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Simple strategy to stick to your New Year goal

Many of us are setting New Year goals to eat better, to lose weight, to stop drinking and to exercise regularly. It’s a perfect time to remove the weight of prior heavy expectations and to start a new page. But just 8 % of people achieve their New Year’s goals, while around 80 % fail to keep their resolutions by February.

If you have started a new diet—there are likely some “bad” foods you’re instructed to rarely, if ever, allow on your plate. While well-intentioned, restrictive diets will ultimately weigh you down. Same goes for exercising. We often love setting big goals, such as signing up for an ironman, running a marathon, ultra or hitting the gym 5 days a week. For some of us, they can be motivating. For others unattainable goals will backfire. Few failures and we get frustrated, abandoning the goal and the intention altogether. It will drive many of us to a “what's the point” apathy state. Sounds familiar?

A recent study suggests that it’s best to plan certain days on which you’ll free yourself of your diet, or workout plan, or whatever goal you’ve set —and really just let loose. For a short time.

These so-called planned hedonic deviations, or “cheat days,” can boost your motivation for long-term goal-success. Occasional hedonic consumption should not always be seen as a vice. It’s not a failure. Allowing oneself some unhealthy or indulgent treats on occasion may actually act as a positive reinforcement for a healthy behaviour.

Over the course of three experiments published in the Journal of Consumer Psychology, researchers analysed whether subjects would be better able to stick with their goals if they were allowed cheat days.

First, the participants imagined either being on a 1,500-calorie diet every day or a 1,300-calorie diet with a 2,700-calorie “indulgence” day at the end of each week. Those with the indulgence option predicted they would have more self control by the end, and they could come up with more strategies to overcome temptation than the others, even though they were on a stricter diet plan.

Then, the researchers asked participants to actually do the two diets for two weeks. Those who had the planned cheat day reported they were better able to sustain their motivation and self-control than those who ate the same amount each day. Interestingly, both groups lost similar amounts of weight.

Finally, in the 3rd study, a new set of participants was asked to describe their personal goals on a questionnaire. Study authors told the participants about the two paths to achieving goals—with cheat days and without. The cheat-day plan, the subjects said, seemed more helpful for their motivation, no matter what their goal was.

In contrast to the general belief that consumers should categorically resist goal deviations, researchers propose that including planned hedonic goal-deviation activities a priori in the initial goal implementation plans may actually be beneficial for long term goal attainment, such as by occasionally having a chocolate cake when on a diet. When we’re intensely focused on a strenuous target, we sometimes view the smallest lapse as evidence the entire goal has failed. This sets off a “failure cascade,” or the “what the hell” effect (I already ate half a box of cookies, I might as well eat them all). A zero-tolerance approach strains motivation, but cheat days are like fresh air from our self-control.

In addition, according to their results, this “intermittent striving” tends to put people in a better mood—something eating only broccoli and carrots each day isn’t known for doing.

It’s all about consistency and not perfection. Remember, there are no perfect goals, they are all situation and context dependent. It’s better to be 80% all the time, than 100% from time to time as a classic city weekend warrior, running once a week to exhaustion or a yo-yo dieter.

Wishing you a Happy Motivational New Year!

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