5 Reasons Why New Year’s Resolutions Fail. Plus A New Way To Succeed!
Every year millions of people make their New Year’s resolutions: They’re going to lose weight, stop drinking, get their six-pack or hit six figures in their business.
Most people give up these goals by mid-February, but this doesn’t have to be the case. With some good planning and attention to detail, you can see your goals accomplished by 2022.
Why Resolutions Fail
If you follow the life hacker blogs you’ve already heard a few reasons.
- Will Power Isn’t Enough.
- The Goal Is Out Of The Person’s Control.
- Lack of Planning.
- A Critical Mindset.
To this list, I want to add:
The Timing is Off
Timing is a major factor that is overlooked in the self-help world.
After all, the self-help world is a market and people are trying to sell their products NOW.
Self-help gurus know you want to change. They know you believe now is the time to do it and they have written books, designed machines, and concocted formulas to help you do it.
SO ACT NOW!
Because the self-help market booms in January due to New Year’s, and people make a lot of money, no one is talking about how it’s the worst time of year for making drastic change.
Why is New Years the Worst Time Of Year To Make Change?
Because it’s winter and it’s freaking cold outside (or at the equator, it’s often rainy season and wet AF).
Not to mention dark (where I lived in Portland, OR, it is dark by 4:30).
Those might seem like lame excuses, but they’re greater obstacles than people give them credit for.
Think about it. Our light exposure is lower. Our vitamin D levels are crashing. Our bodies are fighting to stay warm, a fight they associate with a struggle to survive.
In the winter your body receives the very clear message that it’s fighting for its life. Everything feels just a little bit harder.
Some people experience this very powerfully in Seasonal Affective Disorder, for others it’s more nuanced, an unconscious struggle beneath everything they do.
This is why traditional Chinese Medicine suggests going to bed early in winter and waking up late.
Our bodies are exerting a lot more energy and it’s taking a lot more willpower to do our normal routines. Because of this, it’s recommended that we conserve our energy and not start anything aggressive or new.
Meanwhile, New Year’s resolutions are asking us to jump out into the dark and cold and transform ourselves overnight. The spirit behind New Year’s resolutions is aggressive and as it hemorrhages energy.
Don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying you should give up on the changes you want to make in 2021. I’m just saying winter can be put to a much better use than a failed attempt at a New Year’s resolution. When worked with properly, winter can be cultivated to foster true success.
But first, let’s take a look at the ways winter plays into the failed attempts of New Year’s resolutions. Then we’ll brainstorm how to put winter to good use in creating the changes we want to make in 2021.
1. Willpower Isn’t Enough
It’s a limited resource and it often vanishes when we get stressed.
Willpower can get us through a few weeks of forcing ourselves into the gym, taking cold showers, or making cold calls, but eventually it runs out.
We’re creatures of habit, so when we try to change, we need to do so in small behavioral steps. Otherwise, the brain gets tired and stressed and we revert back to our conditioned behavior.
It’s not because we’re lazy. It’s not because we’re weak-willed or somehow lesser, it’s because we’re human and our brains are a collection of dynamic systems, each of which responds to our environment in a different way and some of which really don’t give a crap about our New Year’s goals.
When people get stressed or tired they rely on different parts of the brain. Stress sends us into the amygdala, a highly conditioned part of the brain that will do what we’ve always done because it’s what we know to do.
Being tired means that the frontal lobe, the part of the brain that thinks things through and makes News Year’s resolutions is too exhausted to run the ship and tell the rest of the mind what to do.
It’s natural for the frontal lobe and the willpower it invokes to run out of gas. Especially when we’re tired and stressed.
So why can our overachieving brothers and sisters still make this work?
Well, people respond differently to stress. Some people shut down, others get flooded with adrenaline and start working sixteen-hour days. When we only measure success by dollars in the bank or marathon miles run, these people shine. It’s when we start to look at other aspects of life that things balance out.
Stress isn’t good for the body and it leads to a lot of physical and mental breakdowns. Type A personalities tend to have more heart-related health problems, not to mention the relationship and life problems that come from channeling anxiety into work or workouts.
In the end, willpower breaks down for most of us because that’s the immediately healthy thing to do. Our resources are limited, so rather than trying to make something work and expending a ton of energy to do it, the mind and body give up and go back to our conditioned base state.
