88% of new year’s resolutions fail.
By the third week of January, more than 50% of people have fallen off their chosen wagons, and by the time February rolls around, fewer than 30% are still at it.
Despite the best of intentions and all the enthusiasm in the world, there are still a lot of reasons goals can fail. Making changes is hard, and making changes stick is even harder.
Most of us tend to turn outward when we’re looking for the cause of our failure. The commute took too long and you didn’t have time for the gym. Or healthy food is more expensive. Or reading in the evening isn’t relaxing after reading emails all day at work.
The honest truth, though… most of the time when resolutions fail, it’s our own darn fault. What’s really keeping you from eating healthy? Is it a lack of prep time, or that you don’t like the way vegetables taste?
If you’re going to make changes that stick, you have to understand what might go wrong and plan for it. If you’re attempting a goal for the second time (or sixth, no judgement), use your previous experience to inform this round. It requires an uncomfortable honesty, but so does changing your life – or even just your lunch habits.
Once you know what went wrong, you can make a plan to combat it and set yourself up for maximum success in round two. Read on to learn some of our favorite strategies for setting and attaining goals (spoiler: it goes beyond SMART goals).
Time to get to work.
Why Do Resolutions Fail?
Before you can set the best possible goals for yourself, you have to learn where your pitfalls are so that you can avoid them.
Failing to make a change can be a blow to your confidence, but instead of using that to decide you’re destined for failure, use it to learn about yourself and better your next attempt. What causes you to lose momentum? Is there a type of goal that works better for you? What kind of systems do you need to stay on track?
Understanding the most common reasons resolutions fail can give you valuable insight into your own habit-making style. This is the least fun part of goal setting, and a bit of a downer, but hang in there. The rest of the article is much more encouraging.
Setting Unrealistic Goals
Year-end reflection has a way of imbuing optimism in everyone, no matter how cynical you might be. Taking down last year’s calendar and hanging a new one is literally and metaphorically creating a clean slate to build a brand-new year on.
It’s easy to get carried away. With all that potential laid out in front of you, it seems like the sky’s the limit.
It would be so nice if that were true, but in reality, any changes you make are at the mercy of your time and current habits. Reaching for goals that require too much change all at once often become impossible to sustain more than a couple weeks, leading to discouragement and abandonment of your newfound goals.
Instead, realize that while the sky is the limit, you’re not going to get there in a day, or even a month. Real change takes time and a lot of work.
Relying Solely on Willpower
If you rely on willpower alone to tackle your goals, you’re going to fail. The second you feel tired or unmotivated, it becomes exponentially harder to stick to your new habit. Cookies jump in your mouth, the couch calls your name, and that new workout looks way too hard.
You must have systems in place to support your changes. Willpower fades as the work becomes difficult, and it makes any “missed days” a character flaw rather than a systemic issue to be solved. For instance, if your goal is to work out more, but you don’t have a workout plan in place, then having to select your workout every day is yet another obstacle to success.
Or maybe you don’t work out because by the time you’re evening comes around, you haven’t eaten anything because work was so busy. Maybe for the first few weeks, you focus on eating healthy, then move into the exercise idea slowly once you can make it to the end of your day with energy.
Without a system to support you and the ability to make mistakes without it being a character flaw or “weakness of will,” long-term change is unlikely.
Using the Wrong Mindset
Mindset is a HUGE part of creating sustainable change. Even if your goal is physical (exercising, losing weight, reaching new PRs, etc.), the brain controls the body and has to be on board for major habit formation.
If you’re relying on motivation to make changes, it can also lead to unhealthy thought patterns. Approaching a new habit with an all-or-nothing mindset is an incredibly punishing place to be. In that world, any setback or mistake is a failure or a weakness. You end up fighting with yourself instead of encouraging and supporting yourself.
Part of being successful in creating new behavior patterns is the idea of “mental contrasting,” or the understanding that there will be obstacles and setbacks while working towards a goal. Individuals who took time to anticipate their biggest obstacles and envisioned themselves overcoming them saw greater success in achieving their goals than those who only visualized reaching their goal.
Not Knowing Your “Why”
Believe it or not, your “why” accounts for a large portion of whether you fail or succeed.
It’s not enough to pledge to get healthier because your doctor told you to – that’s working for someone else, and not yourself. Successful goals come from an internal desire to improve. Maybe you want to eat better so that you’ll have more energy when you get home from work, or maybe you want to eat better to lose weight because you can’t keep up with your kids at the park.
At the end of the day, your reasoning matters – to you. No one else has to approve it and no one else can provide it for you. Your “why” must be personal and specific to you and your goals. Take time to understand your motivations for wanting to change, and use those as fuel moving forward.
How to Set Yourself Up for Success
Once you know where the potential pitfalls are, you can plan your success with greater confidence and a more realistic path. The next step to laying out that path is knowing EXACTLY where it’s going – what precise goal are you working towards? And how do you create the best version of that goal?
Set SMART Goals
Yes, every article talks about this. Yes, there’s a reason.
If you’re heading into the new year with a goal like “exercise more,” how do you know when you’ve achieved it? Technically speaking, you could add one extra workout, and it would be more. That’s probably not quite what you had in mind, though.
The most widely lauded format for setting strong goals is the SMART format. The system helps you nail down all those details that makes achieving your goal more likely.
SMART goals should be:
- Specific – define as many details as possible
- Measurable – there should be a quantifiable way to know if you’ve reached your goal
- Attainable – keep your goals within reach;
- Relevant – be sure that your goal is actually something that you want to achieve
- Time-based – give yourself a deadline
Addressing these five facets of your goal will not only increase the likelihood of achieving it, but will make the planning and the process easier. If you want to dig into the system in more detail, there are many articles that look at the concept in-depth.
