This article was originally published on the Spartan Race website.
New Year’s resolutions are a controversial subject. Most people don’t stick to them, and they can easily become an excuse for putting things off until January. That said, they do work if you use them wisely and get crystal clear on how you want them to play out in your life. Here’s what you need to know to set better New Year’s resolutions — and make the most of them in 2020.
The most glaring mistake people make in setting New Year’s resolutions is to frame their commitments purely in terms of end goals. What does that mean? Lose 20 pounds by April 1st. Run an eight-minute mile. Get my cholesterol back down below 200. Build a 200 pound bench press.
While these are perfectly good goals, they focus only on the outcome and miss the point of making New Year’s resolutions: to make effective, lasting changes in your life.
It’s all about perspective. A much better approach to setting resolutions is to commit to a process by which you’ll achieve your end goal. Ride my bike to work every day. Bulk prep food every Sunday and Wednesday. No screens after 11 PM every night. Go to the gym after work every Monday, Wednesday and Friday, and Sunday afternoon.
Whereas “goal-only” resolutions encourage you to fantasize about reaching your goal, process-oriented resolutions get you working on actually reaching those goals.
That leaves the question of how ambitious your goals should be. The answer is that they should be ambitious in terms of frequency, but not necessarily in terms of size. As celebrity trainer Phil Catudal says, “focus on creating as much consistency as possible in your core health habits of diet, exercise and lifestyle.”
In other words, it’s better to do a moderate workout frequently than to do a crushing workout twice a week, and the same principle applies to diet and lifestyle. Consistency is what causes you to build habits that stick.
According to Catudal, a good starting point for exercise is to work out 4-5 days a week, at the same time every day. For your diet, eat three clean, balanced meals a day that contain a protein source and fruits and/or vegetables. For sleep, be in bed in time to get at least eight hours of sleep, at least six days a week. Sticking to these core principles will give you the foundation to reset your life in powerful ways.
Related: Are Your Goals Holding You Back?
Being excited feels good, and it motivates you to stick to your resolutions. Hell, it makes you want to hit the gym instead of watching TV, and eat salad instead of pizza. Excitement is a wonderful thing, right? Well, a small amount of excitement is a good thing. Too much enthusiasm, however, can be a sign you’re not really going to stick to your guns.
In the words of physique coach Menno Henselmans, “Truly motivated clients aren’t that vocal about their motivation. It’s normal for them. Compliance is a given, not something that needs to be shouted over the rooftops. Clients that tell you how ecstatic they are…are usually the people that will have poor compliance. That’s not high motivation. It’s enthusiasm. And enthusiasm is short lived.”
Enthusiasm stems largely from novelty, which wears off by definition. Your focus, especially during the first month, should be on creating new habits that will become ingrained into your routine, so that you’ll keep following them even when you don’t feel enthusiastic.
Excitement can, counterintuitively, be harmful because it can fool you into thinking you don’t have to do this — that you don’t need discipline because you actually want to follow your resolutions. Like Menno says, that won’t remain true for long.
However, you can use enthusiasm to your benefit. The key is harnessing it to foster systems and habits that will carry you through times you don’t feel like following your resolutions.
People who are aware of the dangers of new-resolution enthusiasm, and the overconfidence it can bring, often try to focus on one thing at a time so they can really nail that habit. This isn’t the worst idea, but it’s usually sub-optimal.
It’s true that you don’t want to pile on a bunch of different resolutions: start running, and write your novel, and save more money, and quit your job, and so on. But several resolutions that support the same end goal? That’s a different story.
Research shows that the best approach to resolutions is to have a mix of superordinate (outcome) goals, and subordinate (process) goals. Here’s a good example of how this works in practice:
Goal: Lose 30 pounds
Resolution 1: Gym M-Tu-Fr-Sun between 5 and 7 PM.
Resolution 2: Bulk prep food Sunday and Thursday nights.
Resolution 3: No screens after 10 PM, except Saturdays.
As a starting point, pick one goal and 2-4 process-oriented resolutions to support it. Use your enthusiasm, while it lasts, to rapidly build habits that will help you stick to those resolutions.
John Fawkes is a Los Angeles-based NSCA-certified personal trainer and evidence-based health and fitness writer. He helps busy professionals get into shape and athletes prepare for competitions.