When the base state is unhealthy this causes long-term problems but the unconscious mind and body aren’t really aware of that. They just know that the effort is stressing out the body and it’s too much for them right now.
Meanwhile, all the effort and focus applied by the more conscious part of the mind wears itself out until it gives up.
In winter, there’s a lot more resistance to struggle against.
The body is constantly getting the message that because it’s cold it really needs to be fighting to survive and because it’s dark it really should be sleeping.
So when we tell ourselves, “I’m going to the gym three times a week starting January,” we’re signing up for an activity that will be much harder on the mind and body than going in March.
As such, the mind and body push back and we exhaust more willpower. Eventually, it’ll run out.
2. The Goal Is Out Of Your Control
Most goals that get set with the New Year are further out of people’s control than they think.
Someone resolves to lose 50 pounds and that’s great, but when they give themselves a deadline, they’ve just set a goal that they have very little power over. As someone who helps people reach healthier weights, I can tell you that releasing 50 pounds is very possible but the road to get there is going to be different for everyone.
I have clients (typically men) who can drop 50 in a couple of months (normally clients who have more than a hundred pounds to release). They can shift a couple of basic behaviors, like quitting soda or cutting out high carb foods, and the weight falls off.
At least for the first few months.
Eventually, everyone hits a plateau. Many people start there.
People who lost weight easily when they were young find that their metabolism has slowed with age or when doing everything right with diet and exercise discover that they’re having thyroid problems.
A lot of my clients didn’t realize that antidepressants or other medications were adding on the pounds and it was only after working with me and their doctors to explore alternatives that they were able to shed some weight.
If the resolution is to lose X amount of weight by Y amount of time there’s only so much we can do to accomplish that goal. The rest is in the hands of our body chemistry.
When people run up against that chemistry and the weight isn’t dropping they lose motivation.
This is why it is important to set goals that are achievable.
For instance, you can’t control how much weight you’re going to lose or whether you’ll be in a stressful situation in 2021 but you can set goals to eat healthily and practice meditation for stress management.
Setting goals that are within your control means you can actually accomplish what you set out to do.
When we attempt our goals in the winter we’re doing so with a lot more resistance than the more temperate seasons.
If I am trying to set goals that are accomplishable I need to be cognizant that willpower is limited and that my environment affects my behavior. In this case, winter can reduce my motivation to start demanding projects or activities outdoors.
So if my plan is to get in better shape for the year, rather than go 0–60 and buy a year membership at the gym (which I’ll only use for the month of January), I’ll want to set a goal I can easily accomplish in the winter and then step it up in the spring.
For example, I can start doing light workouts at home to get into the habit of taking care of myself and working out. This workout routine can then grow with the year.
By springtime I’ll be feeling healthier from the increased activity, I’ll already have time set aside to work out, and my energy levels will be higher with the new season. Perfect time to hit the gym!
And this brings us to our next point: planning, the keystone of any successful resolution.
3. Lack Of Planning
Many people with resolutions have a goal in mind but they don’t have a plan to get there. I’ve definitely been one of those people.
Last autumn, I decided I wanted to expand my business. I was seeing great results with clients and loving the work I was doing. So I threw some more money at Google AdWords and tried to up my social media presence.
The problem was I didn’t know how to up my social media so I ended up flailing around on Facebook as Google AdWords brought people to a web page that didn’t capture who I was or what I had to offer.
It took a couple weeks of floundering before I came to the decision that this life coach needed a business coach.
First, she helped me clarify my passion.
I knew I liked helping people transform and change but let’s face it, that’s a pretty vague descriptor.
I had to dig in and really reflect on things. What I discovered is that I love doing the deep work of healing personal trauma while helping people discover and embody their core selves.
I also love incorporating a strong behavioral program. This transforms the numinous insights of the psyche into healthy physical actions such as self-care through exercise, nutrition, stress management practices, and goal setting for a better life.
Both the deep healing work and the behavioral work were incredibly important to me and brought me to the next step: clarifying who I wanted to work with and then establishing specific goals and techniques to make contact with those people and offer my services.
