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How to set achievable heath goals

Many of us start the year with a grand plan to reinvent ourselves, vowing to eat better, hit the gym and look after ourselves more. Making a goal is far easier than reaching it, no matter how good our intentions. So how can we create realistic targets in order to avoid giving up early?

Whether it's cutting out chocolate or working out more, the goals we set ourselves at the start of January rarely stick. As the dark, long days drag on, our plans often become derailed as we reach for comfort food and spend more time on the sofa. One survey found more than three quarters of those who make resolutions will break them before the year ends - and a third won't even make it to February.

Why is it so hard to keep New Year's resolutions?

There are multiple reasons why we find it hard to stick to New Year goals. Firstly, we tend to think big, rather than taking a realistic, long-term approach to positive change.

Our good intentions often lead us to set multiple goals too, putting immense pressure on ourselves to make numerous significant changes at the same time. So when we fall off the wagon, we feel demoralised and give up entirely.

In addition, studies have shown that a conscious desire to have better self-control could actually do the exact opposite. Essentially, the more we want self-control, the less likely we are to have it. It's like trying to force yourself to drift off when you can't sleep - you end up more awake.

"We all tend to gravitate to big dramatic change, particularly at the start of a new year but making small but consistent changes will make a big difference to how you feel and to your overall health and well-being," says Sophie Pirouet, a certified health coach based in South East London.

"The 'New Year, New You' trend can make us feel we need to completely overhaul, which creates a lot of pressure, and we give up early because it's just not sustainable and doesn't fit our lifestyle," she adds. "Eating more healthily can be an empowering and a positive experience, but so often our experiences with it are based around guilt, restriction and denial, or fad diets that just aren't sustainable for us as individuals."

So whether you're eating more greens, signing up for a marathon or cutting your refined carb intake, how can you make your goals stick?

How to stick at your goals

Think small

"Setting small but fully achievable goals is the way to make sure they really stick, because when you find that you can keep with that goal, it will increase your motivation to keep going," Pirouet explains. "Habits take time to build to the point they're totally routine, so if we start small, we're far more likely to get there. And then we can keep building on that success."

There is scientific evidence to suggest that hitting minor milestones contributes to reaching larger goals. When Harvard Business School academic Teresa Amabile analysed nearly 12,000 diary entries from 238 employees across seven companies, they discovered tracking small achievements had a direct impact on people's motivation.

This is because small accomplishments boost our sense of confidence and activate the brain's reward circuit. In turn, this releases chemicals that give us a sense of achievement.

Tell other people

It's also important to seek support, whether it's from friends, family or professionals. If you want to cut down on alcohol, organisations like DrinkAware offer support and practical advice on ways to reduce cravings, go alcohol-free in social situations, and more.

"It might mean asking family or friends for support to help with your goal, or tackling a new goal with a friend," adds Pirouet. "Telling someone else your goal, and saying the words out loud, can also be a powerful way to build accountability, and help you stick with it."

Replace things, instead of cutting them out

Going cold turkey when it comes to changing our habits is tricky. After all, denying ourselves chocolate, wine or takeaways is most likely going to make us crave them even more. Instead, it's better to replace them with healthier alternatives.

"I advise clients to think about what they can add in to the routine they already have, rather than take away," says Pirouet. "When you take small steps to add in more nutritious whole foods to your diet, you'll naturally crowd out processed foods and less healthful choices.

"Focusing on adding in foods that help you feel your best, rather than focusing on denial, will really help you enjoy the process and build your motivation."

And if you do indulge, don't beat yourself up. Making healthy changes isn't easy and even the smallest achievements count.

Don't commit to too much

Andy Romero-Birkbeck, a personal trainer and workplace well-being expert, says that we also give up on resolutions because we try to do too much at once.

"Most people don't achieve their health and well-being goals because they simply try to change too many factors at once," explains Romero-Birkbeck. "For example, you join a gym in January and because you're now exercising you change your diet. You also make changes to your existing routine to accommodate the exercise and food prep. This alone is a complete routine overhaul."

Create habits over time

Humans are creatures of habit and changing these habits isn't easy. Therefore, making sure any health goals fit into your day-to-day routine is key.

"If we don't formulate habits the change will not stick," says Romero-Birkbeck. "At We Are Wellbeing we use the '8 x 6 Principle' where we encourage our clients to create eight small changes throughout the year and try to formulate them into lasting habits over a six-week period each."

To drink fewer fizzy drinks, Romero-Birkbeck recommends gradually swapping cans of fizz for glasses of water. "The transition will be easier and less unpleasant," he says. "I have created a small but lasting habit that contributes to my well-being but isn't a conscious daily effort."

Be realistic

When setting a goal, being realistic is key. If you work 50 hours a week, it's going to be hard to go to the gym every day. Instead, set yourself a target of going twice a week or fit in daily walks on your lunch break instead. Being specific helps too. For example, you could try avoiding sweets on a Tuesday and Thursday rather than simply pledging to cut out sugar.

"Whether you're looking to eat more nutritious food, exercise more, start meditating, or anything else, it's helpful to think of one step you can take to move you further to that goal," Pirouet says. "Then ask yourself, on a scale of 1-10, how realistic is it that I can achieve this?

"If you're not at a 9 or a 10, how can you change things to make sure you are? It might mean making the goal smaller and easier. Or it could mean setting up your environment in the right way. For example, if you want to start running every day, putting your leggings by the bed and your trainers by the door can be the nudge you need."

Think about your motivation

Running a marathon or cutting out fast food are admirable goals, but we need to consider why we want to do something to properly commit to it.

"As with any kind of change it's important to unlock the key motivators behind the desired change or goal," says Romero-Birkbeck. "If the motivation to create the change is recognised and the drivers have been noted, it makes it much easier to stay on track. Whether it's a timed run, a waist measurement or one rep, it's all part of our journey towards the goal."

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