The season of "New Year, new me" is upon us, and it's the time of year when self-growth, development and goal-setting are the main topics of conversation, especially if they're health- and diet-related. We've all been there… We raid our cupboards January 1, throw everything out, and commit to a year of drastic health changes. Then February begins, we give it all up, succumb to overwhelming guilt, and the cycle starts again.
"We assume that if we want to make big changes to our health, we have to suffer for it," says lifestyle behavior change specialist Heather McKee. "When we set our New Year's goals, we become really motivated, we promise to go to the gym every day, cut down sugar, cigarettes… The list goes on. Pursuing all these goals at once, tends to put us under unnecessary pressure where we feel we have to make so many changes and do them perfectly without any slip-ups."
If you want goals that will become part of your lifestyle rather than seasonal, read on for tips on how to avoid making these common New Year health mistakes.
Too Much, Too Soon
You know that phrase "Rome wasn't built in a day"? Well, neither are long-term health changes. "Adopting healthy habits needs to be a gradual process in order for it to be sustainable," McKee advises. "It needs to be achieved through consistent small but positive changes in your lifestyle. Interestingly, the research shows that these smaller, simpler actions become habitual more quickly."
If you tend to go all out and want to change how you eat and move all at once, take it slow. "Instead of trying to do everything at once, why not focus on making one small change and doing that consistently?" McKee says. "For example, my clients set themselves one small change each week. Changes such as planning a healthy snack at 4 p.m., switching to a smaller coffee, taking the stairs at work, or aiming to walk 50 or 100 more steps on their fitness tracker each day."
Lack of Planning
When you forget to pack a lunch, the temptation to get an armful of treats at the nearest Pret is pretty strong. Claire Matern, founder of A Cheesemonger's Daughter, understands the importance of planning. "My approach has always been to stock your cupboard and fridge with essentials almost as a preventative measure to ensure you never have that 'I have nothing around' feeling. Even if you didn't plan anything, you can always throw an onion, a tin of tomatoes, stock, and spinach in a pot and make a comforting tomato soup," Matern recommends.
We're constantly inundated with meal-prep pics whenever we take a quick scroll through the health-and-fitness corner on Instagram, but Matern adds that it may not always be about meal planning in the traditional way we all think about it: "Really, who wants to eat the same thing four days in a row? It's sad. But planning can be about making a couple big dishes over the weekend that can be used differently or leveled up through out the week. It's all about using your imagination and figuring out how things can slot into different positions throughout the week."
Calling It Quits Early On
If you've not managed to keep up with your New Year's intentions and ended up packing it in, you're not alone. McKee also believes in the importance of planning for being able to stick to all of your goals: "Hundreds of studies have shown that having a plan has consistently been linked with long-term habit adherence. It's so important to have a plan for what to do when you're triggered to engage in your old habit.
"We over-rely on our willpower, but for long-term habit change to be effective, we need to stop relying on our willpower and structure our lives so that we use it less. It involves creating a plan of action for when you go off-track because of a certain trigger. It helps you formulate how you can anticipate these failures, distractions, or temptations in order to prevent them happening in the first place and deal with them effectively in order to get back on track quickly."
When it comes to food, we often come across confusing, conflicting advice. For this reason, Matern is an advocate for trusting your gut in the kitchen: "It's all about getting in there, putting the power in your hands, and using your senses. Healthy eating comes naturally when you listen to and trust your gut (to feed it!) Taste new things, go out of your comfort zone a little bit—that makes for a great New Year's resolution—and learn which flavor combinations you like. Always have essential ingredients around; healthy eating starts with the best ingredients you can get and using them simply."
Being Your Own Worst Critic
Our inner critic is always the first to get in the way of our goals. This voice creates feelings of comparison and shame when we struggle to maintain what we've set out, and it can be a hard one to shift.
McKee sheds some light on why we get consumed by these thoughts… "There's a scientific reason why negative inner voices get more air time in your head than positive ones," she notes. "Our brains are hard-wired to continuously scan for potential threats. Such focus on the possible worst-case scenario allowed our ancestors to survive; however, it's now affecting our ability to thrive. The human brain evolved with a bias toward the negative. This inherited feature drives us to continuously look for and remember bad news, danger, difficulty, conflict, and disappointment—even though it makes us feel bad."
Now that we know why, McKee has a powerful tip on how we can transform these thought patterns: "A daily gratitude practice is effective because it focuses our attention on developing more grateful thinking and on eliminating negative and ungrateful thoughts. It helps guard against taking things for granted; instead, we see all that is positive in our life." Don't be so hard on yourself this January, follow these tips, and focus on building up lifelong healthy habits rather than a quick fix.