Why Resolutions Fail - And How To Ensure Your Success!
Coming out of lockdown might feel a little bit like new year: the perfect time to make some resolutions to change. But, as most of us know, the majority of resolutions fail. But why is that, and what can you do differently to ensure that this time, you manage to keep to your word.
The unique conditions offered by lockdown and the changing world into which we are emerging are a good opportunity to pursue some of our most important goals.
But the way that most of us approach making resolutions sets us up to fail. We fall into self-sabotaging traps. But if we change the way we make our resolutions, we can set ourselves up for success.
Let’s take a look at the main reasons why resolutions fail, and what you should be doing differently.
1. You try to do too much
When we decide to make changes in our lives, we do exactly that, we decide to make changes, plural, rather than focussing our energy on just one thing.
This is a mistake, because it is thought that willpower has a limit.
While the science of willpower is still largely misunderstood, the evidence nevertheless suggests that when we commit ourselves to making a lot of changes at once, our willpower is not sufficient to carry us through.
Willpower is like a muscle. We can’t expect it to start lifting hundreds of kilos of weight on a whim, without any training. We can also expect it to wear out. Imagine doing a typical weightlifting set at the gym. The first set might seem relatively easy. The second set a bit harder. While the third set should take you to the point of exhaustion, making a fourth set impossible for at least some time.
The willpower muscle works in the same way. As you ask it to keep working, it reaches its limit. Just like other muscles, its strength and capacity will increase over time and you will be able to do more with it. But if you expect it to go from zero to a hundred with no preparation, you are setting yourself up for failure, or even a serious injury. Nothing is more discouraging to our commitment than when our willpower fails.
All of the resolutions that we make require a little bit of will power. You need it to push yourself to go to the gym when you are tired from a hard day at work. You need it to say no to that afternoon snack when you are flagging at work. It takes willpower to turn off Netflix and use the time instead to work on your passion.
Asking your willpower to be responsible for all these things from day one is often too much for it. You are much better off starting with one thing. Once your willpower has grown to meet that challenge, it will be ready for the next thing, and the next.
You don’t have to choose one goal and give up the others, but you do need patience.
SEE ALSO: How Many Goals Should I Set At Once
2. You rely too much on willpower
While willpower is incredibly important to stick to a resolution, the fallibility of willpower means that you should not rely on it alone. It also assumes that your future self, the person who will make these decisions tomorrow, has a greater strength of will than you do today. That is rarely the case.
But you can boost your future self’s willpower by making changes to your environment to make it easier for you to stick to what you said you would do, or harder to do the things you are trying to stop. This generally involves identifying your triggers for unhealthy habits and avoiding them, as well as removing barriers that stand between you and positive actions.
For example, do you struggle to head back out to the gym after getting home from work? Take your gym gear to work with you and go directly from there. Choose a gym that is very close to you so that there is no commute between you and your destination. Make an appointment to meet someone, so that no going actually means canceling with someone. In this way, you make it as easy as possible for you to get to the gym, and as hard as possible to backout.
On the flip side, are you trying to break the habit of constantly checking your cell for messages throughout the day at work? Turn it off and lock it away somewhere you can’t see it. In this way, you are removing the trigger of its constant buzzing, and even its presence, and you put a draw and boot time between you and checking your messages. Let family members know to contact you on your work number if it is important. That way you have no excuse to justify leaving your cell on.
You can also create new habits by building them off existing habits. Depending on the person, between 40 and 90 percent of everything that we do is habitual. We can use this in our favor, by linking the habitual nature of one activity to another. For example, do you want to start meditating? Use the few minutes that it takes to make and drink your habitual morning coffee to practice clearing your mind.
3. You focus on goals rather than process
When we resolve to do something, we can often be discouraged when our progress towards our stated destination is not fast enough. For example, perhaps we vowed to lose 20 pounds this year, but after one month, we have only lost one pound. What is the point of continuing? Maybe we have decided to save $5,000 this year, but after a burst water pipe in February, we have already dipped into our existing savings. Now we’ll never make it.
This kind of discouragement happens when we focus on the outcome rather than the process. The outcome is unpredictable and often beyond our control. How were we to know that we would need to pay emergency house expenses? Sometimes our stated outcome is also unrealistic. Do we know how much weight it is healthy to lose over a certain period of time? Have we taken into account the fact that we often get heavier as we build muscle?
But while the timing and nature of outcomes are often beyond our control, the steps that we need to take as part of the process are not. So rather than resolving to lose a certain amount of weight, or save a certain amount of money, we should focus on resolving to do the things that we need to do to move towards these goals.
