Count Down, Not Out: Making Good Choices All Year Long

Too often, New Year’s resolutions lapse before the champagne is warm. Here are some ideas to help those goals stick.

In your experience, which of these time frames lasts longer:

5 … 4 … 3 … 2 … 1 … Happy New Year!

1 … 2 … 3 … 4-get about it. I can’t maintain this New Year’s resolution?

If it feels like a close call, you are far from alone. Studies show that while around 44% of Americans make resolutions, less than 20% of that number maintain them. To compound the issue, it often takes little time — and usually zero effort — to abandon the healthiest hopes.

And resolutions do often revolve around our health. Three of the most traditionally popular goals are to improve fitness (39%), lose weight (37%) and eat healthier (33%). So why the disconnect between what we want to accomplish and our ability to do so?

Frame and Focus

Turns out that the intrapersonal relationship between mind and body may benefit from the same qualities we bring to our best interpersonal relationships: being SMART (more on that below), practicing patience and forgiveness and establishing a sustainable foundation.

The first step, according to Amy Sharn, MS, RDN, LD, Abbott Senior Nutrition Scientist, is how you frame the challenge. “The word ‘resolutions’ can have a negative connotation. It implies we’ve done something bad and need to remove it from our lives. I prefer the idea of establishing ‘intentions.’

“When we focus on what we can add to our lives, rather than take away, it puts us in a better place to follow through on behavior change. Otherwise, we may feel successful for a few days because we’ve restricted ourselves, but then we hit the weekend and fall off the wagon.”

Positive change is what Sharn’s approach is all about. The focus is less on removing high-carb, high-fat options that won’t keep us full for long and more on filling us up with lean proteins (chicken, fish, lentils), whole grains (oatmeal, brown rice) and the copious colors found in fruits and vegetables, in proportions like those set out on useful sites such as the USDA’s and Canada Food Guide.

Long-term success lies in the details. “One way we mistakenly undo resolutions is by being too broad. Focus on actions,” Sharn said. “We need to be intentional, which is different than merely having good intentions.”


“General goals of losing weight, improving health or being in better shape aren’t changes you can make,” said Sharn.  “You need specific actions to achieve those outcomes, like eating more nutrient-dense foods and increasing physical activity. You need SMART goals to get you there.”

A SMART goal is:

Specific. “Get certain nutrients onboard in sufficient amounts to fuel your body, but also satisfy your cravings.”

Measurable. “Be able to track what you’re consuming to make sure your body is getting what it needs and not too much of what it doesn’t. We want to learn if we’re successful or need to modify our actions.”

Attainable. “Goals we can’t reasonably meet are useless and frustrating. Maybe 3-5 servings of fruits and vegetables per day is something we work up to. Think about what attainable subgoals – like 1 or 2 servings -- could lead to meeting that larger goal.”

Relevant. “Is what you’re planning to do likely going to accomplish what you want it to?”

Timely. “Stay on top of your goals daily, weekly, etc. Chart your progress, learn from your current habits, and adjust when necessary. You might learn that eating fruits and vegetables at dinner works better than at breakfast.”

Conversations and Patience With Our Bodies

Clearly, being SMART is an important part of staying committed. Thinking of what we are communicating to our body is a vital component of enhancing that relationship.

“What we should be saying consistently to our body by our actions is that we will take care of you. We will get you the fuel you need, the tastes you enjoy and the satisfaction you crave,” Sharn said. “We may feed you too many slices of pizza one night, but we will listen to your feedback and add some protein and fiber to our meal next time.”

Like every other important dynamic in our lives, forgiveness and patience play an important role here, as well. “Most people aren’t looking to meet a health goal and then backslide,” Sharn said. “We are establishing a long-term agreement with ourselves where we may stumble but we won’t throw away our progress and give up. Instead, we’ll reflect on unsuccessful behaviors and move forward.

“Too often we see the occasional backsliding as a failure. That does no good. Instead, we need to reframe these moments as opportunities to learn about ourselves, grow and improve.

“Think of it as mere data. Doing this thing made me feel bad, sick or frustrated. The way I approached that goal wasn’t successful, so I’ll act differently next time.”

This understanding helps mind and body succeed together, establishing patterns that allow for sustainable improvement. 

Craving Information

Cravings can be challenging, but the more we know about our bodies and their reactions, the better we can do. “Use cravings to figure out what is going on in your day. They can be a good thermostat. If you have the same hungers at the same times, use that information to adjust by adding protein and fiber throughout the day.”

Nutrition and fitness apps likewise can provide insights that promote good health, providing the data is mined for the right reasons. “An app that tracks what you’re eating helps correlate what is consumed with how you feel,” Sharn said.

“That might get you thinking, ‘I should add a lean protein source to my breakfast tomorrow, in place of just coffee, which could be a balanced choice. But using that information to merely restrict intake can be harmful to our mindset.”

Apps can be a great tool for building habit awareness, especially when promoting an abundance (more nutrients, flavor, fuel) rather than a restrictive mindset, as changes can be positive (empower) or negative (restrict).

One needs to focus on change that provides long-term benefits and sustainable actions. Restricting the body for five days only sets the body up to feed cravings over the weekend and is a poor long-range plan. Knowing how your body reacts to different circumstances is key to sustainable success.

One Size Does Not Fit All

Health changes come from learning how to best manage the relationship between body and mind and, like most clothes, one size does not fit all.

“It’s less about a formula for consuming X number of calories over Y number of days and more about what can I learn about myself, what I need and don’t need, what is the right balance for me and how can I continue to become the best version of me?” Sharn said.

There is no one right size for everyone, no one path to follow. There are many ways to get to where you want to go. “It may mean just eating more mindfully or walking an extra 30 minutes throughout the day,“ Sharn said. "As long as we are taking health-promoting actions we can all be healthier.”

So don’t feel compelled to wait for that ball to drop at some arbitrarily chosen moment. Any minute of any day is the best time to start your health improvement journey. Be focused, mindful and kind to yourself.

Now, 3 … 2 … 1 … GO!