About half of Americans at the start of each new year resolve to make their lives better during the next 12 months. Often, it involves a commitment to improve their health.
The problem is that most don't succeed, according to the Journal of Clinical Psychology, as cited by Statistic Brain Research Institute.
The key to success is being “SMART,” said Michele Guerra, director of the Wellness Center at the University of Illinois. The acronym SMART means setting goals that are Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant, and Time-bound.
Overseeing wellness for a campus of 55,000 students and employees that will go smoke-free on Jan. 1, Guerra has a stake in helping people quit smoking. And smoking cessation is just one of many achievable goals you can set for yourself this year.
1. Quit Smoking
Trying to quit? Resolve to try a form of nicotine replacement, such as a patch or gum, the next time you want a cigarette.
“People should avail themselves of the many aids available,” said Jed Rose, director of Duke University's Center for Smoking Cessation. “One would think a simple action would be to just avoid picking up cigarettes, but it is the most difficult thing in the world for the addicted smoker to do that.”
When you reach a milestone—such as a week without cigarettes—post it on social media, along with your next goal, including a deadline. It will keep you accountable, and you're sure to get encouragement not only from friends and family but also from others who have quit or are trying to.
2. Work Smarter
Resolve that when you next catch yourself with idle time, you occupy your mind with something challenging.
Ian Harrington, a neuroscientist at Augustana College in Rock Island, Ill., said maintaining an active mind engaged in problem-solving strengthens connections between brain cells. This keeps the brain flexible, even in old age, staving off dementia and other memory problems.
“These cognitive activities can range from word or number puzzles to a documentary film to college or continuing education classes,” Harrington told Healthline. “Thirty minutes spent with a crossword puzzle is undoubtedly better than 30 minutes staring at a smartphone.”
3. Slash Stress
If reducing stress is your goal, try taking a deep breath the next time you feel overwhelmed. It may sound obvious, but it works.
“The beauty of the breathing technique, unlike other things, is that you can do it when driving, when in a negative interaction with another person, or during a stressful meeting,” Guerra said. “When you learn to switch the brain from being in an emergency flight response to a relaxation mode, the heart rate lowers, respiration lowers, the skin warms, and the brain releases melatonin—which helps you relax—instead of cortisol—which comes from a flight response.”
4. Drop the Pounds
Losing weight is always the most common new year's resolution. Start with small commitments to eating better and being more active.
“The most important thing when making a plan to start exercising is to pick out something you don't hate,” said Dr. Ronald Sha, medical director of the Duke University Diet & Fitness Center. “Many people think a group activity, such as a swimming pool class or an aerobic class, is helpful because there's social activity involved.”
Taking a class will also make you accountable to others. And it involves a measurable time commitment (and a financial one that can result in lost cash if you don't show up). “You have to make sure you find something that fits into your schedule,” Sha said.
If nothing else, make a vow to walk just 10 minutes a day. Wearing a pedometer can help too, Sha added. People are often surprised by how far they walk in such a short time, and it motives them to keep going.
As for the food factor, the secret to successful weight loss is to make new eating habits simple. Elisabetta Politi, nutrition director at the Duke Diet & Fitness Center, said she was surprised when she asked one client how he had lost so much weight.
“He told me he has two packets of instant oatmeal each morning, then a small sandwich from Subway or Quiznos for lunch and dinner, with less than six grams of fat," she said. "You might think that sounds monotonous, but for him, it was effective and didn't require a lot of thinking.”
The bottom line for all resolutions is to keep refining them into February and beyond. Success should not be all or nothing, Guerra said. “If you have a cigarette after quitting for three weeks, you did not fail," she said. "You just slipped.”