Did you leave your New Year’s resolution behind in January? That’s OK. You might need a new approach. Learn more about approaching behavior change in a new way and setting resolutions with Bridget Shea, a registered dietician and Audrey Munroe, a licensed clinical social worker both from the UVM Medical Center Community Health Team.
Listen to the interview at the link below or read the transcript that follows.
It’s a new year and that means a new opportunity to trade our unhealthy habits for healthy ones. But, some people may be tired of making the same old New Year’s resolutions regarding eating, losing weight, fitness, sleep, tons of different things.
Here today to talk to us about approaching behavior change in a new way and setting resolutions are Bridget Shea, a registered dietician and Audrey Munroe, a licensed clinical social worker both from our Community Health Team. Thank you for joining us Bridget and Audrey, great to have you.
Audrey Munroe: Thanks for having us.
Bridget Shea: Thanks for having us.
UVM Medical Center: I think I speak for a lot of our listeners when I say, “What’s the point of a New Year’s resolution, so many of them fail.” What’s your response to that? How can we actually set more attainable New Year’s resolutions?
Should it even be a resolution or should it be … Thinking something different when we think about them?
Audrey Munroe: Well, actually I think resolutions for the New Year are really great challenges that we can set for ourselves. A resolution can be a nice way to reset, re-evaluate. We just got out of a really busy holiday season, most of us were very indulgent, so it can be sort of a nice way to reframe how we want to make a change in the new year.
One of the things I notice a lot when people come in and talk to me, and that I’ve done myself, is that we try to go too big too quick. It can be really discouraging when we’re trying to make a lot of change all at once. Then, if we miss a day or don’t do something that we had hoped to do we can just sort of give up, or feel like it’s not worth pursuing. When we set these really big goals instead of smaller, more attainable ones, we can sometimes set ourselves up to fail.
Bridget Shea: Yeah. Weight loss and diet changes as we know are some of the most common New Year’s resolutions. While these are great larger goals they really do need to be broken down into smaller ones so that people can be successful.
Also, from a diet and weight perspective I think with resolutions the stakes can be really high for a lot of people. Maybe they’ve tried to lose weight many times before, or they have a new diagnosis, or their doctor wants them to lose weight, so there’s a lot of pressure.
I often see that when the stakes are high and the expectations are high, one slip-up, one lapse can lead to getting off track, feeling like a failure, and then maybe abandoning the resolution completely.
UVM Medical Center: When you’re thinking about breaking things down into smaller goals, or objectives, how would you advise setting something that’s attainable?
Audrey Munroe: When people come in to work with us, Bridget and I actually both really like the idea of doing a smart goal and some people might actually be familiar with that from setting goals at work, because that’s actually become really popular.
A smart goal is an acronym and it stands for something that’s specific, knowing exactly what you’re going to do. Something that’s measurable, you know that you’ve done it, or you haven’t done it and you can measure what you’ve done. Something that’s attainable, something that you do have some control over that you know you can get done. Something that’s realistic, considering have you done this in the past? Did it not work before? And what is your current ability level, is this realistic? Then, something that’s time bound, something that actually has a due date, or that has something like a 30 minute limit so that you’re actually setting a time.
If your goal has all of these components, we’ve seen that most people will have a better likelihood of success in achieving them.
Bridget Shea: We can break it down, for example, like taking the larger goal of eating healthier. It’s a very big and also kind of abstract goal, and we can make it more specific by saying what we’re actually going to do. Like, I’m going to eat at least one serving of fruits and vegetables at each meal or snack. So, here we’re moving closer to a smart goal because it’s much more specific. It’s exactly what you’re going to do to make your diet healthier.
Another thing that can help create a more attainable resolution is to start small, and then build on your success like you said. Maybe your goal is not eating dinner in front of the TV three nights a week.
Then, after a few weeks or a month you realize like, “I could probably increase that to five nights a week, or do it every day.” If your goal is related to exercise, maybe you start by just doing 10 minutes a day. Then, in a month or so you build, so you’re doing a little bit of extra time.