Rather than drift through autumn hoping to achieve a goal as I hemorrhaged advertising funds, I was able to gain focus, clarity, and an action plan while saving myself money.
When we set a goal we need to think it through, do our research, and gather our resources.
Winter is the perfect time to do this. It’s cold, dark, and water is falling from the sky. Perfect time to stay inside and get our planning on.
Do some inner work to ascertain your goals.
Once you’ve thought things through you can start gathering the resources you’ll need for the year. Maybe that means more strategizing and research. Maybe it’s scouting out gyms, equipment or trainers. Maybe it’s saving money to take some classes or enter into a program.
Gather what you need in winter while starting up the process of change. You have the whole year to make the changes you desire. Better to tortoise it now while gathering and planning things out than rush off to the races and give things up by mid-January.
4. A Critical Mindset
Most people set resolutions about the things they’re going to swear off. Sugar, junk food, alcohol, cigarettes. Breaking away from these things is great but the focus tends to be on immediate results.
For ambitious resolutions like upping sales by 200% most of the attention is on the numbers and because we tend to be self-critical the attention goes to how we’re failing to get those numbers.
When we focus on a rigid definition of success it doesn’t give us room to be creative or to maintain motivation when times get hard.
We’ve already covered how setting a goal that is not technically in your control like pounds lost or contracts signed can lead to a lot of frustration. When we then approach the situation looking for where we went wrong we’re doubling our suffering.
I’m not saying “don’t think a negative thought” or “if you think negatively you’ll attract negative things.”
The ability to critique yourself and your behavior is the only way you’re going to be able to push yourself to grow beyond your comfort level.
But, if you only focus on critiques you’re missing a large piece of the picture (just as you would by only focusing on the positives).
The truth is you’re human. A human with a human brain. Brains are conditioned by what humans do and they take time to change.
No reasonable adult is going to get mad at a kid for falling off their bike.
Because they’re learning. Learning takes repeated failures until we get it right.
Every time we try to start something new or make a resolution to do something out of the norm we have to learn that behavior.
So if your resolution is to eat healthy, it’s going to take time to figure out how to eat healthy in every scenario. Of course, you can plan meals of protein and vegetables at home but what about those emergency days when you get a flat tire? work was hell? The kids are sick?
In the stress that follows the brain is going to do what’s most convenient because it’s in panic mode and not remembering your resolution.
Some part might. Maybe the frontal lobe. You’ll hear it as a tiny voice in the background saying “I swore I wouldn’t do this.”
But in the moment of fight, flight, or freeze, the frontal lobe isn’t running the show. So it’s fast food for dinner.
And that’s fine. It’s the first time since the New Year you were in a crisis situation and you didn’t know what to do. Rather than beat yourself up over it, take some time to research alternatives.
What grocery stores or restaurants provide healthier options nearly as quickly?
What if once a week you prepared an emergency dish for that week? Something healthy that holds up well in the fridge. Worst case scenario, no emergency happens and you eat it at the end of the week.
When we get into a growth mindset we can transform failures into learning lessons while enjoying ourselves and our successes at the same time. This is critical for New Year’s resolutions as it keeps motivation going for the year and leads to true success.
It’s also a mindset that's difficult in the winter when it’s dark and really freaking cold.
Rather than fight winter and the effect it has on our moods, we can work with it, taking the time to plan and cultivate the change we will create in the year to come, research ways to overcome challenges and hurdles, and reflect on past experience to brainstorm new ways to do things.
If You Want Your Resolution to Succeed, Put Winter To Good Use.
Winter is the perfect time to start our resolutions. The trick is recognizing that every resolution should start with self-reflection, research, and planning.
In winter, I recommend stepping into the role of becoming your own life coach.
1. “What is my motivation to change?”
A lot of people set goals based on desires that they aren’t really passionate about (at least not enough to do the work).
We may want a six-pack but it’s hard AF to get a six-pack. The desire isn’t going to be enough to motivate most people to hit the gym or eat perfectly.
Instead, connecting with your own health, your plans for the future, and how you want to preserve your health puts you in the gym for your well being. A passion far more likely to motivate you to consistently exercise as the results are easier to attain and have greater value.
Also, the motivation has to come from you.
