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Three ways to help patients achieve New Year’s resolutions

As patients navigate behavior change, you can show them how to avoid the common pitfalls that can derail good intentions. Like climbing an obstacle, there are small steps to prepare patients to achieve their goals in the upcoming year. (U.S. Air Force photo by Senior Airman Janiqua P. Robinson) As patients navigate behavior change, you can show them how to avoid the common pitfalls that can derail good intentions. Like climbing an obstacle, there are small steps to prepare patients to achieve their goals in the upcoming year. (U.S. Air Force photo by Senior Airman Janiqua P. Robinson)

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It can be difficult to follow through on New Year’s resolutions. As a psychologist for the Defense Health Agency, I know it can be tough to watch patients set enthusiastic goals, only to get frustrated months later. Fortunately, providers can help.

As patients navigate the rough seas of behavior change, you can show them how to avoid the common pitfalls that can derail good intentions. Here are three ways to prepare patients to achieve their goals in the upcoming year.

  • Encourage small goals

Your patient may want to lose 75 pounds or run three marathons in the next year, those are great goals to strive for. Gently remind them that setting the bar too high, or a timeline that’s too strict, could make lasting change harder to achieve.

Motivation ebbs and flows according to our moods and energy levels. The marathon goal that inspires your patient on Jan. 1 may feel insurmountable on a bleary morning in the middle of February.

You can soften dips in motivation by illustrating the power of small goals. Suggest actions that are so simple, they are impossible to fail. For example, the prospective runner could begin her journey by jogging to the end of the block and back every day. People build confidence and a sense of achievement through small successes, which can then push them toward larger goals.

  • Teach the basics of habit

Many of us rush headlong into resolutions, despite our current tendencies and routines. When we are dissatisfied with a situation, we attempt to create new behavior patterns out of thin air. You can help patients insert goal-related behavior into their lives by teaching them the basics of habit formation.

Say your patient’s goal is to lose weight, but he has a habit of eating ice cream after dinner. The current loop might look like this:

  • Cue – turning on the TV
  • Craving – having a treat that caps off his meal
  • Response – going to the fridge to get some ice cream
  • Reward – the comfort of eating a snack while watching TV

In reviewing this routine with the patient, you can suggest alternative behaviors that support his goal. For instance, instead of opening the fridge for ice cream, he could put on the kettle and then sip herbal tea in front of the TV as he winds down.

  • Emphasize accountability

In the excitement of setting a new goal, many patients fail to set consequences for not sticking with their resolutions. This tendency stems from two mistaken beliefs:

  • Motivation is constant (it’s not).
  • Willpower alone is enough to change habits (it isn’t).

You can hedge against both mindsets by emphasizing the need to define what the stakes are in pursuing a goal.

Ask your patients to think about times they’ve accomplished something in the past. What was it that pushed them to meet that goal? Did a friend join them on morning runs? Did they make a financial commitment to a gym or a fitness coach? Once you find an example of past success, encourage patients to re-engineer those successes by applying them to their current goals.

Getting Feedback

Creating awareness of the mental mechanisms that contribute to successful behavior change is a good start. But it can also be helpful to pair that knowledge with digital health technology that give patients immediate feedback on their actions. The Defense Health Agency develops technology that helps providers and patients work together to support healthy behaviors.

Free apps such as T2 Mood Tracker (iOS, Google Play) allow patients to take notes on their feelings throughout the day. Over the course of weeks, patients can identify trends and triggers, and tweak their goals to stay on course.

Virtual Hope Box (iOS, Google Play) is another app patients can use to help cope with the ups and downs of chasing a long-term goal. Inspirational quotes, relaxation activities and planning tools are powerful ways to recover from dips in motivation.

By equipping patients with the mental and technological tools needed to sidestep potential pitfalls, you can help them reach their health goals in the new year and for the rest of their lives. And that, is truly something to raise a glass to.

Dr. Julie Kinn is a licensed clinical psychologist at DHA with more than 15 years of experience implementing behavioral health technology for the military and veteran community. She leads the DHA Usability Lab and produces three podcasts: “A Better Night’s Sleep,” “The Military Meditation Coach” and “Next Generation Behavioral Health.”

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