The most motivating thing for change is seeing success, so if you can set yourself up so that you’re more likely to be successful, then that’s going to be more motivating.
It’s also okay to re-evaluate – if the goal is not working then make a change to it.
One last piece I think that’s really important is to focus on behaviors rather than outcomes when you’re making a goal or resolution. For example, a weight loss of a specific number is not necessarily a hundred percent under your control, because even if you do everything right, you might lose slower than you expected. But, a goal that focuses on specific behaviors such as limiting snacking to once a day, that is always under your control. So that’s really important in order to feel success and have something be attainable.
UVM Medical Center: Yeah, I think that’s a really interesting point because it’s those behaviors over time that are of course going to affect your health, versus I want to lose 30 pounds.
So, we talked a lot about breaking things down, how would you advise the people who want to get started with a new habit change or work toward a goal? What’s the best place to start?
Audrey Munroe: I always start by asking someone, what is it that they really want to do. So, this isn’t something that your family thinks you should do, that your friends are suggesting or even your doctor. This is something that you’re feeling you really want to pursue. A lot of the times we feel like we should do things differently because we ought to do things differently or we should do things differently regardless of what’s actually really important to us.
Being honest with yourself in the very beginning is key. It’s so important to determine what you really want to change, and then what you’re ready to change, because those can be two different things as well.
Bridget Shea: I think it can also be extremely helpful to keep a journal or a log for a few days or a week to help you determine where you can stand to make some changes. Whether you want to change eating, or exercise habits, or get more sleep, or reduce stress, journaling about it and logging what you’re doing now really can shed some light on where you can go.
If dieting is a goal then a log can increase your awareness, and shed light on unhealthy patterns like skipping meals, grazing minus eating. I like to use the current diet as kind of a jumping off point.
If that’s not appealing, I encourage people when we’re talking about diet to look at the foundation of their own diet, and their eating patterns rather than just picking a fad diet and following it.
I always recommend to people to get help, that’s one of our big tips. Whatever you’re working on, it can always be helpful to have support with it. Another important piece that I recommend is to step back and look at your environment too.
If you’re trying to eat better or manage your stress, or change anything really, it’s important to see what in your environment could be impacting your success, or could be a barrier.
Even doing something as simple as decluttering your kitchen or getting unhealthy foods out of your kitchen, or at least out of sight, can make actually a big impact on what you eat.
I always recommend the book Slim By Design by Brian Wansink, it’s a really good book to help with setting up your environment for success with healthy eating.
Audrey Munroe: I also like to remind people that it’s great to schedule time to work on your goals because a lot of the time we’re so busy just going through our regular routine that it’s an afterthought.
It’s 9:00 at night and you said, “Oh no, I didn’t do that.” So, if there’s a way that you can send yourself a meeting planner, or schedule 10 minutes on your phone with an alarm, I think it’s a good reminder to … Even just going back to what Bridget said, if one of the things that you want to do is declutter your environment, to schedule time to do that because otherwise it may not get done because we’re so busy.
UVM Medical Center: It sounds like a lot of what you guys were talking about like the food journal, sounds like the first step is awareness.
What are other ways that you two think we can become more aware of our behaviors, both the good and the bad, especially ones that might derail our efforts?
Audrey Munroe: I think that most of us have some degree of awareness of certain things that we want to change. We may not want to admit them, but we kind of know that they’re there.
But, I think if this is something that you really want to do, keeping track of the behaviors whether it’s in a journal, or a log, or just even on your computer, somewhere on your phone can really help.
So, we can track our goals in a journal, and then while we’re tracking our goals we can also track feelings that might come up around that, whether you met the goal that day or didn’t. Did you feel disappointed? Then, what was the behavior associated with that? Did you then decide to just eat the entire box of macaroni and cheese because you feel like you just failed that day?
