Why Most Resolutions Fail (And 3 Science-Based Principles That Will Make Yours Stick)
It’s March, how are your resolutions doing?
It may be a bit early to tell yet, but it’s not too early to reconsider how you are approaching your resolutions. Because most of our resolutions have the best of intentions, but little hope of success (only about one in ten people achieve the results they were hoping for).
Does this mean that resolutions are a waste of time? Not at all. In fact, science has found that establishing goals and resolving to meet them is foundational to life satisfaction, and one of the four critical components of living a purposeful life.
The issue with resolutions is not that they are a waste of time. The issue is that we go about them the wrong way.
Fire! (ready, aim)
I spent the better part of two decades as a strategist helping many of the world’s leading brands (Coke, GM, BofA, IBM, etc…) understand what matters most to their businesses (ready), and where to target their efforts for maximum impact and efficiency (aim), before they decided how to act (fire).
What the most sophisticated companies in the world do, that less sophisticated companies — and most of us individuals — don’t do very well, is spend a lot of time and energy deeply understanding what matters most, and where to focus, before they decide how to act: Ready, Aim, Fire!
But when it comes to resolutions, most of us are Fire! (ready, aim).
Think about your past resolutions. Before choosing them did you spend a lot of time exploring what matters most to you in the long-term (ready)? Did you then target your efforts for maximum impact (aim) before deciding on the actions that would become your resolutions (fire)?
If you’re like most of us, the answer is probably not.
And that’s exactly the problem.
We readily choose resolutions that seem intuitively positive, but we don’t take the time to understand what underlies our aspirations or guilts, and to discover whether they are arising from our “intrinsic” motivations, — that is, what we most authentically care about — or whether they are being provoked by “extrinsic” ideals that may appear desirable, but that are not founded on our deepest motivations.
Consider the top 2019 resolutions according to one study of 2000 people:
- Diet or eat healthier (71 percent)
- Exercise more (65 percent)
- Lose weight (54 percent)
- Save more and spend less (32 percent)
- Learn a new skill or hobby (26 percent)
These are great resolutions that all of us could benefit from. So why is it that 1800 of these 2000 people will fail to see their resolutions through?
These top 5 resolutions — eat healthier, exercise, lose weight, save money, learn new skills — sound like a formula for the new American Dream. And that may be the issue with them. These are our cultural values, that is, the extrinsic values and ideals that our culture posits on us, but not necessarily the intrinsic, personal values of the 1800 people who will fail to achieve them.
Despite their merit, these resolutions don’t stand a chance of being achieved because 90% of these resolution-makers are making their resolutions backwards. They are deciding how to act (e.g., dieting, exercising, etc…) based on the immediate and obvious options, without first understanding what matters most to them.
90% of these resolution-makers are making their resolutions backwards.
How many of these resolution-makers are choosing to focus on eating more healthily or exercising more, when their real issues are that they hate their careers, they are in dysfunctional relationships, or they have nagging senses that their lives lack a sense of purpose or direction?
In light of these weightier life issues, eating more celery or spending more time in spin classes can only have marginal effects on their lives. Without addressing the most foundational issues in their lives, these resolution-makers will soon start picking up cinnamon buns on their way to their meaningless jobs just to provide a little comfort during the day, or they will stop going to the gym because their lack of purpose ands direction sucks out all of their motivation.
3 Principles That Make Resolutions Stick
While many articles are written each year about resolutions, virtually all of them focus on executional tips about how we can more successfully accomplish our resolutions through behavioral tricks or practices.
As an example, “temptation bundling,” a well-researched practice in which the disciplines that you don’t love are bundled with indulgences that you do, is frequently mentioned. Temptation bundling is smart and has been shown to be impactful. But if the resolution that you are using it for isn’t anchored in your long-term motivations and desires, then it’s only going to be a short-term, behavioral crutch.
Luckily, the science of meaning and purpose is uncovering principles of life satisfaction and fulfillment that can help you develop resolutions that will not only stick, but that will impact your life for the long-term.
