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New Year: How to set realistic goals and stick to them

How many times have you planned a New Year overhaul, only to find you're back in your old habits by the end of Jan? Just 19 per cent of us make resolutions that stick, research shows. 

Luckily, setting effective goals is a skill you can master – here's how.

Get real

The big mistake most of us make? Being unrealistic. When you're feeling bloated after a Christmas blowout, it can be tempting to decide you're going to transform yourself into a wellness hero, rising at 6am for a daily run, going plant-based and drinking nothing but herbal teas.

But if you're a night owl who lives on convenience food and can't remember when you last set foot in a gym, you're setting yourself up to fail. Start smaller, with manageable goals that fit easily into your life. If you're not a morning person, three evening jogs a week will be more realistic than a daily dawn run, for example.

Seek support

You're more likely to stick to your plans if you have the right support in place, whether that's practical help or your family cheering you on.

  • If you're a smoker who wants to quit, don't go cold turkey on your own. Evidence shows that you're four times more likely to quit smoking if you use stop-smoking services and treatments,1 so speak to your doctor about the help that's available.
  • Get an exercise buddy if you want to be more active. Research has found that exercising with a partner pushes you – especially if they're fitter.2 Challenge a sports-obsessed friend to a game of badminton or pop to your Strictly-mad mate's dance class – or just keep it simple with a walking buddy.
  • Want to kick off a few kilos? Consider signing up to a weight-loss club. Evidence suggests that people who follow a structured programme with peer support are more likely to shift weight – and keep it off.3
  • Whatever you're trying to achieve, simply telling people in your life what you're doing is a good idea. They can encourage you, and telling others your goals keeps you accountable.
Woman and man stretching in the park

If you want to get fitter, get a partner to exercise with – they'll push you to keep exercising.

Make it a habit

"It's important to get into a routine," says GP Dr Sarah Brewer. "I take all my supplements at night and keep them in by bedside drawer – I find it easy to remember to take them before putting the light out."

If you're taking supplements at different times of day, try to link taking them to things you already do. For example, if you need to take a supplement in the morning, you could put the pack next to your toothbrush or the kettle (but keep it out of the reach of children.)

"There's one supplement I take in the morning – ubiquinol," says Dr Brewer. "I leave that on top of the bedside table so I see it, and remember to take it with my bowl of yogurt and granola, which I eat in the bedroom after my early morning sea swim."

It's just the same with whatever you're trying to do. Aiming to get fitter? Set your alarm half an hour earlier and walk part of the way to work. Trying to drink more water? Have a glass every time you go into the kitchen. Want to eat more fruit? Keep bowls of fresh fruit around your home so you're prompted to grab an apple when you go past.

If you can make something a habit, you'll soon be doing it without even having to think about it.

Set the right kind of goal

There's a bank of evidence to show that making a structured plan is the way to go.4 So, rather than just saying you're going to lose weight or eat more healthily, decide how you're going to do it.

For example, you could decide you're going to go meat-free three days a week for the next month. Think about how you're going to achieve that – perhaps you need to stock up on plant-based staples and find some new recipes.

When you get to the end of the month, look back and see whether you achieved your goal. If you did, set a goal for the next month. If you struggled, think about what got in the way and how you could do it differently.

Keep it up

Goals like getting fitter, eating more healthily and maintaining weight loss need to be long-term if they're going to be effective. Here are some ideas to help:

  • Make it enjoyable – give yourself a small (healthy) reward when you achieve a goal
  • Mix it up – experiment with recipes and try different workouts
  • Give yourself challenges – once you've run 5k, try going for a faster time, or sign up for a charity run

Good luck – it's worth it!

Charlotte Haigh has been a health writer for almost 20 years. She is interested in emotional wellbeing and practises yoga.

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