Why our New Year’s resolutions fail
Easy to make and almost impossible to keep. Why do we struggle with this popular tradition?
Story by Mark Cox
Just under half of Americans will make New Year's resolutions this year.
Unfortunately, around 80 percent of our earnest ambitions will end in failure by the second week of February. Ultimately, only 8 percent will achieve their goals.
Clearly, this stuff is harder than it looks. But the good news is there are well-defined reasons why we fail. And if you can understand them, then (just maybe) you’ll navigate your way to success.
1. We give up too easily.
Many resolution-makers stumble quite early. But Randi Smith, professor of psychology at Metropolitan State University of Denver, has some good advice: Get back in the saddle. “You can expect both successes and slip-ups with any process,” she said. “But the one thing that generally dooms resolutions to failure is an all-or-nothing attitude.”
“For instance, say you quit smoking then cave to your craving after a couple of days. In such a case, you’re likely to conclude you’ve gone completely off the rails and your whole resolution is destroyed. But here’s the truth: You went two whole days without a cigarette, which is pretty good! So get back up and keep trying. Don’t write off your entire goal on the basis of one bad move.”
2. Most people think too BIG.
We can’t resist grand gestures. That’s why every year, millions of Americans make wildly ambitious resolutions which, to succeed, would require truly transformative change or the abandoning of life-long habits. Such bold moves almost always follow the same pattern: Sunny confidence on day one, closely followed by mounting frustration, struggle, panic and then failure.
Professor Smith has some much better advice: “Aim for smaller, incremental changes that you’re confident of delivering on. And make note of your achievements along the way, because we all love positive reinforcement – even if it comes from ourselves! Give yourself a pat on the back for the small steps, and soon enough you may start making bold strides in the right direction.”
3. We’re too vague.
Imagine writing a grocery shopping list that simply said, ‘buy food.’ It would be useless. But that’s pretty much the approach many people take with resolutions. If you normally do nothing at all, then occasionally walking around the backyard would technically count as “more exercise” – but it wouldn’t make much difference to your health. However, say you pledged to walk for 30 minutes every second day for six weeks, and then maybe take that up to 40 minutes … Now, that’s a plan. “The key is to set specific and achievable goals that you can measure your progress against,” Smith said. “Then stick to them.”
4. We pre-announce our plans.
Warning: Telling your friends (or Facebook) “my New Year’s resolution is to run a marathon this year” is a bad decision on so many levels. First, you get a premature sugar-rush of successful feeling without having done a thing to earn it. And worse, you immediately heap a whole load of extra pressure on yourself. Because now, if you run around the block three times and decide you don’t like running, your failure will be a public one.
According to Smith: “While social support can sometimes help us achieve goals, talking about your resolution intentions may well diminish your likelihood of carrying them out. A better option here would be to simply “announce” your ambitions to yourself. So, write down your goals; come up with a realistic timeline. Making it real for yourself will ultimately increase your chances of success.”
5. We expect to fail.
Our earlier statistics about the terrible success rates of resolutions probably didn’t come as a surprise to you. And that’s kind of the problem – it’s common knowledge that resolutions mostly just don’t pan out. Everyone secretly knows that three-gym-visits-a-week Britney will be back on the sofa by February. No one will even raise an eyebrow when serial quitter Brad’s nicotine patches are ditched in favor of the real thing two weeks down the line.
For most of us, making a resolution is more of a gesture than a focused and well-thought-out attempt to create lasting change. And once people start to struggle, they definitely find comfort in knowing they’ve joined this exclusive club with such a high failure rate. Because that means when things get tough, it’s easier for them to throw in the towel.
6. Make changes when you’re ready (whenever that is).
Setting an arbitrary date for committing to a major change is, when you think about it, a pretty odd idea. If someone really wants to take significant steps to improve their life, then they need to feel ready for change – and that can happen on any one of a year’s 365 days.
For Smith, disregarding the importance of the date is a no-brainer. “When you think about it, there’s no sensible reason to wait until New Year’s Eve to envision better habits for ourselves. If we’re open to new experiences, to influence from others, to mystery and magic, then we might be inspired to grow and change for the better at any time.”
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