So it’s that time of year again! Does the phrase ‘new year new you’ sound familiar? It seems that although some of us have the best intentions when making new year fitness resolutions, we seem to throw half of them out the window by February. And then there are others too that avoid new year’s resolutions altogether. This post covers why even the most motivated athletes have trouble sticking to resolutions, and we look at how to revamp those resolutions into fitness goals you can actually stick to!
Why Most ‘Fitness’ New Year Resolutions Fail
We usually head into the new year feeling invigorated after having lots of rest over the holiday season. Filled with motivation (and too many mince pies) we set out writing our new year fitness resolutions. But somehow, one by one, we forget about them altogether. We then feel demotivated and guilty. How could we have let things slip, again, we ask ourselves?! But don’t despair – it might not be your fault at all.
Most new year fitness resolutions are pretty vague. “Get stronger”, and “lose weight” are some of the most common. These don’t sound particularly difficult, so why can’t we stick to them? In a psychological context, the reason is simple. These are well-intentioned desires, but they’re not measurable and actionable goals.
Desires vs Goals
The fact is, the examples above are desires, but they are not goals. When it comes to motivation and performance, psychologists have found notable differences between the two. In the 1960s, Edwin Locke put forward the goal-setting theory of motivation. This theory states that setting clear goals is essential to performance.
Psychological research shows this to be true, especially when it comes to health and fitness. Stretcher et al. for example studied changes in health-related behaviour. They compared performance between those with clear goals and vague nonquantitative desires. They found setting specific goals lead to significantly higher performance (Victor et al., 1995). Vagueness around what you want to achieve can actually do more harm than good. Mindset coach Davy Russell warns about this. He says that unspecific intentions can derail your motivation completely. Without a clear focus and an endpoint in sight, they can overwhelm you before you begin (Tracy Russell).
The SMART Method
So, we know we need to transform our desires for what we want to achieve this year into clear goals. The question is, how exactly do we go about this? Here’s where the SMART method comes in. The SMART method is a well-established tool in goal setting. You may have come across it before in your workplace or in productivity books. But you can also quite easily apply it to your new year fitness resolutions.
Psychologists hail it to be one of the most effective ways to create a goal. Psychology website Mindtools.com recommends the SMART method. They say it “provides the clarity, focus, and motivation you need to achieve” (MindTools.com).
Fitness professionals also advocate the SMART method. Nike trainer Jason Loebig NASM CPT states “SMART goals can help keep you on track and remind you of your priorities… So you’re able to follow through with every workout or healthy meal you have planned.”
SMART is an acronym for specific, measurable, achievable, realistic, and time-based. We will now transform your new year fitness resolutions into clear goals that meet these criteria. This will help set you up for success all year round. To help with this process, we will take our common new year fitness resolutions above as examples. Let’s look at how to make these SMART!
Revamping New Year Fitness Resolutions into SMART Goals
So, we have our examples: “lose weight” and “get stronger”. How do we make these SMART? Let’s go through each word in the SMART acronym to find out.
The first word that makes up the SMART acronym is “specific”. Without specificity, goals can seem daunting. “Lose weight” might make you wince at the thought of eating only lettuce for years to come. “Get stronger” could lead you to think that you need to rack up dangerously heavy weights in the gym.
To make your fitness new year resolution more specific, ask yourself 2 questions.
- What exactly is it, that you want to achieve?
- What does achieving your goal look like?
So, how much weight do you want to lose? In which areas do you want to gain strength? With specificity in mind, “lose weight” could be transformed into the goal of “lose 2 stone”. “Get stronger” might become “increase the weight I use when I squat”.
Chad Walters is an improvement consultant to various sports teams in the USA. He says “with specific details, it’s easier to know what success looks like” (LeanBlitz.com, 2012). Making your goals specific makes them less daunting. When we make our goals specific, we’re also more likely to stick to them. “Because of the specificity, you’ll know right away if you’re on track” Walters explains.
It’s essential for success to make your goal measurable. Without measurability, your goal can seem uncontrollable and unmanageable. This leads to a “decrease in performance levels, causing a decline in productivity and enthusiasm” (Sincero, 2012).
To make your new year fitness resolutions measurable, ask yourself these questions:
- How will you know when you’ve reached your goal?
- What indicators will measure progress and success?
The key is to think of a way to make your goal quantifiable. For the example goal “lose 2 stone” this seems pretty simple. Subtract 2 stone from your current weight to get your target weight. Your measure would be your bodyweight when you step on the scales. A measure for our second goal, “increase the weight used when I squat” could be weight in kilograms on the bar. You could aim for the goal to “squat 40kg heavier”.
Let’s not stop there. Now that you’ve decided on a measure for your goal, you can use this to split it into manageable chunks. This is a well-established psychological technique. Walters explains: “Large goals seem insurmountable. But breaking down into lots of small goals makes change easier” (LeanBlitz.com, 2012). While your main goal might be “lose 2 stone”, you could segment this into smaller targets. You might instead like to see your goal as “lose 2lbs per week” until you hit your weight loss goal. You can also break down the second example into more manageable chunks. Your main goal “squat 40kg heaver” could become “squat an extra 2.5kg each session”. You’d aim for these intermediate targets until you hit your 40kg goal.
Making your new year’s fitness resolutions ‘measurable’, gives you a finishing line. This helps you focus. Breaking resolutions down into intermediate goals gives you “small wins” week to week. This combats you feeling overwhelmed and keeps you feeling motivated. As you hit each intermedia target, your confidence and sense of self-efficacy strengthen.
