How to Avoid the Resolution Traps

(This was originally published on my main blog in January 2014.)

Today we look at the common traps that prevent people from forming new habits and keeping resolutions. While we are focusing on exercise goals here, the lessons apply in all aspects of your life. Do not go for your regular run the first weekend of a new year. The resolutionists will outnumber you. It's dangerous.

There is a time to push yourself hard – if you’re working on your fitness, that’s likely to be when you’ve been in training, you’re in good condition and you know you can do it safely. A trained athlete has to deal with psychological limits, the brain screaming “Stop! Fatigue! You’re going to break! There are no more resources!” – long before you’re actually in danger of injury or running out of resources.

But here is the key: what is true for the trained athlete may be bad advice for the novice, risking both injury and failed goals.

Three kinds of over-exertion can defeat your commitment to a resolution. From doing zero exercise, you start exercising 30 minutes a day. Your body isn’t ready, and then you’ve got:

1. Physical overexertion. By the time you recover from the strain, life has happened, and your resolution has become a vague intention. Vague intentions don’t achieve goals.

2. Psychological overexertion. Maybe your body held up, but it was an unpleasant experience. Your subconscious mind will offer endless distractions to avoid repeating the ordeal.

3. Planning overexertion. It takes mental effort to plan and make time. The more time you commit upfront, the bigger the impact on your schedule.

Start Small. Persist.

For most people and most new resolutions, I advise starting small and being consistent. Push yourself within your own safe limits, and enjoy the energy you get from your new exertions. Build from there.

  • Want to start running? Perhaps a 5 minute walk mixed with gentle jogging is the right way to start.
  • Want to lift weights? Start with your own weight – do some pushups and bodyweight squats – a small enough number that you can maintain good form throughout.

The key to follow through is to make planning easy. Your first goal can be a small habit, done consistently. Just 5 minutes – even 2 minutes – but every day. When that’s strong, slowly build on it – exercise more intensely, and go a little longer. And by the way, if you’re unfit and just starting, skipping for 2 minutes is a good workout.

Apply these principles to any resolution, for a new year, or a new month.

And of course, take your own needs into account, and talk to your doctor before starting any exercise program… for your own sake, of course, but your doctor might also appreciate the inspiration.

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