Why New Year’s Resolutions Don’t Work–And What to Do About It

by Brian on December 29, 2012 in Goal Setting,Productivity,Winning

It’s that time of year. The New Year is rolling around and you’ve decided that now is the time to make a change. Maybe you want to lose weight, get fit, start a business, get a better job, quit smoking, or fall in love this year.

Up to 62% of us will start the new year with a resolution. Only 8% of us will succeed.

This probably isn’t your first time around the block. You know how this goes. You start off with good intentions. You stick to your resolution for a couple weeks. Then you miss a day, then two days, then a week. By the time summer rolls around your New Year’s Resolution is barely more than a distant memory.

But this year will be different! Or will it?

As Einstein said, insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.

So then, why do our New Year’s Resolutions fail and can we do anything about it?

Setting the bar too high

One of the biggest reasons our resolutions fail is that we try to do too much too soon. If we want to lose weight or get fit we sign up for some class or find an article in some fitness magazine that tells us to hit the gym for 2 hours, 3 days a week.

The problem is that before this, the most strenuous part of your exercise routine was arm curls from the bag of potato chips to your mouth. You go from nothing straight into a high octane workout routine. It feels great at first, but a month or two in you inevitably burn out and that’s the end of your fitness goals.

The fix: Set the bar low. Ridiculously low.

For example, I’m currently training towards one-arm pull ups on a 5 days/week workout plan. If my workout plan was 5 sets of 20 reps per day I’d never make it and I’d have quit long ago. Instead my rule of thumb is to only do at least 1 pull up per day.

Now, obviously I usually do more than just one rep, but the commitment is so low that even when I’m having an off day it’s hard to come up with an excuse as to why I can’t do one measly pull up. But some days, that really is all I do. And just getting that single rep in is enough to help build a feeling of consistency so that I don’t want to let myself down the next day. When you miss a day it’s all too easy to tell yourself “well, I already missed one day. Missing one more won’t hurt…”

Successful authors often speak of setting a goal to write at least one sentence per day to keep your book moving. Ramit Sethi frequently talks about setting a goal to floss one tooth a day to build a flossing habit. Of course once they actually get into action, they usually do more than that. But the key is to really be okay with only completing the minimum commitment on some days and sticking with it consistently.

How could you make your minimum daily commitment so low that it would be trivial to accomplish? If you want to change careers could you make a commitment to spending at least 1 minute per day looking at job postings? If you want to fall in love could you sign up for an online dating site and commit to sending at least a 1 sentence e-mail to a potential partner every day? If you want to learn a foreign language could you commit to learning one new word every day?

Again, the goal is not to achieve your wildest dreams by only doing the minimum commitment every day. It’s to build a habit of commitment and consistency. Once you’ve got yourself into action you will find that you naturally want to do more a lot of the time. And if not, that’s okay because you’ll keep on living to fight another day.

Multiple habits

Another reason New Year’s Resolutions fail is that they might not just be one new habit, but actually be many new habits.

Let’s say you want to lose 20 pounds. There are many ways to get there. You might change your eating habits. You might exercise. To be most effective you’d do both. “Eating healthy” is also multiple habits in disguise. If you eat out less, now you have to shop, cook, prepare food, and clean dishes. All of which are separate habits.

If you want to start a business you also have multiple activities going on. You have to build a product or service, deliver on that product or service, do marketing, bookkeeping, and a host of other activities.

The fix: Refine and work on one habit at a time.

If you’re an office worker who eats out for lunch every day and your resolution is to “eat healthy,” you could start by identifying healthier items on menus at the places you frequent or find others in the area that offer healthy options. Let’s face it, you probably have a handful of places that you eat the same thing at whenever you go there anyway so it might as well be something healthy. Make a commitment to eating a healthy lunch every day, and once that habit is ingrained you can commit to working on others.

