Research-based methods doctors can use to achieve their New Year’s resolutions

By Jonathan Ford Hughes
Published December 15, 2021

Key Takeaways

The New Year is right around the corner, which means it’s time to create some resolutions. Except, there’s a major problem with New Year’s resolutions: their success rate. Many resolutions fail before Feb. 1.

How do we stack the odds in our favor? A 2020 Plos One study suggests that how we set and work toward our goals makes a difference. Researchers investigated whether different types of resolutions have different success rates, and whether goal-setting can be improved. The study included about 1,000 participants who were split into three groups: no support, some support, and extended support. The no-support group received general information on resolutions, then presented resolutions of their choosing to the researchers, along with their projected odds of success. 

The some–support group received additional information on how social support boosts chances of achieving a goal. They then presented their resolutions, their projected success odds, and named someone who could support them. Members of this group also scheduled monthly follow-ups, received emails on coping with setbacks, and additional support materials.

Finally, the extended-support group received the same information as the some-support group, with the addition of information about setting goals that are specific, measurable, achievable, realistic, and time focused. Furthermore, this group set goals that focused on approaching something, rather than avoiding something, and they broke their goals into smaller steps. The extended-support group participated in the same follow-up interventions as the some-support group, but received extra guidance on motivation, thought patterns, and negative spirals.

The some-support had greater success than the no-support group. But, the data contain some surprises. From most to least successful, here’s how the groups rank:

  • Some support

  • No support

  • Extended support

Who would have predicted the extended support group would come in last? The researchers offered some possible explanations. For example, because the extended-support group’s goals were more specific, there was less ambiguity about whether they achieved their goals.

“A participant with a vague resolution (e.g., to take better care of one’s health) may consider oneself rather successful if he/she has made some changes in that general direction,” the researchers wrote. “Conversely, a participant with a specific resolution (e.g., to exercise twice a week) might consider oneself unsuccessful if he/she has not fully adhered to that pledge.”

Interim goals may have also inadvertently suppressed perceived success, the researchers wrote: “While interim goals, similarly to specific goals, clarify what we are supposed to do, they provide even more possibilities for failure; for instance, if a participant sets six interim goals, he/she has six possible deadlines to miss.”

Putting it into action

So, how can physicians incorporate these findings into their goal-setting for the New Year? Let’s take a look at some of the common resolutions from the study, and how we might apply this framework. The top three resolutions from the study were: physical health, weight loss, and eating.

Physical health

Let’s say in 2022, you’re resolving to improve your physical health by going to the gym. Based on the Plos One study, we know that specificity is a double-edged sword. While it’s easier to track progress toward a specific goal, it’s also easier to perceive our journey toward that goal as a failure if we do not check every box along the way. 

One way to tackle this problem is to use a principle from medicine. We can ask ourselves, what is the minimum effective dose to achieve our goal? In this case, how much time per week do I actually need to spend at the gym in order to improve my health? The answer likely will vary based on each individual’s health. However, many set themselves up for defeat by setting an overly ambitious goal. For example, if you’ve never been a gym-goer, what are the odds that you’re going to work out 6 days per week? Perhaps your minimum effective dose is 2 days per week. 

Weight loss

One of the key differentiators between who succeeded and who didn’t in the Plos One study was social support. For example, social support gave the some-support group a definitive leg up over the no-support group.

If you’d like to lose weight in the New Year (or help a few patients with the process), identify one person who will support you on your weight-loss journey. This should be someone whom you can trust, such as a close friend or family member. Schedule periodic check-ins with your supporter during which you discuss your progress and your struggles. Third-party observers often offer insights or solutions that we could not derive ourselves.

Eating better

Minimum effective dose and social support also apply to the resolution of eating better. Specifically, maybe eating better means limiting red meat to once weekly, rather than eschewing it entirely. For example, a delicious cheeseburger is a difficult pleasure to deny yourself once in a while, if you eat meat. Social support will also help you achieve your dietary goals.

A 2017 Behavioral Sciences study also offers the following strategies:

  • Using diets that induce ketosis to suppress the drive to eat that comes from energy restriction. For example, if you’re trying to limit carb consumption, a ketogenic diet may help.

  • Sticking as closely as possible to the dieter’s dietary preferences. For example, if you’re looking to limit your coffee consumption, and you prefer your coffee black, you might be better suited subbing in a similarly bitter hot beverage such as tea.

  • Recording what you eat. Many of us literally can’t remember what we had for breakfast. Documenting what we eat helps us manage our diets better. The MyFitnessPal app can help with this.

Habit-based change

If we break down a successful New Year’s resolution into its component parts, on the atomic level, we will find habits—the things we do consistently and automatically to produce desirable outcomes. This is a subject the author James Clear explores in his book, Atomic Habits. While the Plos One study points us toward the supportive elements of educating ourselves, seeking support, and tracking progress, ultimately it’s the compounding effect of our habits that moves us toward our goals. Regardless of what your (or your patients’) New Year’s resolution may be, perhaps ask yourself: What habits can I create to help me achieve my goal? 

Maybe that’s laying out your gym clothes the night prior, turning coffee number three into tea, or savoring that cheeseburger weekly on Friday. The compounding interest of these small habits ultimately leads to the big payoff.

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