Every year, nearly 50% of Americans set New Year's Resolutions, vowing that the coming year will be different. This time around, we'll eat better, read better, be better at X. But the truth is, less than 10% of people who set New Year's Resolutions actually achieve them. Why do New Year's Resolutions fail?
Here are six possible reasons:
1. You didn't define the resolution well
Recently, I decided that in the coming year, I should set a goal to be more focused and avoid multitasking. But how could I possibly measure whether or not I was successfully more focused? By not defining a SMART goal, I would be setting myself up for failure. I would have had no way to measure being "more focused" — and what gets measured, gets done. Instead, I will need to define exactly what I consider to be "more focused", and how I will do it, which leads me to...
2. You didn't have a plan
It's natural for us to have the best intentions, especially at the start of the year. But without planning the specifics of what you're doing, when you're doing it, how you're going to do it, etc., it's easy to let a day, week, or month go by when you've made no progress towards your goals. Without milestones to look forward to, November may arrive and you'll be asking yourself where the year has gone. This time, make sure to have check-ins and mini-goals along the way so you don't lose track of your goal progress.
3. You didn't set yourself up for success.
We overestimate our ability to change our own behavior. We may think we are completely in control of our own behavior, but science shows that our behavior is very much influenced by our environment. Small changes, such as the order in which information is listed, can change how we act. Behavioral economist (and co-author of the book Nudge: Improving Decisions About Health, Wealth, and Happiness), Richard Thaler won the Nobel Prize for his work studying human behavior, determining that people often do not act rationally. One example is the "opt-in" versus "opt-out" policy for organ donors:
When people need to take action to opt in, much fewer actually do (only 4% to 27%). When opting in is the default, the rates of organ donation signups are nearly 99%. This stark contrast is due to laziness!
Design your world to make your intended behavior the default option. How can you make small changes in your life that help nudge you towards your goal? For example, if you're trying to eat more healthfully, you could put the healthy food at eye-level in your fridge. If you're trying to limit spending, you might allow yourself to only pay in cash (and only take the minimum amount you need out of the ATM).
4. You didn't define long and short-term rewards for yourself
What was your reason for choosing this New Year's Resolution in the first place? Having the long-term reason "why" can be powerful; however, it is not alway sufficient when we're starting out and have so far to go. Having a pre-defined reward for yourself when you achieve the goal (or milestones in between) helps you stay motivated.
Equally as important as having a strong reason why is defining more immediate goals for ourselves. In this video, Duke behavioral economics professor, Dan Ariely, talks about how he was able to change his own behavior through reward substitution (i.e., motivating yourself with a small reward today so you don't need to wait for the long-term payoff).
How you could use reward substitution to make your small daily actions more fulfilling?
5. You tried to do it alone
We're highly influenced by the people around us. Of course, we are the average of the 5 people closest to us, right? If you don't have a supportive network helping you achieve your goals, it's that much harder for you to make progress. It could feel like you're swimming upstream.
Instead, find people who will push you towards your goal and inspire you. You can find an online or in-person support group to be that positive influence. Many people have already paved the path for you, and you can learn from their successes and failures. For more personalized support, you can even get a 1-on-1 accountability partner to check in with you on a regular basis and make sure you're doing what you said you'd do.
6. You knew deep down you wouldn't do it
Oftentimes, people underestimate how difficult achieving a goal will be, and that is what causes them to fail. Still, I suspect that many people who make lofty New Year's Resolutions know deep down that there is a good chance they'll probably fail (just look at the statistics)! So why set them in the first place?
Sometimes success isn't what we originally anticipated, and that's okay. For example, one year I set a New Year's Resolution to be able to do a handstand. I both failed and succeeded. Let me explain. I procrastinated practicing with any consistency (pro-tip: don't wait until June to start your New Year's Resolution). By the time December rolled around, I was able to do a handstand against the wall. I could do a completely freestanding handstand for about 5 seconds before toppling over. So is that a success or a failure? Well, it wasn't the success I originally imagined, but it was significant progress. My younger self who had no upside-down experience would be absolutely thrilled.
My point is that the journey is as important as the destination. Even if you don't achieve the goal you originally imagined, you might end up finding a new, different challenge along the way. Or, you may take steps toward your ultimate goal and realize that it may take longer than you think, but you're closer now than you were a year ago. Embrace the failures, learn from them, and remember: if it were easy, everyone would do it.