gradually build up to 30 minutes three times a week in February, and when Spring comes around I’ll go and kick a ball around in the park for 30 minutes once a week in March while keeping up with other exercise I enjoy, like walking or going for the odd swim. If I don’t manage to exercise for a week or two, it’s OK, I’ll just start back doing it when I have time, but I will commit to sticking to this schedule as far as I possibly can. I’ll have a look at where I am in March and see if I should make another goal for the next three months.”

Ultimately, if you don’t make a plan your resolution will probably fail. But the good news is that if you put some structure around it, you give yourself the best chance of making the change you want to make.

There are loads of ways to increase the chance of success with resolutions. What are your top tips?