While it’s nice to quit smoking for a partner or the kids, it’s not likely to happen. External pressure only affects us so long before we buckle. If you want true change it has to come from within.
If you find the motivation for your resolution is coming from others, consider ways to make it your own.
For example, if you want to quit smoking, research the health effects of smoking, get intimately familiar with it, read about people who have died young from it, and then connect with any content long-lived family or heroes.
Ask yourself, “what can I do with an extra 10 years to live?”
If you’re having problems thinking about it, step into more research and figure out what motivates you and makes you passionate enough about life to quit smoking.
2. “How will I cultivate my motivation?”
Most of us are pain motivated.
We reach the point of wanting to change when we’ve experienced too much pain. The problem with this is that once the heat is off we go right back to life as normal.
Maybe we’ve made a bit of progress but we’re not really where we want to be and we don’t keep moving till the next crisis.
If you want to make consistent change and grow you need to find what keeps you motivated.
Search through your memories to a time when you were really motivated with no threat of pain. What motivated you? What kept you pumped up?
If you can’t remember any times like these, start experimenting with behaviors that get you excited. What music gets you energized? What simple exercises or activities make you enthusiastic?
If you’re having a hard time with this, consider rewriting your New Year resolution to “discover what I’m passionate about” and take the year to explore yourself.
Once you find your passion it’ll be a lot easier to drop the things that get in the way and cement the things that help you achieve your goals.
3. “What don’t I know about my resolution?”
It’s always good to ask yourself what you don’t know and then to research it.
For instance, most people who try and quit smoking quit cold turkey and don’t replace the behavior with anything else, which often fails. When you’re trying to quit a behavior it’s important to know what you’re using the behavior for and how you can replace it with something healthier.
In the case of smoking, people use it for everything from relaxation to staying awake, social anxiety, an excuse to get away from crowds, an opportunity to go outside, to collect their thoughts, to do something with their hands while driving, to celebrate an achievement, to take a break, to signal the close of one activity and the start of another.
Heavy smokers use cigarettes for most of the above.
If you want to successfully quit you’ll want to discover why you’re using cigarettes and what other activities you can replace it with.
For instance, go on walks so you get outdoors and get some time to think alone.
If you’re smoking from stress, consider researching and learning other stress management resources.
Think things through and research what you don’t know.
4. “What steps does it take to achieve my goals?”
Once you know where your motivation is coming from, how you’ll keep it engaged, and what you still need to learn about the change it’s time to plan out the steps you’ll take to reach your goals.
It’s always best to start small and keep things simple. This is also great for working with the winter as you can use the winter months as an incubator for the habits you want to get down.
For instance, if you want to eat healthier the first place to start is being mindful of what nutrients and foods you’re eating. You can do this by recording the foods you’re eating and checking your micronutrients.
Along the way you can do research to fill in any nutritional information you don’t have.
Personally, I’d focus more on micronutrients than calories. Calorie counting is only useful if you’re eating a ton of extra food. If you’re making sure to get the protein, fat, and vegetables you need, food consumption tends to drop as you feel fuller longer.
After a couple weeks of mindfully discovering what micronutrients you’re low on, and what you eat too much of, you can then work on increasing those nutrients and cutting out harmful foods one at a time. Give yourself a week for each so that you can better adjust.
This way you’re not trying to change everything overnight and you’re giving yourself time to adapt. After all, it’s not just a matter of “eating more protein,” or “cutting carbs” you’re going to have to figure out how you’ll get in more protein and what you’ll replace the carbs with.
This means finding different recipes, discovering different methods of food preparation, accounting for differences in the amount of time it takes to prepare the food and discovering different emergency options for stressful or busy days.
You’re not just changing one thing, you’re changing your entire system so it’s better to start small and make persistent change than overwhelm yourself by trying to change everything at once.
Save yourself the frustration of a failed New Years' resolution and work with the winter instead of against it. Put it to good use as a time of planning, research, and resource gathering.
You can start your path to change and transformation right away, just make sure you’re taking small steps that stay in sync with the season. After all, it’s the hardest time of the year on your mind and body, so anything you do will meet with a bit more resistance.
If you put the season to good use, you’ll have everything planned for, researched, and gathered for the coming year which will allow you to follow through with your goals and make some big changes in 2021.