Why New Year’s Resolutions Fail

BY MEGHAN BECK, BS, MS, CSCS

We say it every year, “I can’t believe it’s already January 1. This is THE year I’m going to become a newer, healthier version of myself.”

Fast forward to January 2020, or even rewind to January 2018, and it seems like the above statement is on repeat. And while you think that January 1st is a magical date where all goals can be magically accomplished, how well has that gone for you in the past? You hate the monotony of running on the treadmill or elliptical, but you still drag yourself to the cardio room daily under the misguided belief that self-torture will eventually become a habit. And even though you’re filled with great intentions because you understand that developing a healthy lifestyle positively influences every aspect of your life, you are also aware it is very unlikely that you will create a new habit or achieve your goal; you know this is true because it’s not your first rodeo. Don’t fret, you are NOT alone in your New Year’s Resolutions failings. According to a study by psychology professor John Norcross, TRANSLATION. Why is that? How is setting a New Year’s Resolution any different from setting goals and building habits every other day of the year?

After reading the above you probably feel you’re doomed forever, but if you know the reasons why most fail at creating new habits, and how to set smart goals, this year will truly be THE year for success! Habit expert James Clear states there are five reasons why people don’t stick to building new habits:

  • Trying to change everything at once
  • Starting with a habit that is too big
  • Seeking a result, not a ritual
  • Not changing your environment
  • Assuming small changes don’t add up

Let’s go over the reasons and hopefully undo your cycle of lather, rinse, repeat!

I. Changing everything at once.

Solution: Pick one thing, do it well AND pick a keystone habit.

Ever heard of the 10,000-hour rule? To master something you need to have done that one thing for 10,000 hours. For successful everyday athletes such as yourself, you must master tiny habits over several years so that they are rituals in day-to-day life. Going to the gym isn’t a chore and flossing every day feels good if it’s ingrained into your daily routine. Eating healthy isn’t difficult, it’s just a normal day of eating. It’s a habit.

BJ Fogg, a psychologist and researcher at Stanford who has studied behavior change for more than 20 years says, “The maximum number of habits to change at once is three. However, I’m talking about tiny habits…that will put you on the path to the big goal.” How tiny? Habits like flossing one tooth after brushing your teeth, doing one push-up a day, or drinking a glass of water first when you think you’re hungry. Focusing on one thing and doing it well sets off a domino effect and allows other habits to form naturally.

Still struggling to choose your tiny habit for change? James Clear recommends picking a keystone habit – a behavior or routine that naturally pulls the rest of your life in line. For example, strength training is my keystone habit. The days that I work out I see a ripple effect in other aspects of my life. Not only am I becoming stronger, but a slew of secondary benefits come with that. I focus better and I sleep better, which translates into waking up with more energy, and I tend to eat better. You can see that I didn’t start off with building better habits for sleep, nutrition, or focus – those things naturally fell in line when I focused on my keystone habit.

II. Changing a habit that is too big.

Solution: “Make it so easy you can’t say no” – Leo Babuta

“I’m going to sleep eight hours every night, lose 50 pounds, go to the gym five days a week, and drink eight glasses of water every day.” – sound familiar? Typically, most resolutions start this way – big lofty goals to conquer everything at once, but that’s the surefire way to NOT hit those goals. James Clear says, “The most difficult part of a new habit is starting the behavior. It takes a lot of motivation to just change one habit, but to change more than one? How about 10 all at once? It’s nearly impossible. What I recommend is starting with a behavior or habit that is non-threatening, something so small it seems easy and reasonable to do it each day.” When was the last time you stepped foot in a gym, not to mention training five days a week? When was the last time you even trained once a week? I’m all for setting big goals, but you need to take that first small step to start. Want to do 50 push-ups a day? Start with five or ten. Wish you would read more? Start by reading two pages every night. Want to drink more water? Leave a glass of water next to your bedside and drink it before you roll out of bed in the morning.

New goals don’t deliver new results. New lifestyles do.
And lifestyle is not an outcome, it’s a process.