If you’re starting a business there are a lot of things you could do depending on where you’re at and what you need most. Most likely though, you are in need of revenue, which means that you need to sell something. You could start by building a habit of prospecting potential customers and making a commitment to contacting at least one new prospect every day–though obviously some days you will feel like contacting more. Even if you don’t have a product or service yet, you could begin feeling out interest and building a potential client list.

How long should you work on one habit before moving to another? The general consensus is that 30 days is the minimum time you should focus on one new habit before you try adding another new habit into the mix.

Vague goals

New Year’s Resolutions also fail because our goals are too vague. If your goal is to “lose weight” how will you know when you got there? Is 20 pounds enough? 30 pounds? Does only 1 pound count as having lost weight?”

Even if you have a specific target of 20 pounds you still have a fundamental problem–losing 20 pounds is not a “habit.” It is a result of other habits such as healthy eating and exercise.

Or if your goal is to “make more money” how do you get there? There is no “make more money” habit you can put into practice. You have to do other things such as become an expert in your field, or sell more product.

The fix: In order to achieve vague goals you have to translate them into actionable habits.

If you want to lose 20 pounds you have to decide how you are going to get there. You might start with a healthy lunch eating habit as I described earlier and build from there. Or you might start from a simple exercise plan and build from there.

If you want to make more money, you might decide the way to do it is to get a better job and work on a job hunting habit. If you’re a sales professional, you might find ways of altering your pitch or prospecting habits that lead to more sales.

How could you translate your goals into actionable habits?

Caveat: The way most people approach vague goals like losing weight is to go on some variety of a temporary extreme diet to get to the desired weight and then switch to a maintenance plan. These aren’t just two different habits, they are two entirely new sets of habits! You’re almost always setting yourself up for failure with this two phase approach.

The brutal truth–if you want to lose weight and keep it off you have to choose new habits that you will stick with for life, not just the next two weeks until you switch back to doing what you’ve always done.

You’ll get the best results by starting small and setting the bar ridiculously low with a habit that you could see yourself doing happily forever. It might be finding a healthy meal recipe that you love to eat to put into your regular rotation, then adding one new recipe each week.

Or if you want to make more money and you want it to last for more than the 2 weeks you spent working on it, you have to find new habits that permanently change the way you work. Getting a new higher paying job often accomplishes this by its very nature.

{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

Rachel Garrett December 30, 2012 at 6:57 pm

Great writeup, Brian. Goal setting would make a great DMOG topic early in the year. Would you volunteer to lead a discussion?

I find that my Achilles’ heel for goal-setting is that I have zero motivation to work on goals where hard work merely increases my *chances* of success. I have to know that my hard work is going to pay off *for sure*.

For instance, the goal of “falling in love this year” would not work as a goal for me. You could spend hours at the gym, select a fashionable and individualistic wardrobe, adopt fascinating and fulfilling hobbies, and become a great conversationalist. Your chances of success at falling in love still would hang upon someone else *happening* to meet you and *happening* to see your value. That’s reality — no one guarantees that other humans will offer you justice, or love — but in a motivational sense, it feels unfair. All your work, all your hopes, and no one might ever even see or care. Ugh.

I am more comfortable with goals that follow the simple formula – effort in, reward out. Anything else feels like playing the lottery.


Brian December 30, 2012 at 8:33 pm

Long-term goals where the pay-off is way at the end are definitely trickier to tackle than goals where you can immediately start getting some effort in, reward out results. This has always been the bug bear for me in trying to start new businesses–you can take your best stab at what you think are the right actions, but in the end you aren’t guaranteed success and you could wind up dumping a couple years of your life with little to show for it.

Of course the ironic twist is that the goals that are most personally important to us are often those types of goals.

As to the falling in love goal, I think you have a hidden assumption that all the things you might do to meet someone are things you don’t want to do. I view personal development as turning up the volume on who you already are. If you want to meet a certain type of person for instance, it’s probably because you want someone you have something in common with. So if you adopt hobbies you are interested in you put yourself in a “target rich environment” for the type of person you’d like to meet. And then even if Mr. Right doesn’t show up, the worst thing that happens is that you wind up creating an awesome, fun life for yourself.


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