Are you trying to lose weight? Commit to walking a certain number of steps each day, attending a fitness class three times a week, eliminating certain junk foods, and to only eating out once a week.
Do you want to save money? Commit to not buying any unnecessary luxuries for a certain period of time, to not buying an expensive coffee every day and instead put that money aside somewhere, and to making meal plans and sticking to your list while grocery shopping.
The best approach is to commit to the process, and track your progress. Tracking lets you see that you are doing alright most of the time, which can help you continue if you hit a snag in the road. It also means that your resolution is no longer unreachable if you hit a problem like that unexpected bill.
SEE ALSO: 7 Steps to Form Any Habits
4. You aren’t specific enough
Another reason resolutions can be difficult to keep is that they are not specific enough. This makes it difficult to make the necessary decisions to stick to the goal.
Good resolutions make decisions for your upfront, so that you don’t need to make those decisions in the future. Bad resolutions still leave you with lots of decisions, which drain your willpower day-to-day.
For example, perhaps you resolve to “eat better”. But what does that mean? With a resolution like that, you are still left to make hundreds of decisions a day. Is the breakfast in front of you better than before? Is having or not having a mid-morning coffee and biscuit better or not better? Is spaghetti bolognese for dinner better?
A good resolution will already contain these decisions. I will only drink one coffee per day. I will drink water at my desk instead of soft drinks. I will replace my afternoon chocolate bar with my favorite fruits. I will pre-prepare salad and protein-based lunches to take to work every day.
With these specifics in place as part of the resolution, you don’t need to make good food decisions every day, because you have already made them. You are therefore faced with the much simpler decision of whether you are going to stick to your word or not.
However, it is essential to make sure that your rules are realistic. Rules such as “I will eat less than 700 calories a day” is just setting yourself up to fail. Nothing drains willpower faster than hunger.
SEE ALSO: 10 Deadly Goal Setting Mistakes
5. You frame things wrong
Another reason why we often fail is the way that we frame things in our heads. We often focus on the negative rather than the positive.
The most obvious example of this is that we focus on what we can’t do. I can’t drink alcohol during the week, I can’t buy clothes for three months. But when we tell ourselves that we can’t do something, we automatically make that seem negative.
We do the same thing when we tell ourselves that we have to do something. I have to go to the gym because of all the food I have eaten. I have to work on my personal project tonight despite being tired from work. In this way, we make these activities seem like punishments.
We are often advised to reframe these things as positives, and this works very well with the things that we have to do. Find a type of exercise that you like doing, and you get to spend some time doing that tonight. Similarly, when I get home tonight I get to work on my personal project, rather than just working for others.
This can be more challenging when it comes to the things that you have decided you can’t do. Framing these as a positive can often be very convoluted. “I get to feel better and have a healthier liver because I’m not drinking tonight,” just doesn’t really have a ring to it.
In these cases, instead of saying I can’t, you should try saying I don’t. It is surprising the different connotations that this small change can have. I can’t suggest that you are not allowed, or that you don’t have the capacity. This tends to automatically make things more desirable in our heads. I don’t express more of a belief, and a decision that comes from you. I can’t drink on weeknights feels like a rule, I don’t drink on weeknights feels like a self-determining expression.
When you say I don’t, you are less likely to feel like you are depriving yourself, it's just something that you don’t do.
6. You go it alone
You often hear the advice to make yourself socially accountable for new goals, letting people know what you are planning so that they can ensure that you stick to it.
While that works for some people, it is less effective for others.
More consistent results are achieved by surrounding yourself with people that you aspire to be like, and have achieved success in the area in which you are interested.
This is based on the observation that people tend to align themselves in their actions and attitudes with the people with whom they spend the most time with. This is a very good reason to surround yourself with positive influences.
But in fact, even more important is spending less time with people who bring you down.
Studies have shown that in groups of military recruits, while the super fit and motivated recruits can lift the performance of their entire unit, more pronounced is the influence of the least fit and motivated member of the team member, who drag down the performance of the whole group.
So if you want to drink less, you’ll need to spend less time with your friends that really enjoy the bottle. If you want to exercise more, you will need to spend less time with those friends who will encourage you to join them on the couch instead. This can seem a bit harsh, but it is usually just a temporary measure while you adapt to your new habit.
We all aspire to be the best versions of ourselves, and resolutions can be a great way to make the changes that we have identified that we need. But the way we make our resolutions often sets us up for failure.
But if you avoid the common pitfalls and take our advice for making better resolutions, you will soon see the results that you crave.