Principle 1: Meaning Matters
When it comes to making resolutions that stick, meaning matters. Our resolution-making needs to start with meaning, our deepest personal meanings that comes from our bedrock selves. We can’t be distracted by the cultural cues and ambitions that flash all around us, tempting us to buy-in to the abstract aspirations and promises of a better life.
Television, social media, our friends, and our families all have beliefs and values that are constantly rubbing off on us. But at the end of the day, when we are lying in bed, or in the mornings when we get up to face another day, all we really have are the personal lives that we inhabit. And if our lives aren’t meaningfully motivating to us, no amount of resolution-making will overcome our senses of anxiety, numbness, or even depression that will result.
William Damon at Stanford University, one of the leading scientists researching human meaning and life purpose, said this:
“The biggest issue growing up today is not actually stress. It’s meaninglessness.” — William Damon, Stanford University
Take a minute to think about how this statement pertains to you and your resolutions.
Damon’s research has shown that the stresses we feel in our lives arise out of meaninglessness. Are your resolutions confronting your personal meaning — or lack thereof — directly? Or are your resolutions centered on the popular cultural concepts or circumstantial behaviors that are immediately available and easy to choose.
When our jobs are meaningless, we feel stressed by the everyday tasks we have to do. Exercise can mollify some of our symptoms, but it will never solve the underlying stress caused by being in the wrong career. However, if we discover what we care about most, then find work that is personally meaningful to us, our days will be filled with work we are eager to do because it feeds us back (and when we are well-fed emotionally, we’ll probably feel like going to the gym proactively and for the right reasons).
When our relationships are not grounded on meaningful love and respect, our lives can be filled with stress. Dieting, eating more healthily, even losing weight won’t remove the stress. But when we experience meaningful relationships with mutual understanding and care, we are edified by our friends, family, and significant others (and we probably won’t need to turn to unhealthy eating habits for comfort).
To make a resolution that sticks, we must first know what matters to us most (Ready).
But science (e.g., Self-Determination Theory) is finding that when we identify our deepest values, beliefs, and sources of meaning, we can then establish the most meaningful goals, objectives, and resolutions that will fulfill us because they arise from our intrinsic motivations, not extrinsic cues, concepts, or pressures.
Principle 2: Pursue Purpose
If knowing what matters most is your ready, then establishing where to target your efforts is your aim.
Scientists, like William Damon, are discovering a lot about life purpose, where it comes from, and how people who have senses of purpose benefit from them. This research shows that people who live with stronger senses of purpose exhibit higher levels of motivation, enthusiasm, optimism, hope, engagement, self-understanding, life vision, social success, work success, resiliency, personal integrity, life satisfaction, proactivity, physical health, and life longevity.
That’s a lot!
Having a life purpose matters, and once we have a sense of our life purpose we know where to aim our life efforts. But life purpose isn’t just the generalized idea that most of us threw around in late night conversations back in college. Today, the concept of purpose has been more deeply studied, and as a result it has a formal, academic definition.
The definition of life purpose has four components to it:
- Meaning — It’s grounded in your intrinsic, personal meaning (this is your Ready)
- Commitment — You are committed to it for the long-term (no short-term, extrinsic resolutions will do)
- Goals — You can associate concrete actions or achievements with it (these are the resolutions that stick!)
- Beyond the Self — Your purpose serves something beyond just you (Whoa! These are my resolutions, not someone else’s)
The first three components of this definition should make good sense by now because if you are really operating from your deepest sense of meaning, then it implies that long-term commitments and goals could naturally arise out of it.
But what about that last point? Where does serving something beyond the self come from and what does it mean for us as resolution-makers?
This final component was the last to make it into the academic definition of purpose, but researchers consistently found that people who lived out a life purpose and who experienced the highest life satisfaction did not do so in isolation or selfishly. Their life purpose served something beyond themselves, whether it was directly serving other people, or serving some greater concept or ideal such as a religious, moral, or societal good.