To increase the positive effect of making goals measurable, ensure your progress is visible. This could be in the form of a weight loss chart on your wall or the use of a workout plan app. Charles Shapiro of Success Psychology advocates this. He explains that visibly seeing small changes increases motivation. Shapiro states “the closer we get towards our goal, the more likely it is that we’ll obtain our final result” (Shapiro, 2013).
It’s good to be ambitious, and many new year fitness resolutions look good on paper. But a common reason why we don’t stick to them is that they aren’t genuinely attainable. Quite simply, life gets in the way.
By setting your bar too high, you’re setting yourself up for failure. We have covered how ‘small wins’ increase motivation and the likelihood of achieving. Well, failures will do the opposite. Management consultant Ted Harro warns against setting expectations too high. In his article for Huffington Post, he explains that “over-shooting often includes under-focusing” (Huffington Post, 2012). He also highlights that if a goal is too far-fetched, failure becomes excusable and expected.
Are Your New Year Fitness Resolutions Achievable?
So it’s important to make sure your new year fitness resolutions are achievable. To do this, it’s helpful to consider them in the context of your other life commitments. Ask yourself:
- Considering other life commitments, how likely is it that you’ll achieve your goal?
- What resources do you need to achieve it, and are they available? This includes time, mental focus, and physical energy!
The goal of “lose 2lbs a week” might sound easy enough. But when you factor in some upcoming social events dinner dates, and parties, you might find it a bit far fetched. Let’s assume you already have a gym membership, and you already dedicate a session a week to legs. “Squat 2.5kg extra each session” is attainable, but you might need to invest in a lifting belt as you begin to lift heavier.
This step in the SMART method gives you a chance to readjust your goal to a more realistic level. It also highlights any preparation you might need to do before you start with your goal. By doing this step, you hit the ground running and avoid setting yourself up for failure. You might find things may take a bit longer. It might be the case that you have to lower your expectations of yourself. But this is better than experiencing failure and giving up altogether.
Establishing why you want to achieve your goal is key to upholding your motivation. This step is about “owning” your new year fitness resolutions. Why are they important to you? When things get tough, remembering the reasons you began can help you push through. In the above steps, we established the “how”s. This step is to find the “why”s. Ask yourself the following questions:
- Why is this goal important to you? Is it what you truly want, or just something you feel you ‘should’ do?
- What are the benefits and rewards of accomplishing this goal?
Your reason for losing 2 stone might be to fit into your favourite jeans. The reward might be to improve your health. Keeping this in mind when faced with a fast food menu or a chocolate cake will help you to stick to your diet. Reasons for exercising regularly could be to perform better in your favourite sport. The reward could be to beat your personal best. Thinking about this when you feel tempted to skip the gym will keep your eyes on the prize. When a goal matters to you, the long-term gain outweighs the immediate satisfaction. As psychiatrist Victor Frankl says, ” “Those who have a “why” can bear with almost any “how”.
We have all experienced procrastination. “I’ll do it tomorrow” turns into “next week”. This might not necessarily be because we are just lazy. Without deadlines, tasks seem less critical, so we do not prioritise them. There’s always something better to do.
Recent research into the effect of setting deadlines has found this to be true. Researcher Dilip Soman of the University of Toronto explained his findings to City AM. “Things that are on the back burner stay there for longer than they should,” he says. This is because “there are plenty of other things that take up our attention as relatively more urgent” You’ll be far less likely to procrastinate if you set deadlines for your new year fitness resolutions.
The Importance of Realistic Deadlines
However, remember our previous step – attainability. Hofstadter’s law (link) holds that we find it difficult to estimate the time needed to complete our goals. This law states that we are often too optimistic. Psychologist Karen Moloney agrees. She explains that this is because of “the power of the ending”. We forget how difficult it was to complete previous targets once we have achieved them. This causes us to underestimate the time needed for new goals. Once you have your deadline, it’s advisable to ‘pad it out’.
Ask these questions to help give your goals a deadline and make them timely:
- When can I achieve my goal by?
- Is this realistic?
We’d all like to get what the latest detox tea brand promises us and “lose 2 stone in a week!” The mainstream fitness magazines tell us we can “get stronger overnight!”. But these are slightly unrealistic. We don’t want to fall into the trap of setting ourselves up for failure. It’s better to take a more realistic approach, than not achieve at all. Instead, let’s take the points we discussed in the attainability step into account.
Let’s first look at the goal of “lose 2 stone”. Technically, hitting our intermediate targets of losing 2lb per week could allow us to achieve our goal in 7 weeks. However, let’s think of those parties and social dinners. To ‘pad out’ our deadline, we could give ourselves an extra 3 weeks. The second goal, “squat an extra 40kg” would require us to add 2.5kgs to our squat each session over 16 leg sessions. Doing one leg session a week means this will take 16 weeks.
Mark these dates in your calendar so you can visibly see how close you are to your goal. Now, you’re set up to start achieving!
You’ve Made Your New Year Fitness Resolutions SMART!
We started with two new year fitness resolutions, “lose weight” and “get stronger”. We’ve established exactly what it is our success looks like and how we will measure it. We then adjusted our expectations to be more realistic, and finally, we set a deadline for when we will achieve them. Our fitness new year resolutions are now “lose 2lb a week over 10 weeks” and “squat an extra 2.5kgs each session for 16 sessions”. Through the SMART method, we’ve transformed vague desires into clear, achievable goals. As a result, we’ve got new year fitness resolutions we can stick to!