Visualize Your Goal
Once you’ve got your SMART goal all dialed in, take a moment. Revel in it. Imagine yourself achieving the goal. Make your goal as vivid as possible. Imagine as many elements as you can. Get your senses involved. Immerse yourself in a world where you’ve accomplished this goal.
What will it feel like? Where will you be when you accomplish it? What does that place look, smell, and sound like? How will you celebrate?
If you’ve done a good job outlining your “why,” use that to envision the ripple effects of success – how is your life different now? What does that mean for other activities? Your relationships? Future goals?
During this phase, it’s important that you’ve set a goal that’s under your control and intrinsically motivated. It’s also imperative to be realistic about the impact of your goals. Trying to look like a magazine model is highly unattainable for most of the population, and life doesn’t magically get easier if you’re skinny. However, being in better shape can increase energy, mood, and confidence. Instead of focusing on visually-motivated goals, set performance goals.
Make a Plan (and Include Reflection)
Now that you’ve envisioned yourself atop the mountain, having realized victory, work backward. Chart the route you took to climb that mountain, and record some checkpoints along the way. Working backwards is far more effective than setting out with a vague plan and hoping.
For instance, if you want to hit a new (specific) PR in the mile, look at your current time and the time you’d like to hit. What’s the gap? How many seconds do you have to shave off, and what period of time are you trying to accomplish it within?
From there, determine how you’re going to get faster. What workouts do you need to add or modify? How often are you running? How are you tracking your workouts?
Most importantly, build in checkpoints, or “mini-goals.” Where should you be at halfway? When and how are you going to test your progress? How often will you run a test mile, and where? What method are you using to time yourself? Plan it all out.
Then, as you come to those checkpoints, reflect. Did you hit your mini-goal? What’s working? What’s not? Do you need to adjust your training? Take time to reflect, and then respond honestly. Change your plan if you need to, but be kind to yourself. Not hitting a goal isn’t an inherently failure. You still have time and energy to give, so keep working at it. Just work smarter using whatever you’ve learned to date.
Strategies for Achieving Your Goals
So, you’ve identified your goal, made it SMART, visualized it, and created a plan of attack.
Well, now you do. You follow that plan you created, and you do. You make the changes, put in the work, keep putting in the work, adjust the plan, and keep pushing. And then you celebrate.
While you’re on this journey, you’re going to want to quit. You’re going to want to skip a day. The novelty of your new routine will wear off and your brain will want to revert to your old habits because that’s the path of least resistance. This isn’t pessimism; it’s honesty. The science says so.
Your job becomes doing everything in your power to make that habit stick, from being smarter than your own brain to manufacturing motivation to god, old-fashioned discipline. Here are our favorite “habit hacks”:
- If a year-long resolution seems too daunting, try the 21/90 Rule. Commit to your new habit daily for 21 days to help build routine, then continue the activity (daily or every other day) until you reach 90 days. At the end of 3 months, decide if you want to keep going. Often the hardest part of a new habit is starting; give yourself an out, but not without a concentrated effort first.
- Write out your WHY – by hand – and put it somewhere you’ll see daily. This might mean re-writing it on the bathroom mirror every night to reaffirm your decisions, or putting it in front of your planner. Maybe even folded up in a keychain! Whatever it is, keep it as a reminder of WHY you’re doing hard things.
- Buy a wall calendar (one of the big office-style ones), and every day you complete your task, put a big red “X” across the day. After you start a string of red x’s, you’ll be reluctant to break your streak.
- If you’re eliminating a bad habit (like quitting smoking or drinking), replace the habit with something better. That way, when the craving hits, you have something to do instead of focusing on deprivation.
- Use an app like StickK that creates public (or financial) accountability. StickK asks users to set a Commitment Contract, and at the end, if you don’t fulfill your commitment, you’re stuck with a consequence of your choosing (like donating to an organization you don’t like or admitting to a referee that you failed). Stakes are customizable depending on your personal motivation style.
No matter what tactic you pick, make sure you track your progress. While you’re in the day-to-day of making life changes, it can be hard to see any measurable progress. By taking pictures or videos and writing down workout stats, you’ll be able to see how far you’ve come.
Keeping track of your progress also makes it easier to stay positive. When you’re framing your goals and talking to yourself about new habits, use positive reinforcement and avoid using restrictive language (try saying “I don’t” instead of “I can’t”). This puts the focus on your agency and your choices, rather than in a restrictive mindset. You are in charge of your own success!
Similarly, try to find a way to enjoy the process. Gratitude and joy are more powerful motivators than hate, so enjoying your new habits will be more productive than hating previous negative habits that you’re trying to change.
What If It Doesn’t Work?
After all that, what if you still fail? What if nothing goes according to plan and you find yourself back at square one?
You start again.
You don’t suck. You aren’t a failure. Maybe it doesn’t have the “new year new you” smell, but you can still make meaningful changes – and they might even mean more now that you’ve overcome the adversity of initial failure. Learn from what went wrong the first time, adjust the plan, and start again.
The cool thing about being in charge of your own goals is that you’re in charge of your own timeline, too, and you can reset the clock any time you want.
We focus on resolutions at New Year’s because of that big, metaphorical blank slate when the new calendar goes up, but it’s just a day. If you want to set a goal in April, do it. If you want to pick a new focus every quarter until you hit your stride, do it. Use the 21/90 rule to try things out. If you want to start on a Tuesday, do it.
Just keep working towards the best version of you, one day at a time.