4 Simple Reasons Resolutions Fail (and Why Yours Won’t)

image of new years resolutions not met

January 1st sparkles with good intentions: this will be the year we finally get in shape, get serious about love or our career, or get our life together. But too often, the spark fizzles faster than a Fourth of July fireworks display and most of us are using that new bosu ball to help reach the donuts at the top of the kitchen cabinet. So how to keep your light burning brightly through January and beyond? It may be easier than you think. This week, we’ll tackle the four most common reasons resolutions fail and give you the keys to success.

The 4 Most Common Resolution Roadblocks

  1. Resolution Roadblock #1: A grand but vague goal.
  2. Resolution Roadblock #2: Fitting in a new habit.
  3. Resolution Roadblock #3: Your resolution sucks.
  4. Resolution Roadblock #4: You start out gangbusters and then give up.

Let’s explore each a little further.

Resolution Roadblock #1: A grand but vague goal.

The problem: Starry-eyed resolutions like “lose weight,” “get organized,” “live life to the fullest,” or everybody’s favorite catch-all “get healthy,” all have a fatal flaw. What exactly? They’re vague, which gives them all the credibility of, “We should get together sometime,” or worse, “I’ll call you.”

The fix: Be specific. You’ll know your resolution is specific enough if you can check it off on a list. For example, instead of “get healthy,” try “Eat fewer than 25 grams of sugar a day,” or “Eat vegetables at every meal,” or “Go to that 7 AM yoga class every Thursday.”

Quantification is often the key to specificity: that means defining a specific number of pounds to lose, number of times a week you’ll work out, or what distance you’ll run.

Resolution Roadblock #2: Fitting in a new habit.

The problem: A resolution to take on a new activity, like volunteering, spending more time with your family, reading more, or learning French or the ukulele, is often doomed from the start. Why? Because changing your habits (and accompanying schedule) is surprisingly hard. Problems abound: finding the time, remembering to do it, and maintaining the habit.

And it’s more complicated than just being set in our ways. Many of us spend our days running around the bases so fast we’re lucky if we touch them all. Adding another base to touch, even if it’s just five minutes of meditation every morning, much less two hours of volunteering once a week or 30 minutes of reading before bed, magically morphs the resolution from a feel-good goal into a giant hassle.

The fix: Automate it. Habit change works best when it’s linked to another habit. For example, if you’re aiming to meditate daily, link it to something else you do every day. Try meditating while your coffee brews, or right after brushing your teeth. Likewise, if you want to start a new gym habit, don’t sign up at a fancy place that’s a half-hour drive away—you’ll never go, no matter how awesome the rock climbing wall or how delicious the smoothie bar. Instead, choose a place between work and home, link working out to your commute, and a few weeks into 2018, after everyone else’s resolutions peter out, you’ll still be going strong.

Resolution Roadblock #3: Your resolution sucks.

The problem: It’s not fun. Whatever you’re doing—cutting out your favorite foods to lose weight, forcing yourself to do exercise you hate, sacrificing big and small pleasures to save money—is no picnic. It takes a lot of effort, it’s not rewarding, or both. You’re grinding your way through and, after a few weeks, start to wonder why you ever thought this was a good idea.

You need more than sheer force of will to sustain lasting change. As a behavioral psychologist, I really believe that behaviors persist because they’re reinforced. You need to get something out of your resolution: enjoyment, satisfaction, pride, even just avoiding something unpleasant. You’re not a rat pushing a lever to get food pellets, but you do need some kind of reward.

The fix: Make sure you’re getting something out of it. Sometimes simply tracking your success can be a reward—watching a row of checkmarks grow on a calendar can be motivating. Colloquially known as “don’t break the chain,” building an unbroken run of daily salad-eating, money-saving, or getting to bed before midnight can crank your motivation because the stakes get higher as you rack up the days.

Another alternative is to build in a more immediate reward. Dr. Katherine Milkman is a Wharton professor who coined the term “temptation bundling,” which involves pairing a “should,” like a resolution, with a “want” as a reward. For instance, decide that you can only listen to that racy romance audiobook when you’re on the treadmill. Or treat yourself to that peppermint mocha only when you’re polishing your resume and writing cover letters to finally switch jobs.

Changing habits is a lot of work—you have to figure out the logistics, endure discomfort, and feel incompetent at first—so make sure to build in rewards, especially at the outset.

Changing habits is a lot of work, so make sure to build in rewards, especially at the outset.

Resolution Roadblock #4: You start out gangbusters and then give up.

The problem: You go all out for awhile, but then your willpower (not to mention your interest) fades and life gets in the way. Before you know it you’re using your new treadmill to hang-dry laundry.

The fix: Go easy on the perfectionism. While don’t-break-the-chain consistency can be motivating, don’t make breaking it a tragedy. Just begin again. With few exceptions (like joining AA or taking birth control) a healthy habit doesn’t have to be perfectly consistent. It can exist in fits and starts. For example, according to the American Cancer Society, the average smoker tries to quit 8-10 times before finally succeeding in being smoke-free for a year. After all, in the long run, success isn’t achieved by maintaining your new habit perfectly, it’s achieved by minimizing the downtime between inevitable setbacks.

No matter your roadblock, consider building the roadblock into your resolution. Use a method originated by Dr. Gabrielle Oettingen of NYU called mental contrasting, the steps of which make the nifty acronym WOOP: wish, outcome, obstacle, plan.

To try it, first make a wish (this means your resolution, not an actual wish like being invisible or able to fly). Then visualize the outcome. What benefits would you enjoy? If you’re trying to get fit, picture your clothes fitting better, having more energy, or being able to wrestle with your kids without getting winded. But then—and this is key—picture an obstacle. Visualize not having time to get to the gym, being too tired, or having life get in the way. What will you do? Make a plan to overcome the obstacle and you’ve WOOP-ed your way closer to your goal.

To wrap up, specify your resolution, make it as brainless as possible by automating it, make sure you’re getting something out of it, and simply begin again without drama or self-criticism when you find yourself dusting donut crumbs off that bosu ball. Remember, zero judgment.

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