In our last installment, Avoiding the New Year New me Fallacy, we explored cultural and personal pressures to set new year’s resolutions.
And now it’s February: the month when according to research, 80% of new year’s resolutions are abandoned. While most of us have experienced the disappointment of deserted resolutions, we continue participating in the ritual.
Big milestones can propel us to take action. The new year, particularly, inspires the feeling of a fresh slate, a chance to wipe away the letdowns of last year and begin anew—it’s probably the reason humans have been setting resolutions for millennia.
But why do we fail to carry through on most of our resolutions and what can we do differently to help us succeed?
What you’ll find in this blog:
- Why resolutions are hard to keep
- Strategies to set goals more effectively to have the best shot at success
What you’ll find in the next blog:
- Common barriers to success
- What to do when you veer off course
Why Are Some Resolutions so Hard to Keep?
Our Goals Are Too Lofty
We often set goals for the new year that are hard to achieve or ones we’ve never succeeded at before. It’s why we find ourselves setting the same resolutions year after year. Maybe it’s because we know there’s an entire year ahead of us to succeed. But unfortunately, a new calendar year isn’t a magic spell, and setting overly ambitious goals is often a predictor of failure.
Habits Are Hard to Break
We underestimate how challenging it is to break bad habits and build healthy ones. Habits form neural pathways in our brains; some of these networks are reward pathways. Meaning we get a boost of dopamine with associated behaviors or habits – whether or not they’re good for us long-term. Thanks to neuroplasticity, brains can change, but the shift requires intentional thought and effort.
We Don’t Take Time to Reflect
A resolution like spending more time with family or exercising requires forethought to follow through. We’re bound to fail if we simply list what we want to do more or less without a plan of action.
Before setting a goal, try asking yourself these questions:
Why do I want to change my behavior?
How will I benefit from achieving this goal?
What are the pros and cons of not changing my behavior?
Do I want long-term or short-term impact?
What habits do I need to change to achieve my goal?
We Set Goals We Don’t Really Care About
If we’re not honest with ourselves, we may let culture and people around us influence the goals we set. If we don’t really want to change deep down, we’re not going to. So have a heart-to-heart first: is traveling more or climbing the career ladder what you truly want – or is it just what everyone else wants?
We’re Following the Wrong Formula
We all have that friend, family member, or co-worker who are evangelists of the latest and greatest method. They like to convince others to get on board, albeit with good intentions. But what works for others might not work for us. So be mindful when deciding which method to try: tailor it to your personality and lifestyle. The parts that feel fit and leave the rest away. After all, we get to define what success looks like for us.
Better Ways to Set Goals
SMART Goal Setting
The SMART goal-setting framework is well-known. And whether you love or loathe the method, it can act as an incentive to think about setting goals more mindfully.
Make your goal specific and detailed.
Decide what indicators will show you’re making progress and reevaluate when required.
Ensure the goal is realistic and you have the tools and resources to achieve it.
Your goal should align with your values and long-term objectives.
Set a realistic end-date to help prioritize tasks and stay motivated.
Depending on your personality and what you want to achieve, setting stretch goals may be for you. Stretch goals are high-effort, high-reward goals meant to inspire; they’re moonshots that can compel us to try to achieve more. These audacious goals aren’t intended to be 100% completed. Stretch goals are usually most effective when attempting to achieve something new.
However, be careful not to fall into the Goals Gone Wild trap. Overly ambitious goals can be demotivating and disheartening. So keep this in mind when attempting stretch goals.
Turn an uphill battle into a downhill one. Meaning, find a way to turn what you don’t like doing into something you enjoy. Instead of taking away something you enjoy, for example, watching Netflix, try linking something else to that behavior like stretching. In other words, make your goal as fun and rewarding as possible to achieve; don’t just focus on the end objective.
Micro habits mean taking one step at a time. You scale down a goal into tiny steps so that it’s impossible to fail. It’s all part of the neuroplasticity we talked about earlier. Rewiring our brain takes time, and micro-habits are a powerful but sustainable way to facilitate this change.
Science shows that once we’ve built a habit, our minds perceive it as more distressing to not follow through even if it’s something that we find unpleasant (e.g., cycling for an hour). It’s the idea of turning good behaviors into habits that feel automatic and don’t require willpower.
Micro habits work because:
They’re easy to implement
They’re not time-consuming
They produce quick wins that help you stay motivated
They become part of our routine with little effort
Find a Buddy
An accountability buddy can keep you motivated on track and help you problem-solve. Find someone who has a similar goal they’re working to achieve. Many of us have difficulty staying accountable to ourselves, but success rates are much higher when someone joins us on the journey. Plan regular check-ins and remember it can be very informal.
Other accountability hacks include:
- Setting reminders in your calendar
- Sharing your goal on social media
- Get an app that will send you reminder notifications
Be Agile and Practice Routine Reflection
We’re used to being agile at work, but flexibility is also a building block of achieving our personal goals. Life changes, and so do we. What worked last week or even yesterday might not work today. So take time to pause, reflect and adapt. Frameworks, methods and goals are there to serve us. Don’t be afraid to let them go if they’re no longer serving their purpose.
Set a calendar reminder to routinely reflect on what’s worked and what hasn’t, then make a plan of action on how you’re going to adjust.
Approach Failure with Flexibility
As the stats show, most of us will veer off course eventually. We might be tempted to give up after we feel like we’ve slipped up. But don’t let guilt or shame paralyze you from moving forward. You’re human, and like most other humans, we don’t always do what we set out to. Having a plan for when this happens is vital to getting back on track. Try practicing the self-compassion tips included in this series.
In fact, the process of trying, failing, and learning from failing may actually provide more value than continually achieving. Jenny Black, a licensed marriage and family therapist and the founder of Media Trauma Care, explains that sometimes we set one goal for ourselves, but life has something different in mind. Instead, it gives us what we need, rather than what we initially wanted. This is an essential lesson in acceptance.
Gamify Your Goals
Turn your goal into a game. Play shouldn’t be left in childhood. Friendly competition can be a huge motivator, whether we’re competing against ourselves, friends or people online. Games help us stay engaged and motivated. Consider turning your goal into a game with your goal buddy and when you level up, don’t forget to celebrate.
Next time you set out to create goals, consider trying some of these approaches. And don’t feel bad if you veer off course or hit a snag. Achieving the goals we set out to reach is tough. But as we’ll talk about in the next blog, the silver lining is that just the act of setting goals has a positive effect on our mental health. So go out there! Dream big and enjoy the journey—you’re definitely not alone.