New Year’s resolutions for those who hate resolutions

by Carolyn Thomas     @HeartSisters   

Well, we’re into the New Year now. For some of us, that’s almost enough time to notice small cracks beginning to appear in the boldly announced resolutions made in the midst of all those Christmas excess guilt pangs. When I was one of the run leaders at our local Y Marathon Clinic during the last century, we’d often hear such resolutions from our first-timers at this time of year, something like “This is the year I’m finally going to quit smoking, lose 20 pounds and run a marathon!”

“Honey,” I would say to them gently: “Pick one!” 

New Year’s can be a discouraging time for those living with chronic illness, and I blame those damned resolutions. About two-thirds of us make at least one resolution for self-improvement for the coming 12 months. By the second week of February, however, about 80 per cent of resolutions are abandoned, replaced by the remorse of personal disappointment.

Chronic illness like heart disease throws a wrinkle into the best-intentioned resolutions. In the PURE study (Teo et al, JAMA, 2013), for example, researchers followed over 7,500 heart attack survivors in 17 countries. They found that:

48% of smokers continued to smoke
65% did not exercise
over 60% did not improve their diet
14% had adopted not even one lifestyle improvement

This reality gives us lots of guilt-driven reasons every year to make big resolutions to do better.

One of my blog readers recently wrote that she prefers to ditch the word “resolutions” in favour of the term “self-care promises”. That’s got a kinder, gentler ring to it, and just maybe a higher likelihood of keeping those promises.

Regular readers already know how I feel about all of that non-inspirational advice like Follow your dreams! Reach for the stars! Eat more kale!

The eternal question for me is this: can accomplishing small but still personally meaningful goals actually be better for our health and self-esteem than screwing up yet another list of New Year’s resolutions ultimately is? And will success at small wins entice us to do even more?

The realization that true wins are not limited to big heroic resolutions is also why I began to change the way I reward myself the shiny sparkly stickers I use to track my daily exercise. ←Here’s a picture of one of my old exercise calendar pages. I hang this calendar on the inside of my bathroom cabinet door so I see it every day. Each hour of exercise I was able to do on good days (such as walking, biking, weight training, hiking, Zumba classes, whatever) earns a shiny sparkly sticker (I find that shiny sparkly ones work best!)

But on bad days, when the debilitating symptoms of my coronary microvascular disease diagnosis flare up, when doing an hour of almost anything is impossible, every blank square staring out at me was making me feel even worse.

So I changed my official sticker policy. I started deliberately awarding myself a sticker for even small accomplishments on a bad day. Even if I was barely able to manage only a slow 10-minute walk around the block, I got a shiny sparkly sticker.

Those were the days I really deserved the extra pat on the back for that brief attempt, because what I’d really wanted to do instead was to pull the covers over my head all day.

I’m also starting a new sticker reward calendar, but instead of calling them resolutions, this project is called 52 Small Things. It comes from The Mighty, an online health community for people facing health challenges and disabilities. (Full disclosure: I am a contributor to The Mighty – here and here, for example!)

The program, in a nutshell, works like this:

Ask yourself, ‘What’s one small thing I want to accomplish this week?’ or “What are four small things I can do for myself this month?” Keeping your things small simply makes them easier to do. Cleaning your entire house in a week might seem overwhelming, but cleaning just one room or spending 10 minutes a day cleaning is likely doable.”

I started my Small Things list this past week. First on my list was a very small thing, but one that I’d been avoiding for years: “Sort Christmas decoration storage bins BEFORE packing them away.” I managed to get two big bins culled down to just one, and loaded the unwanted stuff into the car to donate to the local church thrift shop. What a great feeling!

It’s also about the type of goals we decide upon. Behaviour scientists tell us that the most effective goals are ones that move you toward a particular objective, rather than away from something you’re trying to avoid.

As I wrote here, an avoidance goal (“Do this so you won’t get sick”) is far less effective than an approach goal (“Do this so you’ll feel great!)  For example, I could decide to head out in the sunshine today for a brisk walk to help me ward off another heart attack (which is an avoidance goal) or I go for a walk to enjoy the beautiful breezes off the ocean (an approach goal).

It’s all about small steps. As the late tennis legend Arthur Ashe once advised:

“Start where you are, use what you have, do what you can.”


Q: What are your “self-care promises” for the New Year?

See also:

Please! No more bragging about mountain climbing!

Why don’t we listen to doctors’ heart-healthy advice?

Non-inspirational advice for heart patients

No, really – patient education that’s actually useful!

When “nudging” doesn’t work to change patient behaviour

Six ways NOT to motivate patients to change

2 thoughts on “New Year’s resolutions for those who hate resolutions

  1. One of the many reasons I love my local Downtown Y is the way people regularly congratulate each other for having made it there. Some more than others, but it’s hard for all of us: the diabetic, but also the working mom, even the young careerist.

    We all need to take this time to exercise, to get better, no matter what the goals, and we all encourage each other. I leave feeling better physically, but also buoyed by all that solidarity and kindness.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Such a good point, Kathleen. I think when we feel a sense of community at the Y – or other friendly local place! – with others in the same boat (trying to get/stay fit despite illness, age, careers, busy family lives), we get that 2 for 1 bonus. I used to tell the participants in our Y Marathon Clinic that all they had to do every Sunday morning was just to wake up on time, lace up their shoes and get themselves to the door of the Y. After that, we’d take good care of them! It was such a great feeling to observe, week by week, a very diverse group of strangers become chatty, happy running buddies together.

      And I’ve also personally experienced the opposite of that sense of community (at big for-profit chains, for example, where a core group of ultra-fit ‘regulars’ ignore newbies entirely.

      I once belonged to a gym near my office (very handy for my lunchtime workouts) that had a big sign posted: “No Grunting, No Groaning, No Posing!” I thought it was a joke at first, but I realized that I was at a ‘muscle gym’ (with lots of grunting, groaning and posing going on all around me despite the sign!)

      I was invisible to these guys (they all happened to be men) except as a middle aged former runner who was taking up space in “their” gym!’ It was not a welcoming place, nor did it pretend to be, and it was a struggle to convince myself to go every day…


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