Resolution season is in full swing or perhaps already winding down. If you have given up by now on this year’s weight loss efforts and old habits start creeping back in – you’re not alone. About 90 percent of all the promises we make to ourselves are quickly forgotten, according to Tom Connellan, author of the “1 Percent Solution – How to Make Your Next 30 Days the Best Ever.”
Most Resolutions Are Short-Lived
But Don’t Throw in the Towel Too Soon
“Some people’s New Year’s resolutions are so broad that they’re often unattainable,” says Leslie Fink, a Registered Dietitian and contributing writer for Weight Watchers. “When expectations are set too high, it doesn’t take much to throw a person off.” Instead of aiming for a perfect score, she advises, people should be content with 80 percent of their initial objectives. That by itself would qualify as a great success.
How we manage our aspirations in pursuit of our goals is critical either way. In fact, there are physiological reasons why we feel gratified or disappointed when we succeed or fall short of our expectations. A release of a neurotransmitter, called dopamine, is triggered in our brain when our intentions are fulfilled, causing a pleasant sensation of satisfaction and well-being, according to Dr. David Rock, Director of the NeuroLeadership Institute and author of “Your Brain at Work.”
Unfortunately, this mechanism works also in the other direction, and even more so: “When our expectations are not met, […] our negative feelings are much stronger than the good feelings we get when expectations are exceeded,” says Dr. Rock. “When we don’t hit our expectations, our brain doesn’t just get slightly unhappy, it sends out a message of danger and threat.”
In other words, as humans we generally tend to be optimistic (and oftentimes overoptimistic) about our prospects but are more afflicted when they end up in failure. The trick is not to get stuck in the negative emotions, even if they initially dominate.
Being able to build on the successes you already had is crucial for staying motivated. Take your cues from what worked and what didn’t and find out what made the difference. Then, if you fail or are about to fail, put a plan into action you may call “resolution revival,” suggests Dawn Jackson Blatner, a Registered Dietitian at Northwestern Memorial Wellness Institute. “Evaluate where you’ve been and where you want to go,” she says, “and make sure your initial goal was realistic.”
If you expected too much of yourself, “chop up your resolution into little pieces,” as Blatner puts it. Small steps are much more manageable and they eventually add up to greater achievements. If you are continuously able to meet your (somewhat scaled back) expectations, you will gain more confidence over time and can set the bar higher as you go.
Being realistic about your abilities and limitations also includes to learn from your past mistakes. Don’t make the same resolutions year after year, says Blatner. Rather, ask yourself what you can do differently from hereon in. Also, keep your eye on the larger picture: You are not trying to perform a quick fix (at least, you shouldn’t) but to make lasting lifestyle changes.
Last but not least, do not expect that losing weight, getting back in shape and looking more attractive is going to solve every other issue you may be dealing with in your life. Being thinner does not necessarily turn you into the person you idealize in your fantasies. Don’t listen to all the “testimonials” from people on TV claiming their entire lives have been turned around after they lost weight.
“People expect a lot from weight loss, things that weight loss alone can’t deliver,” warns Dr. Lee Kern, Clinical Director of Structure House, a residential weight management facility in Durham, North Carolina. “And then they learn the hard way that success and happiness aren’t linked to a number on a scale,” he says.
Identifying your real goals and pursuing them in realistic ways will make it much more likely for you to stay on track. If your motives are misguided, the messages you give your body will be equally confusing.
“The first thing I always ask people is why is this the right time for you to lose weight,” says Dr. Madelyn Fernstrom, Professor of Psychiatry and Epidemiology at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine and author of “The Real You Diet.” If they say they’re happy with their lives but have hypertension – great. If they’re losing weight just to be happier, then we’ve got to talk. Happiness isn’t a size 2.”