WSU experts offer advice on turning New Year’s resolutions into reality

A man slowly climbing a mountain.
By setting clear, quantifiable objectives, individuals looking to make positives changes can start accumulating small victories and maintain perspective of how far they’ve come and set the next milestone to aim for.

From ancient Babylonians making new commitments to their gods to today’s average office worker pledging to give up soda, humans have been struggling with New Year’s resolutions for a very long time.

Yet there is hope, according to a group of Washington State University experts who offer their insights into keeping positive lifestyle changes going in the weeks and months ahead.

One solution is setting SMART goals, which stands for specific, measurable, achievable, relevant, and time-bound. By setting clear, quantifiable objectives, individuals looking to make positives changes can start accumulating small victories and maintain perspective of how far they’ve come and set the next milestone to aim for.

“If you’re committed to being healthier, you need to take stock of what that means and define what your goal is from the outset,” said Chris Barry, a professor in the Department of Psychology at WSU.

Further, someone who hasn’t regularly exercised for some time could face significant hurdles if they’ve set the bar too high, like running every day or weight training like they did back in college, according to Glen Duncan, chair of the Department of Nutrition and Exercise Physiology.

“An important principle in exercise physiology is overload; we tell people they should aim to achieve a base level, like walking 30 minutes two to three times a day, and once you meet that, tweak something, whether it’s increasing the amount of time spent walking, or raising intensity,” he said. “You don’t want to set unrealistic benchmarks or tweak everything all at once, because that’s going to lead to you getting injured or burned out, which is a recipe for disaster.”

The power of incentives

While internal motivation is sufficient for many people striving to achieve a goal, research from WSU and other leading institutions shows incentives are a powerful force for changing behavior.

Michael McDonell, a professor who leads WSU’s Promoting Research Initiatives in Mental Health and Substance Use (PRISM) Collaborative, focuses much of his research on understanding the applications of rewards-based treatment, particularly for those suffering from addiction. This is also known as contingency management, and it’s a strategy McDonell used himself more than a decade ago.

After his father had a stroke, McDonell set out to lose 50 pounds he’d put on while in graduate school. After reading fellow WSU professor Jon Roll’s work on contingency management, McDonell put himself on a plan where he rewarded himself $1 each day he ran for 20 minutes. At the end of the year, he would gift himself $365, but if he failed, that money would instead go to his wife.

The motivation to keep the daily running streak going and receive that reward saw him complete his goal, lose the weight, and even sign up for his first marathon. From that initial goal, McDonell went on to achieve a 13-year daily running streak. Getting those early victories was key to catapulting him into a full-blown marathoner.

“365 days of running was an extreme goal, but the small rewards for day-to-day behavior really worked for me,” he said.

Honey beats vinegar

Another key to finding success with New Year’s resolution is setting goals that encourage positive behaviors rather discouraging undesirable activities.

“If we think about self-punishment, feeling guilty might be effective, but sitting around feeling guilty can lead us into a negative mindset, which is not conducive to getting on track toward our goals,” Barry said.

While avoidance-oriented techniques can be effective in some cases, consequences for negative behavior often have to be scaled up, depending on the severity or frequency of the behavior. Positive reinforcement, on the other hand, often doesn’t have to be scaled in the same way and lacks the sense of guilt and shame.

Another point for people to keep in mind is not to schedule resolution-related activities at times of the day they struggle with.

“If you like biking, but hate getting up at 6 a.m., don’t force yourself to get up that early,” Duncan said. “You really have to work around your schedule and likes and dislikes.”

Finally, Duncan noted that it is important for individuals looking to maintain healthier habits to not beat themselves up when they don’t succeed.

“Give yourself some grace, but take it a step further and think creatively about how you can meet your objectives,” Duncan said. We do need to make good choices, but the problem is, not all good choices are in reach for everyone, so nutrition and exercise goals are often difficult to achieve given the structures we’ve created around us that hinder those good choices.”

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