Why New Year’s Resolutions Fail And How To Make Good Ones

We often take the New Year to be a time of refreshment, a time to reinvent ourselves in one way or another. We like to call them ‘New Year’s Resolutions’, and they range from general life improvements, like going to the gym or quitting smoking, to making the most out of the time we have left. We might decide to spend the next 365 days planning trips around the world, or spending more time with loved ones. But for all the good the resolutions might be, why do they so often fall flat after a few weeks?

One of the go-to tips for getting better at setting achievable goals is to keep it simple.

By February it’s common to see friends or workmates slip back into old habits, and by the end of the year they’re often the same person they always were. It’s estimated that 50% of the population make resolutions each year, and only 8% of those people follow through and achieve their New Year’s goal. Why is this? Well, it has roots in problems with goal setting and how the brain works in that regard.

Timothy Pychyl, a professor of psychology at Carleton University in Canada called resolutions forms of “cultural procrastination” – an effort to reinvent yourself. “People aren’t ready to change their habits, particularly bad habits, and that accounts for the high failure rate.” And therein lies a big part of the problem. Many goals people set each New Year’s are lofty, extreme makeovers both personal and professional. One of the go-to tips for getting better at setting achievable goals is to keep it simple. If you set long lists of things you want to achieve, they can often appear daunting and subconsciously pressure you to give up. Psychologist Lynn Bufka says that it’s “not the extent of the change that matters, but rather the act of recognising that lifestyle change is important.” Baby steps is what counts here. Remember, you have a whole year to achieve your goal, and many years beyond that.

Well defined resolutions can be a great base for later success.

Problems also arise when we improperly define our resolutions. “I want to travel more;” “I am going to work harder;” “I am going to lose weight;” these things are not very good resolutions. While they might sound good at first, they are vague and don’t lead to a specific desired outcome. Here’s a tip: when you make your resolutions, think S.M.A.R.T. Specific, measurable, achievable, realistic, and time-bound. You should be able to define exactly what you want to achieve, and have a step-by-step plan of how you are going to get there, and how you will benchmark your progress. Instead of “I want to travel more,” maybe try “By June, I want to have been to France and England.” Well defined resolutions can be a great base for later success.

Making resolutions is, in effect, rewiring your brain and changing how you think. You have to reroute the neural pathways in your brain to change your habit, and it’s not easy. Through the use of MRIs, brain scientists and psychotherapists have discovered that habitual behaviour is created by thinking patterns which create neural pathways and memories, which then become the default basis for your behaviour when you’re faced with a choice or decision. What this means to you is that your habits are caused by neural pathways. If you’ve got a bad habit you’re trying to get out of, like smoking or drinking for instance, you need to literally rewire your brain.

Failed resolutions are often due to the cause and effect relationship. It’s very easy to slip into the trap of thinking that if you lose weight, or reduce debts, or travel more, that suddenly your whole life will change. The fact is, it won’t. Losing weight and reducing debt will make you feel a lot better, for sure, but it won’t be the seismic change you might be looking for. It will, however, set you up in the future to conquer bigger goals. If you fail, you might be tempted to just slump back into old behaviours, but that isn’t another solution. Just because you stopped going to the gym for a month or two doesn’t mean you have to give up entirely. Get back into it and you can still achieve some part of your goal. Who knows, maybe going back to the gym will end up in you finding a new friend, or partner?

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