Set smart goals for the new year

PHOTO: ISTOCKPHOTO

To succeed, resolutions must be specific, relevant, measurable, attainable, time-limited

It's that time of year again.

People gather for parties and herald in the new year, clinking glasses of champagne merrily.

But it is also the time of year when resolutions are made, only to be broken weeks or months later.

Snap decisions are made to eat less, drink less and exercise more.

But even before the ink has dried on this contract with self, real life sets in.

Work starts to crank up again, children go back to school and parents are back on the school-tuition- extra-curricular activities cycle.

Who has the time and energy then to keep those pesky resolutions?

Many resolutions fail because not much thought goes into making them, said Ms Terri Chen, senior clinical psychologist in the department of psychological medicine at the National University Hospital.

The usual resolutions include finding ways to relax and sleep more, achieving a better work-life balance or being less stressed, said Ms Chen.

But not many people ask themselves if these resolutions can be attained. Setting unrealistic goals may make them seem impossible, or that they will take too much work to achieve, said Ms Chen.

Often, people give up.

Or, they may criticise themselves for not succeeding and put even more pressure on themselves to try and achieve their resolutions.

A better way to go about making and keeping new year resolutions would be to develop "Smart" goals, said Ms Chen.

This refers to goals that are "specific, measurable, attainable, relevant, and time-limited", she said.

People who abide by this principle have been shown to be more successful in being able to achieve what they resolved to do, added Ms Chen.

To be specific means having a goal that is clearly defined. For example, sleeping eight hours a day, rather than just sleeping "more".

The goal also needs to be measurable. One can wear a sleep-monitoring device to track the number of hours slept, for instance.

A goal that is attainable takes into account what is realistic and reasonable for the person to achieve.

For example, can the person complete his daily routine and chores and still clock eight hours of sleep?

Relevant goals are dependent on what the person values. One may choose to prioritise some values ahead of others.

For instance, people know it is important to exercise, eat healthy, sleep more, have less stress - but they do not always do it.

They may want to spend more time, for example, to get ahead in their careers instead.

One should reflect on his values and prioritise, said Ms Chen.

It would then be clearer what the person wants to focus on.

There should also be a clear deadline for the goal to be accomplished, or a "time-limited" goal. For example, to achieve eight hours of sleep a day in three months' time.

Remember that every decision comes with an opportunity cost, said Ms Chen.

Therefore, do weigh the pros and cons before making a resolution.

Also, avoid having too many goals as it may get overwhelming or dilute a person's focus on each goal.

Going through this process would increase the likelihood of achieving the resolution that was set at the start of 2016, said Ms Chen.

1. Lose weight, exercise more

One of the top New Year resolutions anywhere in the world is to drop some kilos and exercise more.

Weight loss and maintenance encompass permanent lifestyle modifications, said Dr Asim Shabbir, director and senior consultant at the Centre for Obesity Management and Surgery at National University Hospital (NUH).

This includes keeping tabs on diet and exercise and positive behaviour reinforcement, he said.

You gain weight when the calories you burn, including during physical activity, are fewer than the calories you eat or drink.

Achieving consistency in eating healthily and exercising is the key, said Dr Lim Su Lin, chief dietitian at NUH's dietetics department.

The two elements should be incorporated as part of a healthy lifestyle, and not just for a certain period of time to look good, she said.

Many people think that they can eat whatever they want and however much they want, as long as they exercise.

But Dr Lim said she has encountered many patients who do that, yet suffer from high cholesterol or heart attacks.

Many also have worn-out knees by the time they reach their 40s and start putting on weight as they cannot exercise as vigorously as before. However, they continue to eat the same amount of food.

You should therefore understand why you are exercising and how it helps you, so that your efforts will not be wasted, said Dr Shabbir.

Exercise involves the muscles sending signals to the brain, which implies that the body is in a healthy energy state, he said.

This gives you a sense of well-being and accomplishment, as well as a need to do more, he said.

The Health Promotion Board recommends 150 minutes of physical activity every week.

DR SHABBIR'S EXERCISE TIPS

•Exercise with a friend or in a group to keep your motivation up. A workout partner can encourage you when you are feeling lazy, and it is harder to bail out when there is someone waiting for you to get moving.

