3 Reasons Why New Years Resolutions Fail (And How To Change That)

3 Reasons why new years resolutions fail - New Year New FAIL
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New Year’s resolutions aren’t something new to most of us.

I’m sure we all know someone who has made resolution after resolution, every single year for their entire conscious existence, yet never really seems to pull through on any of them. That person might be ourselves…

In fact, this is the case for many people. New Year’s resolutions start as this intense fire getting people to the gym for the grand whole month of January. Perfectly transitioning into a motivational pool of disappointment by July, giving us all the fuel we need to make those same resolutions again for the third year in a row.

But why?

Why is it that so many motivated people are unable to change?

As a coach and mentor, this is something that I see in a cyclical nature every single year. It’s something I’ve read the research about and have explored with my students and mentees for years.

Here are some of the things I have learnt, which I apply to my own life as well as to the lives of my students.

Reason 1: We Rely on Motivation

I like to describe passion and motivation to my students as a fire. It’s big, hot, warm, and makes us feel great.

Motivation is like fire
“I am motivation incarnate!”

But we only need it when it’s cold or dark.

Motivation is not particularly helpful during our daily routines. Motivation has no chance to act when over 40% of our behaviour is driven purely by habits. In fact, research suggests that most of our actions are driven by procedural memory rather than the parts of our brain which actually have to think about things (declarative memory).

💡 Just like how we don’t have to think about breathing, walking, tying our shoes, or chewing without choking – our habits are what dictates most of what we do on a daily basis.

This means that the product of the work we achieve on a daily basis is largely driven by these habits. And these products are not always tangible. Sometimes the products of our daily work are the type of person that we marginally became more Like.

Sometimes, at the end of the day, we became 1% closer to another type of person. If our habits are developed in alignment with the type of person we want to become, we become 1% closer to the type of person we wish to become. On the other hand, if our habits were merely the side-effects of years of avoiding, procrastinating, and never really giving much attention to how we behave, then we become 1% closer to the lazy loser we never thought we’d end up being.

The Power of Tiny Gains
From Atomic Habits by James Clear

💡 This is actually something that has been studied quite extensively. If you’re interested to learn more about the power of habits and how it affects the very fabric of our identity, I highly recommend you read the book Atomic Habits, by James Clear.

Change 1: Rely on Being Lazy

Yeah, I bet you weren’t expecting that.

Human beings are wired to be energy-efficient. We are always looking for the easiest and most convenient way to achieve our goals. The opportunity cost of energy spent when it doesn’t reward us with the result that we want is usually enough to make us put it off.

Maybe we can summon that motivation (note: temporary fire) to overcome this and get to the gym, or sit down and study, or make a healthy meal, or do that meditation every night. But how long will that last?

💡 Research suggests that the amount of time required to build a habit is anywhere between 18 to over 220 days.

Relying on motivation to do something every single day without fail (and usually multiple things every day without fail) is clearly unsustainable. Not only is it unsustainable, but it is unenjoyable and very energy inefficient.

Experts on human behaviour have performed compelling research that suggests our environment makes more of an impact on our habits and behaviour, than our motivations and intentions.

For example, simply by increasing the visibility and availability of bottled water in a cafe increases the purchasing of water and decreases the purchasing of soft drinks by 40 to 50%.

If going for a run every day is your goal, make sure to hang your running shoes on your door handle. Have your running clothes out and leave it sitting on your desk the night before. Set reminders on your phone and put the exact time that you’ll perform this activity in your calendar.

Lightbulb Image - Like electrons, we will always take the path of least resistance. The only reason the bulb lights up is that there is no other path.
Like electrons, we will always take the path of least resistance. The only reason the bulb lights up is that there is no other path.

Maybe the time will depend on other activities throughout the day. In this case, find an activity that you would perform consistently every day, then staple this new activity against it.

For example, maybe you know that you feel tired immediately after coming home at the end of the day. Coming home at the end of the day is usually an inevitable activity, while feeling tired is something that you’d rather avoid.

