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General Health

How to Set an Approach-Oriented Goal This Year

Instead of focusing on what you "can't" have in the spirit of your health, flip the script and focus on what you can add to your lifestyle this year!

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It’s that time of year when our feeds are bombarded with trends that claim to make New Year’s resolutions easier. Whether it’s the latest skinny tea promising to banish your bloat or the fitness gadget that guarantees 6-pack abs with minimal effort, these get-fit-quick schemes are out there in abundance. I’m here to tell you, as a registered dietitian and certified personal trainer, anything that requires you to purchase an expensive powder, tea or gadget to reach your goals should be a major red flag. 

So, here’s the real deal: You can have a health-minded goal for the new year without giving in to diet industry trends, and it all stems from being intentional with your resolutions and focusing on positive motivation — not avoidance — to make lifestyle changes that will stick around for the long haul. 

Research conducted in 2020 on a group of Swedish participants found that roughly 55 percent of 1,066 people surveyed about their New Year’s resolutions successfully kept them for one year. While that number may seem low to some, especially given that roughly half did not continue their resolutions, it’s actually much higher than frequently quoted percentages in major media outlets — like Forbes, for instance, which once noted that 80 percent of people do not keep resolutions. 

One key differentiating factor in the Swedish study was that of the three groups evaluated for adherence to their resolutions throughout the year, those who made approach-oriented goals over avoidance-oriented goals were significantly more likely to keep their resolution (58.9 percent versus 47.1 percent). Plus, those participants who received extra support on their resolutions through positive reinforcement emails and setting mini goals over the year were significantly more successful. 

If you’re wondering what an approach-oriented goal is, it parallels the SMART goal setting philosophy, which is based around setting specific, measurable, achievable, realistic and timely goals. An approach-oriented goal also places the focus on achieving positive outcomes (e.g., “I’ll be so much healthier and happier if I get more sleep each night!” or “My heart health will improve if I add more regular cardio exercise to my regimen.”) versus avoiding negative outcomes (e.g., “I need to get eight hours of sleep each night or I’ll be a failure!” or “If I don’t manage to get more cardio in, I’m a lost cause.”)

Combining the specificity of a SMART goal with an approach-oriented outlook can be a game-changer. For instance, let’s say you’re trying to improve your overall health. Rather than saying, “I will not eat any unhealthy sweets in the new year,” (an avoidance-oriented goal that likely isn’t sustainable in the long run) you could instead try something doable and specific, such as, “I will eat more produce by adding at least one fruit or vegetable into my lunch every workday.” 

While there are always limitations with studies — such as that participants in the Swedish research actively sought out participation in the study and may have had some intrinsic motivation already to meet their resolutions — the results are powerful and demonstrate what licensed therapist Christy Garnhart, LCSW, has seen in her practice as well. 

“While this time of year may leave many writing long lists they vow to change when the clock hits midnight, that’s not the best course of action to take. Instead, embrace the collective energy this time of year brings by improving habits and finding an accountability partner to help you navigate your goals.”

Garnhart encourages her clients to start small, sharing the “less is more” philosophy to embrace the resolution mindset. She suggests starting with one SMART goal and celebrating your success in increments, such as a special gift to yourself around Valentine’s Day, to keep your motivation high.

Need some inspiration? Here are some potential habits you can add to your lifestyle every day that will have a lasting, powerful impact on your body and mind.

1. Add one serving of fruit or vegetables to your lunch. 

This may seem like a no-brainer, but with less than 90% of Americans eating the recommended servings of produce per day, it’s a small and simple step you can take to set you up for success. 

Try this mindset shift: Canned, frozen, dried and fresh produce all count! Embrace convenience and pop open a can or toss some frozen spinach into dinner tonight.

2. Add one cup of water to each meal. 

When you’re dehydrated, you’re more susceptible to headaches and fatigue, two things that may lead you reaching for something extra to nosh on to curb those feelings. Start each meal by filling up a cup of water. Don’t let yourself leave the table, desk or wherever you’re eating until that cup is finished. 

Try this mindset shift: Water is free, so treat yourself to a nice reusable bottle that you will actually want to use.

3. Add movement through regular actions, such as going to the restroom. 

Sure, you’re busy — there’s no question about that. But everyone has to take a break to use the bathroom at some point, especially if you’re staying hydrated. Use these opportunities to add some extra steps into your day, especially when you don’t have the luxury to do a walking meeting or crushing a workout over lunch.

If you’re in an office and there’s a restroom on another floor, take the stairs if you’re able and clock those steps. If you work from home, use this opportunity to get moving with something like a set of 10 push-ups or biceps curls after a bathroom break or perhaps even a burpee or two. 

Try this mindset shift: More movement of any kind is better, and you don’t have to log 60 minutes at a time. Small bursts can add up!

4. Add two minutes of quiet time to the end of your day.

I’m a full-time stay-at-home working mom and I get it: Two minutes can be tough to find! But, taking this two-minute window for yourself at the end of each day will really move mountains for your mental health. Whether you use this time to take deep breaths, journal or just sit, it’s important to allow yourself this moment to remind yourself of even one thing you did you’re proud of that day. Even the simplest things, like scheduling a dentist appointment that you’ve been putting off, can add up to a cascade of positive emotions that elicit more proactive tasks in the days to come. 

Try this mindset shift: Before you put in your second shift after the kids are in bed, take the two minutes for you. It may even be an extra two minutes in the loo. You don’t have to be in trendy yoga gear or sipping matcha tea to meditate!