Musicians and artists who experience purpose in their art do so not just through their technical skills and proficiencies, but also through the connection they feel with their audiences and the benefits they provide to them. Academics experience purpose not only in their personal discoveries and expertise, but also in contributing to the greater canon of human knowledge. Engineers, executives, and entrepreneurs who find purpose in their work do so not just because of their personal incomes and advancements, but because they feel the connection of creating products, managing companies, and building startups that provide benefits to customers, employees, and society.
This doesn’t mean that all artist, academics, and executives experience their work as purposeful. In fact, research finds that only about 25% of people have a full life purpose (meaning that 75% of us don’t!). But those who do are experiencing their senses of purpose because they are connected to, and serving, something beyond just themselves.
Research finds that only about 25% of people have a life purpose.
So once you have readied yourself by knowing what matters most to you, then aiming comes through a personal concept of life purpose. This means bringing your deepest, intrinsic motivations to life, and applying them in a way that benefits you and something beyond yourself.
Principle 3: Authentic Actions
As a meaning-maker you are ready, and as a purpose pursuer you are aimed. It’s now time to fire through your authentic actions. This is where you can make resolutions stick because they arise out of your deepest values and desires.
Sonja Lyubomirsky, a professor at University of California, Riverside, has found that our degree of life satisfaction is determined by 3 critical elements.
About 50% is based on our personality “set point,” that is, who we are when we come into this life in terms of our genetic make-up and our innate orientations. The second element of life satisfaction, and the one most of us consider when thinking about our resolutions, is our circumstances. But guess what, research shows that changing our circumstances only impacts our life satisfaction by about 10%. Maybe that’s why our resolutions only have a 10% success rate.
Research shows that changing our circumstances only impacts our life satisfaction by about 10%.
But the final 40% is where we find the greatest lever of “sustainable change.” Lyubomirsky names this final component “intentional actions.”
Notice that Lyubomirsky did not just say “intentions,” because intentions alone without actions do not manifest. She also did not just say “actions,” because actions without grounding in considered intentions are just activity.
“Intentional actions” include personal consideration, self-understanding, motive, design, and volition, combined with effort, embodiment, and implementation. Intentional actions are rooted in our self-considered desires, and proactively move us and our lives to where we want to go.
This is the character of resolutions that stick. They are meaningfully grounded in what matters most to us, purposefully focused on where we most want to affect our lives, so that they embody how we most authentically want to act. If we build our resolutions from our meaning, through our purpose, and into authentic actions, then we will embrace the Ready, Aim, Fire! approach suggested by the science of meaning and purpose, and embodied by the world’s most sophisticated organizations.
This is the character of resolutions that stick. They are meaningfully grounded in what matters most to us, purposefully focused on where we most want to affect our lives, so that they embody how we most authentically want to act.
We’ve all made resolutions, and most of us have experienced the failure of our resolutions to take hold for the long-term. I certainly have. But the science of meaning and purpose is providing insights that can help us choose resolutions that actually matter to us, and that stand a chance of sticking for the long-term to transform our lives into the ones we most want to live.
My own resolution is to help people find more meaning and purpose in their lives based on this emerging science.
This resolution was not arrived at lightly, but is a reflection of me taking my own advice. Meaning-making is what matters most to me (ready), and helping people pursue their purpose is where I am directing my life purpose (aim). So this article is one example of how I am acting (fire!) on my resolution.
Understanding what matters most to you isn’t accomplished overnight. It takes a lot of effort. But it may well be the most important work you’ll do in your life.
So reflect on your resolutions and think about whether they reflect your meaning, purpose, and authenticity. If they do, then you’ve done a good job of knowing yourself and choosing resolutions that are intrinsically motivated.
If not, then use the resolutions you made as a foil to understand why you chose them and why they are not reflective of what you care about most. This kind of exercise can serve as a first step in your own process of self-discovery, and can lead to a new type of relationship with your deeper senses of meaning, purpose, and authenticity.