New Year’s resolutions are infamously difficult to stick with long term. In fact, more than half of us give up on our goals before January 31, one survey shows.
This is where pre-resolutions, or resolutions you set right now instead of on January 1, can help. “Pre-resolutions allow us to let go of the false belief that delaying the start date of our health journey is somehow going to result in us reaching our goals more efficiently,” says Mariah Heller, a certified strength and conditioning specialist and creator of Pain-Free Fitness.
HOW PRE-RESOLUTIONS CAN HELP YOU REACH YOUR GOALS
“Setting goals at any time is a good idea, but most people are unsuccessful with their New Year’s resolutions because they don’t have a clear plan to work toward them,” says Tamar Samuels, registered dietitian and founder of All Great Nutrition in New York City. Vague, big-picture resolutions (like ‘eat clean’ and ‘get in shape’) aren’t as helpful because they don’t give you actions you need to take for real, sustainable change, she explains.
Beyond this, if you want to lose weight or maintain your current weight, you’re better off starting before January. Holiday weight gain accounts for about 1 pound per year — and you typically don’t lose it, which makes the stretch from Thanksgiving through New Year’s a major contributor to overall weight gain, finds a review in the Journal of Obesity.
For these reasons, starting now with a specific pre-resolution beats making yet another throwaway New Year’s resolutions list.
HOW TO GET STARTED
ENVISION YOUR BEST SELF
Instead of listing out final targets (like ‘lose 20 pounds’), imagine your best self, suggests Samuels. Write it down in a journal or create a vision board to describe, in detail, what operating at your highest level could look and feel like. Get as specific as possible with categories including nutrition and fitness habits and self-care practices, she suggests.
While you’re at it, jot down why it’s worth putting in the effort to get there, suggests Audra Wilson, RD, certified strength and conditioning specialist, a board-certified specialist in obesity and weight management at the Northwestern Medicine Metabolic Health and Surgical Weight Loss Center at Delnor Hospital. For instance, what does getting healthy mean to you? Who — besides you — benefits if you live out this vision? When times get tough, returning to this can give you a helpful motivation boost.
“One of the easiest ways to automatically improve your eating and exercise habits is to begin tracking them with a smartphone or watch,” says Julie Upton, RD, a registered dietitian and co-founder of Appetite for Health. “It essentially brings a higher level of consciousness about your choices during the day.”
Many resolutions fail because they’re not realistic in relation to your baseline level of nutrition or fitness, so for a helpful pre-resolution, log what you want to change (like your eating habits and movement with an app like MyFitnessPal) for one week without judgment. After that, you can adjust your calorie, macronutrient and step goals for truly achievable improvements.
FOCUS ON THE PROCESS
After you’ve envisioned the ideal outcome of your resolutions and figured out your starting point, shift your focus to what you need to do to make that a reality. “This takes the power out of an arbitrary endpoint and places it on the healthy practices you want to adopt,” explains Heller.
What to do: Translate your pie-in-the-sky goal into a SMART goal that’s specific, measurable, achievable, realistic and time-bound. Rather than thinking about losing 30 pounds, for example, aim to lose 4 pounds per month (a safe weight-loss target).
SET THE STAGE FOR CHANGE
Before you can even begin to pursue your resolutions, “you need to mentally and physically prepare yourself to take action,” says Samuels. Unsurprisingly, research shows you’re more likely to stick with a long-term goal if you enjoy the journey, so brainstorm how you can turn your big-picture goal into an activity you’ll look forward to.
For example, if you want to ‘lose weight,’ you’ll need to prepare healthy meals you’ll actually want to eat (Read: not bland chicken and steamed broccoli). Your pre-resolution: Create a list of must-try recipes for breakfast, lunch, dinner, snacks and dessert that are both nutrient-dense and delicious. Then, schedule a time to meal plan and grocery shop each week, such as Sunday afternoon.
“The first step in changing your life is making the decision to do so, and that deserves some accolades,” says Wilson. Another important (and fun) pre-resolution: Reward yourself with the supplies you’ll need to be successful like new fitness gear or kitchen gadgets for meal prep. You can also celebrate milestones by designating non-food treats like a trip to check out a national park or a new yoga mat and writing them down in advance will give you something to look forward to.
FRAME YOUR DAYS WITH INTENTION AND REFLECTION
To stick with resolutions for the long haul, make a pre-resolution to add healthy morning and evening routines to your day. For a positive start, Samuels suggests making a brief list of intentions to focus your energy on and gratitude journaling.
Then, at the end of your day, take time to reflect on your progress and celebrate your successes, whether they were big or small. Most of the time, progress is not linear, so regular check-ins like these can help you remember to acknowledge steps forward and stay motivated all year long.
SPRUCE UP YOUR SPACE
Another simple way to overcome resolution procrastination is to prime your environment, says Tim Liu, a certified strength and conditioning specialist and Precision Nutrition certified coach. Put everything you need where it’s most readily accessible and can serve as a reminder for your daily to-do’s.
For example, clear specific spaces in your closet and room to set out your workout clothes, gear and training plan the night before, set up a self-care zone for reflection and goal-tracking, and makeover your pantry and fridge to place wholesome foods front and center.
FIND YOUR COMMUNITY
If your resolution is to ‘get in shape’ or ‘start working out regularly,’ scheduling exercise now is essential, even if that means a quick bodyweight workout at home during the busy holiday season, says Angelica Ventrice, a certified personal trainer, health coach and creator of Fit for Life. Rather than going it alone next year, though, set a pre-resolution to find the people who will make you want to show up for your sweat sesh all year long.
Research shows sweating it out with other people gives you a greater mental health boost than working out by yourself (in particular, team sports, cycling and activities at the gym, like group fitness classes, help ward off bad days). Even better, when others rely on you, you perform better and work out longer than you would if you were only showing up for yourself, per a study in the Annals of Behavioral Medicine. Rather than waiting until January 1 to join a gym, start testing exercise classes now to see what you like, find the instructors who inspire you the most, and build a community that gives you a jumpstart.
The holidays can be especially challenging because of stressors like travel, increased social demands, and temptations like alcohol and sweets, says Samuels. Here, it’s helpful to remember pre-resolutions aren’t about being perfect, but rather creating a balance where you aren’t overindulging or depriving yourself, says Ventrice.
For example, if you want to ‘eat clean,’ rather than cutting out dessert entirely (and binge-eating when you finally give in), follow the 80/20 rule and aim to eat 80% healthy foods, 20% indulgences. If you’re trying to ‘lose weight’ but go over your daily calorie goal, remind yourself you can get back on track the next day. The healthy eating strides you make now will help you retain those good habits in the new year.
Originally published December 2019, updated with additional reporting
Make progress every day while you work on mini fitness and nutrition goals, like walking more steps or learning to track macros. Go to “Plans” in the MyFitnessPal app for daily coaching and easy-to-follow tasks to keep you motivated.