You could set a plan to immediately get changed into your running gear and go for a short, 2- to 5-minute jog straight after you get home. After 2 to 5 minutes you can make the decision to either go home or keep running. Even if you quit, you are still building the habit of going for a run when you get home – which is the most important part.

Perhaps you want to learn a new language. You could apply the exact same principles as above, but optimise your environment in a slightly different way.

If you use an app to learn, have the app in the centre of your home screen so that it is very visible and easy to access. Make your browser open your language learning page by default. Have your notes and a pen open your desk, or on your bed, or even on the dining table, the night before.

Make it so that the environment naturally funnels you into doing this activity. You want to make it so that this desirable activity is the easiest thing for you to do; the default.

When we rely on the environment, rather than pure motivation, we are able to perform consistently and sustainably.

Reason 2: We Set End Goals

New Year’s resolutions often sound like “I’m going to save more money this year”, or “I’m going to exercise more regularly”.

These goals are incredibly vague, and again they give no real direction on what we need to be doing on a daily basis to achieve these by the end of the year.

Motivated. Ready. And vague as hell.

There is a common saying that the man who moves a mountain starts with a single stone.

Well actually, it’s more like there is no other way to move a mountain other than stone by stone. Similarly, there is no way for us to achieve a one-year goal without having stacked and accumulated efforts on a daily and weekly basis.

Unlike tests and assessments, where we have been conditioned and trained to realise that cramming can potentially work (sometimes), personal goals like these are logically impossible to achieve this way.

But it doesn’t end there.

Better goal-setters might set goals that sound like this: “I’m going to save $10,000 by the end of the year”, or “I’m going to the gym at least twice a week”.

These goals are a lot better. They’re much more specific, measurable, and most importantly, actionable. You may notice that they share a resemblance to SMART goals.

However, even these goals fall short.

This is because the goal relies on us performing the end outcome of going to the gym at least twice a week or saving $10,000 by the end of the year.

What do I mean by that?

If we go back to the analogy of the man moving the mountain, rather than asking how the man moves the mountain (stone by stone), a more relevant question for us is why he moves the mountain.

What type of person, what type of attributes, what type of behaviour and habits, and what type of mentality and perspectives does this man have to equip them with the capability to move this mountain?

Not everyone can achieve a goal simply by setting it.

Change 2: Set Foundation Goals

If we know that not everyone achieves a goal just because they set one, we should be very interested to know what differentiates a successful person from the rest.

What we can do is take these goals and identify what type of person would be able to achieve these.

For example, someone who is able to achieve the goal of saving $10,000 by the end of the year is likely to have self-discipline, an understanding of personal finance management, and potentially some finance management systems or frameworks that he or she uses to achieve this goal.

So in order to achieve our initial goal, we can set some foundation goals.

You don't get to build an awesome house if you don't even own the land.
You don’t get to build an awesome house if you don’t even own the land.

The foundation goals for this example might look like this:

  1. Increase self-discipline
  2. Increase understanding of personal financial management
  3. Learn, evaluate, and apply effective frameworks for money-management

And in order to achieve these, we can create a plan:

  1. Read at least two books on self-discipline by the end of January.
  2. Talk at least one person with excellent financial management by the end of January.
  3. Find a good podcast for personal finance management by the first week of January, and listen to it for at least two hours per week.
  4. Learn to use at least one framework for money-management by the end of January and trial it for all of February.

    And so on and so forth.

We now know that by identifying the type of person who can achieve our initial goal, we can take steps to become that person and fulfil the foundation requirements that will get us from where we are now to where we want to be.

Instead of aiming for a year-long goal, or even weekly behavioural outcomes to strive for, we now have clear short-term objectives that we know will naturally allow us to achieve our New Year’s resolution.

Reason 3: We Expect to Succeed

Maybe it’s because we think motivation is the key to success, but when we make these highly motivated New Year’s resolutions, most of us expect that (with a bit of dedication), we will succeed.

But if we actually think about this for a moment, we pretty quickly realise that this doesn’t make sense.