III. Seeking result, not ritual.

Solution: Focus on the behavior, NOT the outcome

Society evaluates success based on progress and eventual results. This is especially true when it comes to goals and resolutions. How much weight do you want to lose? How many books do you want to read? How many push-ups do you want to do? How much faster do you want to run? The answer to such questions tends to be the desired outcome as opposed to the behaviors that lead you to your goals. And while wanting to see results is one piece to keep us motivated, habit expert James Clear says “New goals don’t deliver new results. New lifestyles do. And lifestyle is not an outcome, it’s a process. For this reason, all your energy should go into building better rituals, not chasing better results.” In the end, if you want results, you need new habits, but to garner new habits, you need to fall in love with your ritual.

IV. Changing environment.

Solution: Build an environment that promotes good habits

Let me ask: Can you eat healthy if you’re surrounded by junk food? Can you stay positive if you are constantly surrounded by negative people? Can you focus on a single task when you’re bombarded by texts, emails, or any other digital interruptions? While you may not want to admit it, your behaviors are often simply a response to your environment. Habits are a response to your environment. You are responsible for the environment around you, the people you surround yourself with, and the food you buy at the store. I’m going back to my habit expert James Clear, “The lifestyle you have today (all your habits) are largely a product of the environment you live in. The single biggest change that will make a new habit easier to perform is an environment that is designed to make that habit succeed.” BJ Fogg provides one more tip when it comes to your habits and environment, “Find a trigger – something that you already do as a habit – and graft the new habit onto it. This might mean putting an apple on the counter every time you start the coffeemaker in the morning or simply lacing up your sneakers the minute you start the dishwasher in the evening. Slowly, naturally, you’ll start taking a bite out of the apple, you’ll start walking too, and then you’re adding other more ambitious goals to your routine.” Tiny habits work by designing out the need to feel highly motivated to get a task done. Motivational levels come and go, but just lacing up your shoes is achievable no matter the emotional weather.

V. Small changes don’t add up.

Solution: Get 1% better each day but embrace the plateau.

You love to chase big goals (don’t worry you’re not alone), particularly when it comes to weight loss and nutrition. I hear all the time, “I want to lose 50 pounds by the end of this year,” “I want to lose 20% body fat before summer,” “I’m never touching a carb again in my life,” and so on. This mindset and type of goal setting is based on the underlying assumption that your achievements need to be big to make a difference, and because of this you talk yourself into something big, something exceptional; “If I want to lose 40 pounds this year, I need to start busting my butt and working out 90 minutes EVERY DAY! However, if you look at it in a different way, the habits you have today, good or bad, are the sum of small incremental changes over time. Getting one percent better every day adds up over time. To be honest, there will be times you hit a plateau, times when you’re just not getting the results you want as quickly as you’d like, but in his book Mastery, George Leonard speaks of “loving the plateau” – the ability to keep training and working even when progress seems to have stalled. He notes that being able to love the plateaus and maintaining regular practice during these times is the key to mastery. I promise, small changes do add up and will create a domino effect in other aspects of your life but remember: build the behavior first and worry about the results later. I highly encourage watching Admiral William McRaven’s 2014 graduation speech for the University of Texas at Austin as to why making his bed everyday was one of the most important lessons he learned during SEAL training; it’s something that has always resonated with me. 

The Sum up…

No matter what your New Year’s resolutions might be or what new habits you’re trying to instill, in the end NOTHING MATTERS MORE THAN YOUR COMMITMENT and EFFORT. Just showing up is half the battle, but with smart goals (ask for my ‘Goal Setting & Self-Assessment’ handout), each step you take will help you get closer to your bigger goal, which allows you to evaluate when it’s time to make a change to keep moving towards those goals. I’ll leave you with this: give credit when credit’s due. When you do carry through with a tiny step, give yourself a celebratory pat on the back! While it might seem silly to give yourself a thumbs up after you’ve flossed one tooth, or remember to get up from your desk every hour and do one push-up and a squat, what you’re inevitably doing is rewriting your identity as someone who succeeds.

If you still feel you might need a bit more help, come into Lifewellness Institute and have a chat with me (Meghan), Linda, Dr. Rice, or Dr. Park. If you prefer to start on your own, consider joining BJ Fogg’s online Tiny Habits program (don’t worry, it’s free).