For many, a new year means new goals and aspirations for your health and wellness. But have you ever started off the year with a list of resolutions or goals for your family, only to give up within a few months? You’re not alone! In fact, a recent poll found that survey respondents stuck to their New Year’s resolutions for less than four months on average.
The question is, why do New Year’s resolutions and goals fail? Do we lack willpower? Or are we setting unrealistic goals and expectations for ourselves?
To help us answer these questions, we struck up a conversation with Tiny Health’s own Danielle Shea Tan, a functional nutritionist, microbiome specialist, and co-author of 52 Small Changes for the Family. She's here to share down-to-earth tips and insights to help you set family goals you can actually achieve—all while finding joy in the journey.
Meet Danielle Shea Tan, co-author of 52 Small Changes for the Family
I’m Danielle, a mom of two boys and married to an amazing partner. We live near the ocean in Marblehead, Massachusetts. I did my undergrad at Boston College and worked as a management consultant for over 10 years, until I got very sick with Lyme Disease in 2006.
My diagnosis sparked my interest in functional medicine and nutrition, so I left the consulting world and became a certified health coach. I then got my Master’s in Nutrition and Integrative Health from Maryland University to become a licensed nutritionist. I run a private practice helping moms and babies with issues of gut health and eczema. And I also am a microbiome specialist at Tiny Health, helping people navigate their test results and plan how to improve or maintain their gut health.
About 8 years ago, my good friend Brett Blumenthal and I realized we were getting so many questions from families and friends on what small things they could focus on to improve their family’s health and wellbeing. So we decided to write 52 Small Changes for the Family. It’s based on small change theory: that small steps over time lead to big changes.
Why do most New Year’s resolutions fail?
There are a lot of reasons people fall off the wagon with their goals or resolutions. But here are two common problems I see:
Setting unrealistic goals
I love that people set big goals every year—but they’re often huge, insurmountable, and hard to bite off where to begin. Why is it important to set realistic goals? So that you can actually achieve them. If you start with drastic actions, are you going to be able to sustain it when stress sets in?
For example, I’ve seen families wanting to eat healthier ‘throw it all out the window’ and start fresh. And that just doesn’t work when your school-age kids are around their friends who are eating another way. So you’re met with pushback and adding stress to your life.
If you can break that unrealistic goal into much smaller, realistic steps, you’re much more likely to succeed.
Taking a restrictive approach
We live in a reductionistic society. And the way people go about their goals often focuses on “less.” Less spending, less weight, less screen time. I really believe the saying that “restriction leads to addiction.” If you’ve ever tried to cut out something entirely, you know how it can backfire (it becomes the only thing you can think about!)
Growing up, practically everyone around me was dieting. When you’re constantly on a restrictive diet you are not allowing yourself to have a positive or healthy relationship with food. We set ourselves up for failure when we take a restrictive approach.
Tips for reaching your goals and New Year’s resolutions
Tip #1: Find your why
Before you even start the process of breaking down your goal into smaller steps, you need to ask yourself this very important question:
Why do I want to do this?
Or in other words, what do I expect to see or experience if I take on this goal?
Don’t skip the why! Once you get really clear on why you want to reach this goal, it becomes your north star.
Let’s say your goal is to lose weight. So you buy a gym membership and start going. If you dive in without knowing your why, it’s a recipe for disaster. When stress comes, when life ‘hits the fan’ and everyone in the family is sick, you are not going to be motivated to keep going because it is not going to feel important to you.
Take, for example, families with a history of cancer. They’ve seen how cancer has affected their loved ones. So making a habit of eating colorful plants containing phytochemicals—connected to lowering risk of cancer—is tied to a deeply personal why.
Once you’ve found your why, you can start breaking your goal into smaller, realistic steps.
Tip #2: Try habit stacking
Habit stacking is layering a new habit onto an existing one. It’s an additive approach, building on to what you’re already doing so your goal becomes less of a hurdle.
Here are some habit stacking examples:
- Trying to exercise daily: Think of how you can build some fitness into your existing habits. If you brush your teeth and shower every morning, try adding in 20 squats, lunges or pushups to that existing routine.
- Wanting to walk more: Do you work from home? If you have recurring team meetings or repetitive tasks during your work week, try walking on an under-desk treadmill while doing these things.
Tip #3: Focus on what brings you joy
Remember, how the restrictive approach sets us up to fail? So let’s flip this on its head. Focus on adding, not restricting. And adding positive things that bring you joy.
I have personally found that running is what keeps me in the best shape. But the truth is, I hate running. So I won’t force myself to do it. But dancing? Dancing is fun. So I add that to my life.
You have to find your steps for your family. Is it taking walks together, or gardening while listening to a podcast? Find something that fills your cup, and you’re more likely to stick with it.
If you’re trying to eat healthier as a family, what is one new food you could add to your menu this week? When you add healthier foods little by little, you’ll eventually crowd out the things you don’t want to have on your plate. That way you can still find joy in food, eating things that you love and that your kids are used to, while making those positive changes.
Also, keep in mind what motivates you. Some people are motivated by extrinsic rewards—when I accomplish this, I get to do this. For others the best reward is intrinsic—the things that bring me joy inside.
Questions to ask yourself when you’re setting goals
Becoming a health coach helped me realize I couldn’t be prescriptive to help my clients make change. While I could share motivating stories of how others’ have done it and ask lots of questions, ultimately the families had to decide what they’re next steps were going to be. So here are the questions you can ask yourself when you’re setting realistic goals for your family:
- What is your why?
- What are you already doing that you can build upon?
- What’s a reasonable change you could make? Can you break it down into 5 smaller steps?
- What motivates me and brings me joy?
- What will we do in a pinch (when ‘life hits the fan’ or and everybody’s sick, for example)?
New Year’s Resolutions ideas for families
In 52 Small Changes for the Family, we present four categories of goals: sharp minds, build confidence, boost health, deepen connections. Find something that connects with your family.
If you need inspiration, common goals among the families I work with are:
- Modifying the diet to support better microbiome health & immune health
- Kicking dairy from your diet if it’s causing issues for your family
- Wanting to feel fit, healthy, strong without trading time with your kids
A goal that I recommend to pretty much everyone is eating the rainbow, or incorporating different colors of food into the diet every day. This can be fun—color brings joy! And we give some suggestions for how to add a variety of plants into your diet:
- Making smoothies
- Turning them into ice pops
- Adding them to soup
- Trying one new plant each week
If your goal is improving your gut health
My interest in gut health started with personal experience. I had severe gut issues after my first pregnancy, and was diagnosed with Celiac disease. I found an amazing holistic naturopath who helped me uncover food sensitivities and allergies, and my healing is still ongoing—I’m still healing after 11 years.
I love my role at Tiny Health—reaching many more families, helping heal more children. The foundation of health begins in infancy. And it’s overwhelming out there, so I enjoy helping families find sources they can trust and rely on. If you’re wondering about your gut health or need some guidance on your healing journey, we are here to support you!