Having the self-awareness can really be key about how we decide to pursue the rest of the goal. We can work more on moving toward the goal if we understand negative feelings, or behaviors that are associated with why we do the things that we do.
I actually really like the book, Who Moved My Cheese by Dr. Spencer Johnson. It’s a self-help style book and it can help people really build some self-awareness around change, and how to move past them and the anxiety that that brings up. I think when we’re trying to be self-aware, our anxiety can increase, and it can definitely get in the way of working toward the goals.
I also really like emphasizing the importance of knowing our thinking patterns. With goal setting especially we can really get caught up in black and white thinking. So, it’s either I accomplished it or I didn’t accomplish it.
If you have an off day that can be really discouraging. So, I like to talk about learning how to see the gray area, which can really be helpful in changing our behaviors.
So maybe today I didn’t exercise at the gym for 30 minutes, but I did get out with the dog for 10 and went for a walk. That’s seeing the gray area, or learning how to modify; that’s another way of saying it. It doesn’t mean that you go back to zero, you still had a success that day even if it wasn’t the way that you thought it would be.
I also like the idea of visualizing problems so this can help build self-awareness. So, the idea of thinking of your life as a book with pages that you write every day. So you can visualize if you don’t like the current storyline, you can decide to change your plot.
UVM Medical Center: I like that one.
Audrey Munroe: Yeah. So, for some people that’s like … For especially visual learners that can be really helpful. So, change can happen in each chapter in the here and now, that can be a really powerful tool for some people working on self-awareness and change.
UVM Medical Center: So, as we kind of close out our conversation today, for our listeners who want toget started with this, what are some tools that you guys recommend?
Bridget Shea: In addition to journaling and your food, or exercise logs, or something to track progress, definitely controlling your triggers and environment. So, like we discussed before, when we’re trying to make a change in our lives it usually involves taking control of what we expose ourselves to in some way.
For example, if we’re trying to work on healthier sleep habits but tend to look at our phone as we’re falling asleep, or in bed, it might be a better idea to leave our phone out, plugged in somewhere else in the house where we don’t have that trigger to reach for.
So, controlling your environment regardless of what you’re working on is really important. But, sometimes you can’t control your environment a hundred percent, so focus on what you do have control over.
One thing that a lot of my patients journal about is going to parties or gatherings, whether it be at work or socially where they don’t have control over what food will be offered. That’s true, you don’t have control you can’t select the exact foods that you think would be the best, but you always have control over how much you eat.
So that’s what I try to encourage people to do, is just think about what you actually can control because that is empowering to know that I always have some form of control over my diet and what I’m choosing to eat.
Audrey Munroe: I think an addition to helping you control your environment is being held accountable. So, telling friends, telling family so that they can check in with you too and say, “Hey, how’s it going? Are you actually getting this stuff done?”
I think that can be a bit of an impetus to actually keep working on these things, because someone’s going to check up on you. And ask for help, I think it’s great to be able to say to your true friends or family like, “Hey, I really need help meeting this goal, can you guys check in with me?”
Or ask for help at your doctor’s office, you could ask to see the dietician there, or even the social worker if you’re trying to make some healthy changes. Or health coach, most of the doctor’s offices around here have them.
I think it’s really important that people remember this isn’t about willpower, it’s about making a lifestyle change. There are going to be days where you’re not going to necessarily meet your goal. But, over the long run are you meeting those small goals that we talked about?
Keep moving forward, old habits are going to fight back really hard, don’t be surprised by that. All of us risk temporarily falling back into old patterns.
I think one of the biggest keys is staying in the present, and just moving forward from there.
UVM Medical Center: Yeah. Well, thank you. I think this is a nice refreshing kind of way to think about approaching not only resolutions but just personal goals, and making change in your life.
So, thank you for listening, or guests today have been Bridget Shea; Registered Dietician and Audrey Munroe; a Licensed Clinical Social Worker. They’re both from the community health team at the UVM Medical Center.