On New Year’s Resolutions: Why They Commonly Fail & How to Slay Yours This Year
It’s that time of year again when many of us find ourselves reflecting on where we currently stand in each of the various areas of our lives (family, relationships, work, health, social life, habits, happiness, etc.) and on what we’d like to accomplish over the course of the upcoming year.
If you’re like me, maybe you always get excited at this time of year at the prospect of a fresh start. Maybe you’ve even come up with an ambitious list of 5-to-10 New Year’s resolutions that you plan on slaying in 2018. And after exchanging gifts with loved ones, enjoying some downtime, and coming off of your holiday high, you’re probably feeling pretty energized and ready to get after it.
But come about March or so, you realize that you’re falling pathetically short of accomplishing the New Year’s objectives you’d felt so excited about just a couple of months before.
Your list of goals has fallen by the wayside — gotten buried by other more pressing to-do’s and priorities. (In fact, your list may have literally gotten buried by mail or paperwork or the multitude of other crap that’s magically materialized by spring). You haven’t given your New Year’s commitments any real thought in weeks.
So you give up.
Does that sound familiar? This pattern is all too common. I’ve gone through it myself more than once (and I’d venture to guess that even the Tony Robbins of the world have been there as well).
We have such good intentions. So why do we repeatedly fall short of accomplishing our resolutions, year after year?
In my opinion, the problem largely lies in our approach:
- Life is dynamic; and we are dynamic, so our goals change.
Some of the goals that we set for ourselves at the outset of the year no longer apply after a few months or end up falling lower on our list.
For example, at the outset of 2017, I was working as VP of Operations for a startup in the pet tech space in addition to doing some consulting work for Fitbit. I’d been logging a lot of hours and, given that there were a slew of cheap airfare deals for Europe at the time, I was thinking of vacationing in southern France sometime that year. Consequently, it’s probably not that surprising that “brushing up on my French” was one of my 2017 goals.
Of course, less than two months later, I decided to leave the startup in order to pursue my dream of building When It’s Knot Forever. Which meant cutting costs. Which meant no trip to France (at least not for now).
My circumstances changed and rendered my objective to improve my French language skills inapplicable.
- Our resolutions tend to be too vague.
Friendly reminder: you’re human (read: flawed, fallible, imperfect). And guess what? You can only really focus on one or two big goals or priorities at a time.
But life is chock-full of crises that arise and command our attention. This means that, at one point or another, one or more of your goals will likely get pushed lower on your list of priorities. And the more vague that goal is, the less likely it will be to ever make its way back up to the surface.
- We unintentionally set ourselves up for failure.
This happens for at least 2 reasons:
1) We tend to be overly ambitious and dream up entirely too many goals for the ensuing year.
When our list of resolutions is too long, we’re prone to feeling scattered and overwhelmed. If we don’t feel like it’s possible to succeed in achieving the goals that we’ve set for ourselves, we give up. And we hide our list away because seeing it reminds us of how little progress we’ve made and leaves us feeling guilty and disappointed in ourselves.
2) We sometimes set unrealistic goals for ourselves.
Giving yourself a goal that’s next-to-impossible to achieve is less likely to motivate you than it is to leave you feeling helpless and impotent.
For instance, if you’re overweight, battling health issues, and have never run a marathon before, I wouldn’t recommend setting the resolution to “run a marathon in under 3 hours.” Provided you won’t be drastically altering your lifestyle, hiring a coach, and fully committing yourself to solely pursuing that goal, it’s just not likely that you’ll be capable of accomplishing that kind of feat in 12 months’ time.
So this New Year’s, I’d like to propose taking a different approach:
I. Limit the number of goals you set
Instead of concocting a huge list of resolutions this year, try setting a limit for yourself. Have a maximum of 3 objectives that you’d like to accomplish so you won’t suffer from overwhelm and can really focus your energy on progressing toward those goals.
II. Ensure your resolutions are actionable
(a) Break each of your resolutions down into component steps
Sometimes large goals can be intimidating. We don’t know where to start in working to tackle them. So try to break down your large goals down into smaller, more manageable ones. In other words, see if you can create subgoals.
This can also be a helpful tactic to employ if you are having difficulty paring down your number of resolutions to just a few. If you’re feeling really ambitious and there’s a lot you want to achieve in 2018, see if you can combine any of your New Year’s goals or subsume one or more of them within larger, overarching intentions.
