How Do You Set a New Year's Resolution That Actually Sticks?

By , SparkPeople Blogger
Editor's Note: Obesity expert Dr. Martin Binks contributes regular guest posts to the dailySpark.

We have all been there. The new year rolls around and we take stock of our lives and the way we live them. We decide that this year is going to be different. This year we are going to keep those New Year's resolutions and take on a healthy lifestyle! Then we set a goal: I am going to get healthy. I am going to lose weight. I am going to start exercising. We set the date: January 1, of course. After all it is a brand new year, the first of the month--perfect! Then we go about our holiday of choice celebrating with family, overindulging a little and forgetting all about our new “plan" until we wake up New Year's Day without any real plan to accomplish the goals we have set out. The goal itself is often unrealistic too. It often involves setting up a strict and unforgiving diet that does not allow for a variety of foods or planning to do some ridiculously overexerting several-hours-a-day gym routine.

Then of course we realize that January 1 is still a holiday and think we might as well delay until the second. After all who can watch football or the NHL's Winter Classic without snacks and beverages? Good, so tomorrow it is! January second is still just as good as “New Year's." However, on that date we realize we still have all sorts of wonderful holiday treats in the house. Leftovers, food gifts, beer, wine and so forth. It's a shame to waste all that, so the logical choice is to wait a week or so before getting started. Now it's January 6, and you realize that it is no longer a fresh start to the year, you can't boast to friends about keeping your resolution and what you are left with is about the same as that with which you struggle every year, the need to adopt a healthier lifestyle on a regular old day without any fanfare.

So does this mean New Year's resolutions are a bad idea--of course not! The error was in the lack of clearly defined and realistic behavioral steps within the goals coupled with the all-or-nothing approach to setting the goal. The goal to lose weight tells us very little about what we need to do in order to achieve that goal. It does not outline the specific steps that must be taken like shopping to get healthy foods in the house, attending to reducing portions, packaging up extra leftovers in individual calorie-controlled portions for use over time or setting up a realistic exercise schedule. Instead of expecting yourself to stop eating ‘bad' foods abruptly on New Year's Day, why not simply decide to take some time that day to write out the plan and work on preparing in some of the ways I have listed above. Set gradual goals that will help ease you into the whole thing and allow some flexibility to enjoy some of the leftover holiday fare while still moving toward your health goals. Perhaps focus on getting at least a 30-minute walk under your belt each day and build toward a more complete exercise plan over a few weeks time and so on. By taking this gradual approach you will feel in control and still make progress without necessarily feeling deprived and overwhelmed.

As I write this I know there are many folks who will feel that this is just making excuses and that you need to step up and just do it! So maybe a more abrupt all-or-nothing approach is the right thing for some people, you know what works for you. The most important thing is to ask yourself is what works best for you--but answer the question honestly. If jumping in and throwing out all the junk food, setting up a strict plan, and throwing yourself right into it has worked in the past then go for it. Just be on the lookout for the signals that this all-or-nothing approach is about to stop working and be ready to adjust so you don't fall from 100% to nothing overnight. Perhaps you notice food or exercise boredom creeping in, then do something to spice up your routine. Perhaps it's that you feel tired or weak; maybe you are overdoing it in the gym or are not getting enough nutrition? Take a look at what you are doing and adjust as needed. Remember, the key is listening to your mind and body and making adjustments along the way to keep the forward progress moving and avoid slipping right off the plan.

Below you will find some simple steps for goal setting. You can find more detail on these and other topics at the Healthy Weight Center on my site.

Setting Goals: 4 Core Elements

Make sure your goals stand up to the following tests--Are they realistic, specific and measurable. Then be sure to plan for when things don't go as expected with your back-up plan
  • Realistic

    The goals you set have to be real in the context of your life. They cannot be based on some ideal version of your real situation and more importantly don't base them on some change you are ‘going' to make that will give you more time. Set your first goals according to what your life looks like right now! Look for changes that you can insert into your current schedule. If you are too busy to cook--then don't plan to cook at home every day. Start by finding healthy calorie controlled prepared foods that don't take a lot of time to prepare. If you can't see yourself fitting in gym time, add short walks into your day.

  • Specific

    Make each goal very specific. Make sure that both the steps to achieving it and that the results are readily observable so there is no guesswork or grey in your ability to know what to do. For example, don't say I will exercise tomorrow. Rather say at 10:30 during my break I will walk for 20 minutes around the halls of my building and up 2 flights of stairs.

  • Measurable

    In the example I just gave it is easy to measure the extent to which you completed the goal (number of minutes walked) and it is also easy to add up the total minutes per week you accumulate.

  • Back-Up Plan

    Once you have set out some realistic, specific and measurable goals you need to set up a second set that mirror these goals but are a little more forgiving. These are useful when the unexpected happens. So for example, using our break-time walking example, we all have days where a 20 min break is impossible--maybe a last minute task or meeting was dumped on your desk. For these occasions, instead of doing nothing (which feels like failure and can trigger a bigger slide) simply do 5 or 10 minutes. While it is less than ideal it IS still part of "the plan" and thus will have you feeling psychologically that you succeeded whereas skipping altogether would feel like failure.

Follow these steps and you might find your desire to achieve a healthier weight or a healthier more active lifestyle is fulfilled over the next several months. By making a resolution to follow this type of broader more flexible plan as opposed to only focusing on the singular outcome (like pounds lost) you may feel more confident and better able to cope with the reality of your specific life situation and how it influences your ability to lose weight.

Dr. Martin Binks is Clinical Director and CEO of Binks Behavioral Health PLLC. He is also Assistant Consulting Professor, Division of Medical Psychology, Department of Psychiatry & Behavioral Sciences, Duke University Medical Center. His professional activities include direct patient care, research, consultation services and the development of evidence-based obesity and health promotion programs for healthcare, research and corporate wellness environments.

Dr. Binks received his Ph.D. in clinical psychology from Fairleigh Dickenson University, trained at the Bronx VA Medical Center and completed pre and postdoctoral training in behavioral medicine at the Medical University of South Carolina. He is the former Director of Behavioral Health, Research, and New Business and Strategic Alliances at the Duke Diet & Fitness Center. Dr Binks has worked extensively in the areas of obesity, health & wellness promotion, neuropsychology, substance abuse treatment, post-traumatic stress disorder and spinal cord injury.

Dr. Binks has authored and co-authored multiple research publications and the book The Duke Diet and has appeared on MSNBC Countdown with Keith Olberman, ABC news "On Call”, NPR, Lifetime Television, WGN, 700 Club and is a featured contributor on He is regularly called upon for commentary on a wide range of health and psychological topics in a variety of national publications and websites including USA Today, Washington Post, LA Times, Oprah Magazine, GX Magazine, AOL Health, Fitness, Men’s and Women’s Health Magazines Reuters and the Associated Press. Dr. Binks has been a contributor with the Army National Guard Decade of Health and Wounded Warriors Programs and is a member of several corporate advisory boards.

His research interests include technology-based healthcare delivery, obesity treatment, non alcoholic fatty liver disease, and overall health promotion. He serves as a reviewer on several scientific journals Dr. Binks contributes to healthcare provider education through his work with students and trainees and by lecturing nationally in the areas of obesity management, health promotion and behavioral medicine. Dr. Binks is currently active in several leadership positions at the national scientific organization The Obesity Society.

Dr. Binks works directly with health coaching clients from around the world through in-person, telephone and web-based technology and also offers individual psychotherapy at the Durham, N.C., location. He can be reached through

Do you set New Year's resolutions? Do you stick with them?