No New Year's resolution? No problem, experts say

Maritza van den Heuvel is a recovering New Year's resolutionist. 

The breaking point came about 15 years ago when van den Heuvel, 44, vowed to recreate her adolescent habit of reading 100 books in a year. By March, she hadn't read a single one. 

"I had to adjust to the realities of my adult life that I couldn't spend a whole weekend reading anymore," said van den Heuvel, a mother of two who leads a team of staff at a software company in Vancouver. 

January is commonly the time of year that many people choose to set goals for self-improvement. But experts say those targets are often too ambitious, unrealistic and don't lead to long-term change. 

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Lesley Lutes, a psychology professor and director of the Centre for Obesity and Well-Being Research Excellence at the University of British Columbia's Okanagan campus, says about 95 per cent of those who have set New Year's resolutions will have abandoned them by the end of January.

"People are unable to maintain these all-or-nothing kind of goals," Lutes said. "Change takes time and it takes effort." 

For those who want to live a better life, don't despair: experts like Lutes say change is possible — albeit in small increments implemented with patience and compassion. 

Cycle of criticism

Kira Lynne also used to be a big fan of New Year's resolutions. But now that she works as a life coach and counsellor, she sees the destructive toll they can take on her clients. 

"A lot of these resolutions aren't sustainable or realistic," Lynne said. "What this tends to cause is a cycle where you become more critical of yourself."

Lynne says people who set grandiose self-improvement goals often get into an "all or nothing" mentality, which is tied to perfectionism.

People often don't have the energy to be or stay perfect, she says, and so they procrastinate instead. When February rolls around and people haven't reached or started on their goals, they feel dejected and don't try to improve at all.

"It's like either you're keeping your resolutions or you're off them, and there's no in-between," she said. 

So what does work?

UBC's Lutes, who has directed a healthy weight clinic at UBC for about 15 years, says not setting goals at all might be what works best.  

"Some people are highly motivated by setting goals for themselves. Other people find it stressful and overwhelming and kind of actually can negatively impact them," she said.

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For those who do find it helpful to set targets for themselves, Lutes says the key is to make those targets relative to their current reality.  

So instead of aiming for 10,000 steps a day, it may be better to try to walk 2,000 steps more per day and then build on that. 

'Be kinder to yourself'

Lutes says it's also important to recognize the difference between goals and outcomes.

Quitting smoking, she says, is an outcome. Taking steps like buying nicotine patches, meeting with a counsellor and setting a timeline is more specific and realistic. 

All three women agree on another point — goals or not, it's best for all to treat themselves with compassion. 

"Change is hard. And so first of all cut yourself some slack," Lutes said. "Get support and and be kinder to yourself."