For example, let’s say two things you’d like to accomplish in the upcoming year are to lose weight and to get back into a consistent running routine. Could one of your goals help serve the other?
In this case, getting back into running could potentially help you to lose weight (provided you maintain a healthy diet). So running and instituting a nutritious meal plan for yourself could be a couple of items that you choose to list as subgoals of, or stepping stones toward, losing weight.
(b) Create milestones to serve as checkpoints toward each of your goals
Another key aspect to making your resolutions actionable lies in setting a timeline — instilling deadlines or milestones throughout the year so you’re able to track your progress toward your objective over the course of the upcoming months (and better assess whether you’re on or off-track along the way). It’s important to set deadlines for when you’d like to accomplish each of your subgoals to help you in reaching your overarching objective.
With respect to running, maybe you decide to register for several half marathons that are scheduled to take place throughout 2018 and set those races as large milestones for yourself. (Then perhaps you could plan to participate in a couple of shorter races leading up to each half marathon, and so forth).
You could also schedule quarterly check-ins — one every three months — to assess where you are with your weight and evaluate whether your current approach is working. Do you need to consult a nutritionist or put yourself on a stricter meal plan? Do you need to get a personal trainer or find a coach to train with?
Put in the work upfront to make your resolutions as actionable as possible so you set yourself up for success.
III. Be specific
It’s critical to establish specific targets if you’re serious about accomplishing your New Year’s resolutions. The more specific you get in drafting a particular resolution, the more likely you’ll be to actually make progress toward accomplishing it.
Continuing on with the weight loss example, if you’ve set “get back into running” as a subgoal for losing weight, what does that actually mean? How frequently will you run? And how far? For how long? At what pace? What new habits will you instill to move you forward toward your target?
The more specific you are in crafting your goals, the less resistance you’ll feel to working toward them.
It’s much easier to start taking action when you have clear direction and understand what steps you need to take. Even if you set too lofty or ambitious a goal, it is better to edit or amend your standards than not to set any in the first place.
For instance, maybe you could establish a new habit of running 4 times per week and following a specific half marathon training program that will tell you how far and fast to run each day in light of your goal race time. (Again, if needed, you can always taper back your desired time if your initial target proves to be too aggressive).
IV. Be realistic
Don’t set yourself up for failure right out of the gate by establishing an impossibly high bar for yourself.
Be rational, practical, and pragmatic as you work to craft your resolutions. While they should be challenging, don’t make them unreachable, or you’ll be even less likely to make any progress toward accomplishing them.
V. Accept that your goals may need to shift
It’s unrealistic to believe we can fully plan our year ahead in a vacuum without any interference. Too much lies outside of our control. New factors present themselves all the time that may drastically alter our focus and require us to reprioritize and shuffle our goals.
When this happens, it’s sometimes best to practice acceptance as opposed to attempting to resist reality. But that doesn’t necessarily mean you need to let go of your resolution altogether. Sometimes you can creatively find a different means of working toward accomplishing it.
As an example, if you’ve begun your running regimen and suffer a serious knee injury, it’s obviously a bad idea to continue pushing forward with your regular training program. You need to respect the constraints that exist.
But what else could you do to work toward your ultimate goal of losing weight in 2018? You could still:
- focus on your diet,
- reduce or minimize your consumption of alcoholic drinks,
- work with a nutritionist,
- see a physical therapist and learn some other exercises you could do in spite of your injury, (maybe pool exercises, for instance),
Point being, if you’re serious about wanting to accomplish your resolutions this year, be willing to reassess your approach and pivot as needed.
Our priorities can also more naturally shift and change over time, and that’s not necessarily a bad thing. It’s important to regularly take stock of your life (not just once at the outset of a new year) and learn to embrace change accordingly.
We all struggle to varying extents in following through on our New Year’s resolutions (or there wouldn’t be much point to me writing an article on how to come closer to achieving them). And while these suggestions should help you in pursuing your annual goals, they’re certainly not a silver bullet.
Do the best you can. But remember to grant yourself some leeway and compassion as well.
When setting New Year’s resolutions, try to adopt the approach of having fun with the process versus stressing out about achieving the desired outcome. You’ll be much more likely to grow if you enjoy the journey instead of solely focusing on the end goal.