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Lifestyles

Healthy successes and challenges: The year in review

Posted December 31, 2016

It can be tempting as one year winds down to begin thinking of all the things that could be better or different with our health or other important life areas in the New Year. Getting on with the new and leaving the old behind, while seemingly desirable, often leads to resolutions that don’t last. Like finances or family matters, efforts to review what is working well around health and other areas to build on in the coming year are often well worth it.

A benefit of reviewing successes and challenges faced during the past year is that it helps individuals learn from past experiences. For example, reviewing past performances is a common practice in sports to help players improve and strengthen their game. Whether or not individuals had specific health goals this year, taking time to reflect on health milestones can help with creating a healthier path going forward.

Belief in ability to succeed matters

A behavior change principle called self-efficacy can help individuals get the most of their review and planning process for health goals. Self-efficacy can be described as an individual’s belief in their ability to succeed in a particular situation or with a specific behavior needed to reach a goal.

Beliefs about self-efficacy can determine how people think, behave and feel, thereby contributing to ability to succeed at goals set. For example, those with high self-efficacy are more likely to show higher levels of persistence and effort in reaching a desired outcome even when life challenges arise.

This might mean, for example, that someone with a goal of reaching or maintaining a healthier weight persists with healthy lifestyle activities such as regular physical activity and cooking healthy meals. Therefore, focusing on ways to build self-efficacy as part of reviewing the past year’s successes and challenges can help individuals better succeed at achieving these or other goals in the coming year.

In particular, focusing on mastery experiences is thought to be one of the most effective ways to build self-efficacy. According to Albert Bandura, the founder of social cognitive theory that includes self-efficacy, mastery experiences are occasions where individuals perform a specific task successfully. On the flip side, failing at a task can negatively impact sense of self-efficacy and thereby belief in ability to succeed in the future. This is in part why it is so important to select achievable small step actions towards a health goal in order to build confidence in personal ability.

To provide a more detailed example in the area of healthier eating, an individual may have a desire to prepare healthy dinner meals more often. A specific small-step goal, therefore, might be to eat healthier dinners at least three times per week at home with family. In reviewing past years' efforts related to this goal, the following could be possible reflections:

What was successful around this goal in the past year?

— Selected three healthy recipes per week for family dinner meals

— Completed a planning session for family dinner meals one time a week

— Used a grocery list to complete shopping for ingredients needed once a week

What was not successful around this goal in the past year?

Didn’t have family dinner meals on nights when schedule conflicts arose

— Some recipes selected were too complicated/took too long to prepare

— Some recipes selected didn’t match food preferences of family members

Using this or other similar examples, individuals may consider reviewing their own areas of health focus this past year in order to identify successful and unsuccessful efforts. To go a step further, for the tasks that were successful, consider why the successes were meaningful and what additional mastery experiences might support continued progress. For the tasks that were not successful, consider if there’s a smaller step that could help build self-efficacy in this area before moving forward.

Learning from role models helps

Another practice that helps build self-efficacy is observational learning. This involves watching others complete a specific task and is especially helpful if the observer can relate to the role model(s). For example, to start running and eventually train for a 5K race, it may be most helpful to learn from the specific steps taken by individuals in a similar age range that are also new to running. It likely won’t be as helpful to observe individuals who are already seasoned runners, for example.

While observational learning is similar to social support, it is not the same, even though both promote success in behavior change. It’s possible to observe and learn from others that individuals relate to without directly interacting. Finding common ground helps people picture themselves taking those same actions successfully.

Ultimately, reviewing the year's personally meaningful mastery experiences as well as reflecting on role models to learn from can be part of planning for success in the coming year and beyond.

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