•Get an exercise-related mobile app to remind you that it is time to get going. You can also keep track of the number of steps you take by using simple gadgets.

•Set a goal that is specific, measurable, attainable, realistic, and time-related or trackable. For instance, you could decide to take a walk after work for half an hour, three to four times a week.

•Do physical work - such as clearing the table, other household chores, or switching the television on and off without resorting to the remote control. Walk rather than travel in cars or public transport, and use the stairs instead of relying on lifts and escalators.

2. Quit smoking

Smoking leads to nicotine addiction and serious health problems, which is perhaps why stubbing out ranks among the top health resolutions, year after year.

Giving up the habit has been shown to reduce health risks and prevent early deaths.

It can be achieved if one has a focused goal, strong willpower, and social support from family, neighbours and colleagues, said Ms Ooi Swee Phaik, a senior pharmacist with the smoking cessation clinic at National University Hospital.

Smokers should also know they can seek advice and support from health professionals along the way.

Cravings, thoughts of smoking and being "used to it" contribute to the addiction. Understanding these underlying factors can help a smoker unlock ways to improve the chances of going "smoke-free".

He might have to make several attempts to quit, and he might also relapse quickly, said Ms Ooi.

Withdrawal symptoms, such as coughing, restlessness and hunger, are one reason, she said.

Peer pressure, as well as stress at work and in one's personal life, can make it even harder to quit.

The best way is through behavioural support and medication, said Ms Ooi. This is according to the Health Promotion Board-Ministry of Health Clinical Practice Guidelines on treating tobacco use and dependence, published in 2013.

Where feasible, smokers should attend several behavioural support sessions, each lasting more than 10 minutes. They usually involve counselling and education.

Helpful medications include nicotine gum and patches, and drugs such as bupropion and varenicline.

MS OOI's TIPS

•Identify smoking triggers and avoid them at all cost.

•Always keep in mind your reason for quitting - whether it is for health or for your loved ones. This is your motivation to quit.

•Do not be afraid to seek social support and the advice of health professionals.

•Other resources to help you quit are also available, such as the Health Promotion Board's QuitLine on 1800-438-2000.

3. Eat more healthily

Develop healthy grocery shopping habits - choose fish, beancurd or lean cuts of meat; always have vegetables and fruit in your shopping basket; and skip sugary drinks.
Develop healthy grocery shopping habits - choose fish, beancurd or lean cuts of meat; always have vegetables and fruit in your shopping basket; and skip sugary drinks. PHOTO: LIM YAOHUI FOR THE STRAITS TIMES

Transforming your diet can be as easy as making a few small changes.

This will set you up for success as you do not need to change drastically overnight, says Dr Lim Su Lin, chief dietitian at National University Hospital's department of dietetics. For example, if you do not usually include vegetables in your diet, start by adding small amounts of vegetables that you like in your lunch or dinner.

If you love deep-fried food and usually eat it every day, make a conscious decision to limit it to just once or twice a week.

Other ways to kickstart change are to have a salad meal once a week, mix a small handful of brown rice into white rice when cooking at home, and reduce the amount of sugar in your coffee.

As you make these small changes one by one, you will feel healthier and look better. This will motivate you to make the changes permanent, says Dr Lim.

Other daily choices, like healthy cooking methods and taking the healthier option when eating out, go a long way to preventing heart disease, obesity, diabetes, high blood pressure, cholesterol and hypertension, she adds. Chronic diseases do not happen overnight; they develop after years of an unhealthy lifestyle.

Studies have shown that a healthy diet is important in preventing diabetes, coronary heart disease, hypertension, obesity, cancer and Alzheimer's disease.

As one disease may trigger another - for example, hypertension leads to stroke - it is important to keep existing diseases under control, says Dr Lim.

A Dutch study found that overweight people who lose seven to 10 per cent of their body weight by eating healthily and exercising have their chances of developing Type 2 diabetes reduced by 50 per cent.

Even for those whose weight falls in the healthy range, a good diet has tangible benefits. For people with a healthy weight but are at high risk of cardiovascular disease, a healthy diet without calorie restrictions lowers the incidence of diabetes by 50 per cent, according to a recent Spanish study.