First of all, most of these goals that we set as New Year’s resolutions are things that we find to be significant and meaningful in our lives. The reason that we wouldn’t just achieve these significant and meaningful things straight off the bat, i.e. the reason we feel the need to set it as a New Year’s resolution in the first place, is probably because we find it difficult to achieve it.

By now we should realise that motivation plays a relatively small role in long-term success. So if we think about this New Year’s resolution being a difficult goal that we may have failed on multiple times, the chances are that we will fail again.

💡 In clinical medicine, often the greatest risk factor for someone having a certain condition or episode, is if they’ve had that in the past. Someone with chest pain is more likely to be having a heart attack if they’ve already had a heart attack 5 years ago. The reason isn’t because of a cosmic association between past, present, and future. Simply, if someone has had an event, they are likely to have the risk factors that predispose them to that event. The same can be said for failure.

Add onto the fact that we normally don’t make plans that are significantly different, other than more motivation, it’s insane to expect the result to change.

Image Source: We are crazy but not insane (medium.com)

And that’s a mucho grande problem when we’re trying to make habits.

Failure is not only something that should be tolerated or expected, but it’s also going to be the default and norm.

Unfortunately, we have a tendency to give up on forming good habits after we have been set back with a few failures. The idea that habits require consistency over a long period of time to form becomes a mental barrier to us persevering even if we’re failed multiple times.

For example, we know that we need to go for a run at least three times a week for the habit to stick. But since we have already skipped running for an entire month, that goals out the window.

So here’s how to fix that.

Change 3: Build a Trampoline

What’s the best part of a trampoline?

If you’re a normal human being, it’s probably the part we bounce back up when you fall on it. In fact, we even look thought to the falling because we know where about to bounce up again.

Clearly, this is a metaphor.

Don't actually build a trampoline
Don’t actually build a trampoline.

If we expect failure and still care enough to achieve our goal that we are willing to go an extra couple of steps, we can really change our perspective on the entire process of habit-forming and goal winning.

Instead of making a great plan using the two changes above and expecting that that will carry you through perfectly for the entire year, we can now make a great plan using the two changes above and expect that it’s going to fail anyway.

Time for the trampoline.

When you inevitably fail, what will you change about your process, system, environment, or foundation goals to make success the easiest possible outcome.

Your trampoline question

Perhaps going for the run three times a week didn’t work out too well because you are too tired after work to commit to that jog. The problem here is not that you couldn’t commit to that jog. As I said we as humans are hardwired to be that way – be kind to yourself, even when you’re being lazy you’re still doing your best.

The problem is that the job was something you felt the need to commit a lot to.

Well if instead of a big ol’ jog, imagine if all you had to do go outside of your house wearing your running clothes. There’s not a lot of instances where we would be too tired to even manage that.

It might seem silly, but this is a legitimate win.

Eventually, the idea of going outside of your house with running clothes will be so easy and habituated, that you can go for a 30-second jog down the driveway. Over time, this evolves.

The idea here is that because we expect to fail, we aren’t putting the blame of that failure on us as a person. There’s no need to feel bad because you felt that your goal – literally everyone fails at all of their goals, pretty much all the time. Instead, we turned the lens on what it is about our process, system, and environment that stopped us from being able to achieve this. The solution is almost never to try harder. As we have already mentioned, we will always seek the path of least resistance.

Unfortunately, there are two instances where this can be difficult.

Firstly, you may lack enough reliable and accurate information to predict the problems you might face or even the type of person that can succeed. Secondly, your goal may be so time-pressured that the margin for error makes failure a lot riskier.

Entering medical school usually ticks both of these boxes (read about medical entry and Auckland here).

Luckily for you, we’re here to help. If one of the goals for your year is then to medical school, especially while trying to stay balanced and stress-free, get in touch with us and will help you craft your ideal one-year strategy.

Otherwise, best of luck for your year!

About the author
Justin Sung
Justin Sung
Justin is a medical doctor, University of Auckland graduate, published research author, certified teacher, and founder of JTT. He has assisted thousands of students into healthcare careers since 2011, making him New Zealand's individually most experienced medical entry expert. He regularly works with schools and organisations to help students and professionals learn more effectively.

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