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How to choose a resolution you can stick to

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

2024 has arrived. Now, maybe you have resolved that this year you'll join a gym, learn to knit, start composting. But what are the chances you will succeed at accomplishing the resolutions you're making today? Well, Marielle Segarra hosts NPR's Life Kit and spends a lot of time talking to experts about how to make life better. My co-host Juana Summers spoke with Marielle about why we make resolutions and how we can succeed with them.

JUANA SUMMERS, BYLINE: What exactly is it about the start of a new year that pushes people in this direction?

MARIELLE SEGARRA, BYLINE: Culturally, we have these different markers of time that signal to us, hey, this is a chance to start over. And there's actually research on this from the field of behavioral economics that's often cited around New Year's. Google searches for the term diet as well as gym visits and also other commitments people make to pursue goals - those all increase following not just New Year's but also holidays, birthdays, semesters in school, months, even weeks. Like, I don't know, maybe you've heard people say, oh, my diet starts on Monday, right?

Of course, there's also pressure to make a fresh start around New Year's, and a lot of that comes from advertisers and from companies that are trying to sell us stuff like a gym membership or a new diet plan or containers for all your clutter, right? So I think we want to just make sure that we're choosing goals and resolutions that are right for us, and not just getting sucked into this idea of, oh, I have to spend all this money to better my life this year.

SUMMERS: Right. OK, so let's talk about what people are actually resolving to do. To absolutely no one's surprise, a Forbes Health/One Poll survey found almost half the people who responded were making resolutions focused on improving fitness. What's one thing you would tell people with that goal?

SEGARRA: I think it's to consider movement rather than exercise. Like, even the shift in thinking about that word movement is more central here. The experts say we should be getting about 150 minutes of moderately intense activity every week to help protect us against things like Type 2 diabetes and heart disease and cancer. That's about 22 minutes a day. And the reason that I say movement rather than exercise is when we say exercise, you might think, OK, I have to go do sprints or train for a marathon or sign up for a super intense spin class. But moderate intensity activity can actually be a lot of other things.

Researchers at Arizona State University put out this list of different physical activities and how they'd be categorized. And moderately intense includes chores like walking around picking up laundry, mopping the floor, mowing the lawn, also hobbies like ballroom dancing, which is not that fast, you know, or bowling or things like walking down the stairs or walking the dog or just walking at 2 1/2 miles an hour, which is not a crawl, but it's not a race walk.

SUMMERS: Marielle, in that same survey, 34% say they want to lose weight, and that's something that often gets lumped in with fitness. But the question I have is - should it?

SEGARRA: Partly that's because there's all this societal pressure to look a certain way and in general to be thin. But we also know from research that weight and body mass index are imperfect indicators of health. And we know that strict diets and crash diets, which is what a lot of people do, especially after New Year's, they don't work long term. People just end up going back to what they were doing before. So experts have told us to really try to focus on healthy behaviors rather than weight loss - eating nutritious foods, drinking less alcohol or no alcohol. Those are things that we know are good for us and that feel good in our bodies too. Another thing that you can think about is mindful eating. Like, slow down and think about - what am I actually hungry for? Do I want something hot or cold or crunchy or soft or, you know, sweet or sour? And then while I'm eating, am I full? OK, then I'll stop. And I find that that's just a more expansive and healthy way to think about eating than just being restrictive.

SUMMERS: All right, let's move on to another topic, and it's one I think about a lot. It's improving mental health. It's a really worthy goal for all of us, I think. But I don't know, the idea of trying to wrap up improving my mental health into a New Year's resolution - I don't know, it seems like that would actually cause me more stress. Is there a better approach to this?

SEGARRA: Yeah, it's big, but there are ways you can break that down and things that you can do every day or every week to improve your mental health. For instance, we've done episodes on making time for play and the importance of play in our mental health. We've done episodes on making sure you're connecting with friends because that combats loneliness or making time to be in nature. And if you are struggling with something like anxiety, for instance, there are things you can do in the moments that it comes up to bring yourself back to a more grounded place. For instance, if you really lean into your five senses, you might say, what do I see, smell, hear, feel and taste right now? And then pull back and say, what was that about? After that, maybe you seek help. You talk to a professional. Those are all different kinds of things that you could weave throughout your life in the new year to improve your mental health.

SUMMERS: All right. And finally, we come to financial health. The idea of having debt and getting out of debt is a situation that can be really difficult, both emotionally and financially.

SEGARRA: Yeah. I mean, debt brings a lot of shame. So if you're going to make a resolution around your debt, you want to start by not shaming yourself for having this money that you need to pay back. But then as far as actually tackling it, there are different things you can do. If you have medical debt, for instance, there are ways to negotiate that down or see if you qualify for what's called charity care. And we've done episodes on that that walk people through that step by step. And if you have other kinds of debt, you just want to prioritize paying off the debt with the highest interest rate first. That'll mean you'll pay the least over the long term. And so, for instance, if you have a payday loan or a credit card debt that - you'll often have much higher interest rates on that that compound quickly. So pay those off and then get to your lowest interest debts second.

SUMMERS: One other thing that these polls have found is that very few people actually stick with the resolutions they make long term. I am one of those people. So really, is it worth it for us to even make these?

SEGARRA: You know, it's a good opportunity, I think, for a fresh start. But we also just want to check in with ourselves - right? - because we want to understand why we're choosing a particular goal. So ask yourself why five times, even. That's a piece of advice that we've heard. I want to run a marathon this year. Why? So I can raise money for cancer research. Why? Because that's important to me - it's one of my values to give back. OK, great. That's a goal that makes sense. I think this can be a helpful way to focus on, like, are our goals actually in alignment with what we want and are they nourishing us? And then you can also choose goals and map them out using the acronym SMART. I don't know if you've heard of this, Juana.

SUMMERS: Yeah.

SEGARRA: Like, that stands for specific, measurable, achievable, relevant, and time bound. So you want your goals to fit into that. And if a really big goal doesn't feel right for you this year, maybe you go with something more like an intention, right? I want to be more creative. And then you come up with a fun list of ways you could try that out this year.

SUMMERS: That's Marielle Segarra, host of NPR's Life Kit. Happy New Year.

SEGARRA: Yeah, you too.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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