If you invest in your health now by eating healthily and incorporating exercise in your routine, you will likely benefit from reasonably good health until old age, says Dr Lim.

DR LIM'S TIPS

•Try your best to avoid deep-fried foods when eating out. Not only are they higher in calories, but they are also often fried in oil which has been reused many times. This oil contains high amounts of saturated fat and harmful compounds, which may increase one's risk of heart disease, high blood pressure and stroke.

•Eat enough vegetables for each main meal. The goal should be to fill half your plate with vegetables, a quarter with non-fried protein, and a quarter with carbohydrates like brown or unpolished rice. Vegetables will make you feel full, so you do not crave more food.

•Trim visible fat and skin, and avoid adding gravy and sauce. This will limit your intake of fat or oil, sugar and salt.

•Try a salad meal once a week.

•Make your own sandwich with your favourite lean protein and vegetables, once or twice a week. Use wholegrain bread.

•Replace sweetened drinks with plain water, unsweetened tea or coffee without sugar.

•End a meal with fresh fruit instead of sugar-laden desserts.

•Go for the healthier choice when eating out. For instance, choose kway teow soup (330kcal a bowl) instead of fried kway teow (744 kcal a plate).

•Prepare meals using healthier cooking methods more often. These include steaming, grilling, baking, microwaving, stir-frying or air-frying.

•Shop healthily - choose fish, beancurd or lean cuts of meat instead of fatty meat; and wholegrain or wholewheat products in place of refined carbohydrates. Always have vegetables and fruit in your shopping basket, and skip sugary drinks.

4. Live with less stress

Who would not like to have less stress in their lives?

Even without the extra craziness of the year-end hullabaloo, it is still easy to get swamped by work demands and family obligations.

High levels of chronic stress will suppress the immune system, which puts a person at greater risk of various illnesses.

Studies have shown that prolonged stress can cause depression, anxiety, insomnia, skin problems, chronic aches and pains, digestive problems and cardiovascular disease, said Ms Terri Chen, senior clinical psychologist at the department of psychological medicine, National University Hospital.

Indeed, less stress can make you healthier and happier. But too little stress, and nothing gets done. Studies have shown short-term stress can boost the immune system.

An optimal amount of stress is therefore healthy and linked to optimal performance.

But stress management skills do not come naturally. They need to be learnt, said Ms Chen.

People often feel stuck as they feel they have no choice about what happens in their lives, or they are afraid of what might happen if they did things differently.

Achieving a balance starts by being able to handle dialectics, which is to compare and balance two things that seem to oppose or contradict each other.

This is where something called dialectical behaviour therapy can help, she said. Developed by American psychologist Marsha Linehan, it is a type of psychotherapy that combines behavioural science with concepts like acceptance of reality and mindfulness.

Mindfulness therapy also helps you learn to be aware of your thoughts and bodily sensations and, in so doing, be better able to cope with emotions and problems.

These concepts are important to keep in mind when people are trying to manage their stress, and to build a life that is fulfilling and rewarding, said Ms Chen.

MS CHEN'S TIPS

•Set goals that are specific, measurable, attainable, relevant and trackable. For instance, state clearly what needs to be accomplished and visualise how that would look if you were to succeed.

•Use radical acceptance, which is part of dialectical behaviour therapy. This means fully acknowledging the reality of the situation as it is. Even if it is a negative experience, you do not have to pressure yourself to put it in a positive light. When you are able to fully accept reality, it can, over time, bring freedom and, ultimately, a deep calm.

•Show gratitude. Studies have shown that showing gratitude can result in improved physical and mental health. You can even keep a daily journal to note down things you should feel thankful for, to reduce the negative effects of stress.

•Practise validation, which is the recognition and acceptance of another person's thoughts, feelings, sensations and behaviour. Being able to validate others and yourself is an important tool in managing stress. It also helps to build relationships with others.

•Be effective. Do what works for you and not what other people say you should do.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on December 29, 2015, with the headline 'Set smart goals for the new year'. Print Edition | Subscribe