mental health
BY: Aleks Zavlunova

Why Your Health Goals Aren’t Sticking and What To Do Instead According to a Behaviorist

Here’s why you might struggle with sticking to your health goals

Can you believe we are already halfway into the year? If you are someone who made a New Year’s resolution and set goals to get healthy this year but has long abandoned them, don’t feel bad. On average, only about 19% of people who set out to eat healthier, exercise more, lose weight, or improve their health habits stick to their goals in the first six months. What’s more, only about eight percent stick to them long-term (two or more years). Even if making resolutions isn’t your thing, you probably have attempted to improve your health habits, without avail, at some point or another.

Failing to meet your goals, regardless of what they may be, can leave you frustrated and discouraged. So why do so many people struggle with adhering to their goals, even when they have every intention to?

You might be blaming it on lack of time, lack of resources, lack of motivation, or lack of discipline. And while some of that might be true, they are not the main reasons you are actually struggling to make long-term changes.

Here are possible reasons why you haven’t been successful at changing your health habits

Changing habits that we have practiced for many years can be difficult. It is even more difficult when you attempt to make changes without a sustainable action plan. And if you’ve tried to change these habits in the past, it may seem like nothing works. However, most often than not, you neglect to take these factors into account when trying to form new habits:

1. Your goals aren’t S.M.A.R.T.

S.M.A.R.T stands for Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant, and Time-bound. All too often, people set BIG goals that are too broad. This means they don’t have a plan for measuring their goals and don’t think about whether they have the capacity, ability, and skill to achieve them. Many people also do not set a time frame for achieving their goals. Setting goals without this framework is a guaranteed way to set yourself up for failure.

2. You’re doing too much too fast

Like many people, you may have made the mistake of trying to change too many behaviors at once with full force and way too fast. For example, you may have decided to eat healthily, exercise every day, cut out all alcohol (if you drink), cut out all junk food…and go running…and… and then you burn out. This is not a discipline or motivation issue. This is poor planning and an unrealistic expectation of what you can do. Most importantly, taking on too many goals at once is not how habits get broken, or new habits form.

3. You have an all-or-nothing approach and mindset

Far too many think they have to do things perfectly to have success. Know that the concept of “perfect” must be fluid to allow space for learning and growth. If you are someone who says, “I have to do it perfectly, or I don’t do it at all,” you’re bound to fail. Additionally, think again if you think your mindset has nothing to do with behavior change and habit building. Surface-level behavioral changes alone are not enough to make long-term and meaningful changes. Your perspective, self-talk, and thoughts and emotions have a lot to do with your success. If you’re not also addressing your mindset and mentality throughout the process, you’re far more likely to give up, claim “nothing works,” and keep repeating the cycle.

4. You lack awareness, insight, connection, and purpose

You decide that you want to change a specific behavior, so you take action right away. What you didn’t do, however, is take stock of what your habits look like currently, what your thoughts are like when you do it, and what beliefs are around your patterns. You likely also haven’t thought about how these patterns connect to your inner self and deeper-rooted issues. Last, you don’t have an apparent “why” that motivates you. Lack of awareness, understanding, and clarity can keep you going through trial and error cycles. You may succeed temporarily, but eventually, you’ll slip right back to your old habits, only to start all over again.

5. You are too focused on the outcome

When most set a goal, all they think about is the result of the goal. You likely haven’t tried to reverse engineer your goals and break them down into smaller, more manageable, and simpler steps. Instead, you have probably tried to do everything to achieve the goal. By doing this, you put all your energy and focus only on the outcome, neglecting the “how will I get there?” Understanding how to break down a big goal into smaller and more digestible steps will give you many opportunities to succeed along the way, instead of just the end result. Remember to focus on the process and not the outcome.

So, what should you do instead?

First, think about a specific behavior you want to focus on, and write down what that will look like and what actions you will take. For example, if you want to eat healthier, instead of just saying “eat healthier,” write down actions like:

  • eat at least two servings of fruit a day
  • include protein at every meal
  • eat breakfast at least four days per week

This will help you stick to specific changes you want to make.

Next, make sure that you have a way to measure your behavior. Remember to take stock of your current levels and patterns. A chart or a checklist can be a simple and easy way to keep track and hold yourself accountable. Checking off that you do what you set out to do can be highly rewarding, which keeps the behavior going.

Make sure that you are realistic about how achievable your goal is. Be honest with yourself here. Think about how achievable your goal is and whether you have the skillset to achieve it. Setting a goal to work out every day and eat “only healthy food” is neither realistic nor necessary. This kind of goal will likely lead to burnout, boredom, and frustration. Instead, focus on incorporating slightly more than you are able to do at your current level. If you only have 30 minutes to work out, set a 20-minute minimum of three days per week until you can do that consistently, then add on. If you’re currently eating take-out five days a week, focus on replacing take-out with home-cooked meals or replacing highly processed foods with real whole foods at a set number of meals per week instead. These actions are more attainable, and you will likely stick to the incremental changes.

As you’re setting these goals, think about your why. Do you believe you have to be a particular size to be loved and accepted? Do you want to make this change or feel you “have to” because it’s the “next best thing?” Asking yourself these questions can be helpful when it comes to honoring your commitment to change.

Be sure to practice self-compassion when working on goals

Remember to be mindful of your thoughts and self-talk throughout the process. Learn to become an observer without judgment, self-criticism, or self-deprecation. Create opportunities for self-praise and self-recognition when you make even the tiniest change. Give yourself credit for effort, and take pride in taking small steps instead of attempting and failing to make big leaps. Commend yourself for wanting to take steps in the right direction to break old habits that are no longer serving you. Allow room for forgiveness if you aren’t able to do something. This is part of learning and growth. Most importantly, remember that any changes you decide to make are meant to be for your greater good, a better quality of life, and self-freedom and unconditional self-love.

Aleks Zavlunova is a Holistic Behavior Therapist and Wellness Coach. She uses human learning and behavior modification principles to help people develop sustainable skills and habits to lead healthier and happier lives. Aleks combines cognitive behavior psychology and nutrition science to help her clients begin to address maladaptive and self-destructive patterns and habits and build self-esteem, confidence, and self-love by systematically improving their relationship with food. She strongly believes that our relationship with food significantly correlates with our relationship with the self, our emotional, physical, and mental wellbeing, and our relationships with others.

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