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Dry January and Other Challenges Set the Tone for the Year

Giving up alcohol, sugar or spending for a month can help you develop habits that stick

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Lori McNitt has never felt the urge to take part in New Year's resolutions. This year, however, the 52-year-old from Westminster, Colorado, decided to try Dry January, a wellness challenge in which participants abstain from alcoholic beverages for the first month of the year.

"Now that I'm not drinking, it's been kind of eye-opening to see how many other things I am doing in my daily life that's just habit, that's not necessarily good for me,” McNitt says.

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McNitt is among many adults who set self-improvement goals for the first month of the new year. Other common January challenges include cutting out sugar, exercising daily, and avoiding the purchase of anything nonessential during “no-spend January.”

McNitt said she was motivated to take part in Dry January due to the encouragement of colleagues at work. “I'm recognizing that there is a huge population of people that do Dry January, so it's really not been very hard,” McNitt says.

Jim Owen, a healthy aging expert, says that setting goals in January can help older adults get on track with healthy living for the rest of the year. “My advice is to set very specific goals, and I think you should do it in the long term and short term,” says Owen, who recommends writing down specific objectives for January, and logging information about progress on those goals.

Find motivation to follow through on goals

Dean Karnazes, 58, of Kentfield, California, decided to change his eating routine to help work toward his fitness goals. Karnazes, who is an ultramarathoner, decided to fast for 14 hours each day in January after reading studies that found it can lead to increased energy and better sleep. Karnazes is currently curbing his eating starting after dinner until breakfast in mid-morning of the next day.

"The most difficult part is watching my family make breakfast. That can be torture,” Karnazes says. “The biggest surprise is how empowered you feel if you can tough it out."

Karnazes had tried fasting before but thought a month-long commitment in January would make it easier to see immediate results. He says he has begun sleeping more soundly since he started fasting and hopes to keep up a similar routine even after January ends.

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“Now if I can just have the resilience to withstand the site of my daughter munching on avocado toast, I'll be set for the long haul,” he says.

Owen notes that the pandemic has made it difficult for many people to find motivation and follow through on wellness goals. He recommends developing habits early in the year to help sustain healthy living throughout 2021. “I'm a real believer that consistency is the name of the game,” Owen says. “Small steps add up to big strides over time."

Research seems to confirm this theory. Most people give up on New Year's resolutions by the third week of January, which makes it more important to stay consistent with goals throughout the month. Studies have found that approximately 80 percent of New Year's resolutions are abandoned in January.

Owen says that setting modest goals can go a long way in ensuring that January challenges can be sustained throughout the year. “The philosophy that more of us adults need to adapt is this idea of moderation,” he says. “You can have all the willpower, but it's a habit that keeps you coming back."

Going beyond Dry January

Some people set January goals that focus on self-improvement and living more sustainably. Julie Gibbs, 68, of San Diego, decided to stop using single-use plastic bottles in January. Gibbs had been trying to increase the amount of water she drinks, but noticed she was using more than five plastic bottles a day, which can be difficult to recycle.

"I learned how the chemicals in plastic bottles can leach into the water and can be harmful to my health. It also started feeling wasteful using so many plastic bottles,” she says.

Breaking old habits has been difficult at times, she says, but starting early in the year has helped her stay focused. “I've found that if I start my day drinking a bottle of water, that I'll keep it up and continue throughout the day,” she says. “It's been a long process over the years switching from plastic bottles to refilling, so I felt like I did some ‘prep work’ before my resolution this month."

Doug Mitchell, 50, of Auburn, Alabama. decided to focus on reducing his family’s spending in January. Mitchell went through his credit card and checking account statements to create a plan with his wife to eliminate unnecessary phone lines, TV subscriptions, and gym memberships.

His family saved $6,000 by cancelling services that overlapped or were no longer needed and he hopes to increase that number by continuing to cut unnecessary costs. “That kind of helps us when it might be a lean year because of the ongoing pandemic," he says. 

While some habits may carry over — at least in part — to the rest of the year, for some it's just a way to reset on a limited basis. McNitt says she doesn't plan to adhere to her January goals beyond this month. But she hopes her progress will influence her lifestyle for the better in 2021.

"I will carry this forward throughout the year," McNitt says. "I'm way more cognizant of how much of social drinking just becomes habit.”

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