Why Most Resolutions Fail, and What You Can Do About It

A high percentage of people who make resolutions do not stick to them, with around 25% of us giving up within the first week; these people seem to follow the “if at first you don’t succeed, give up” school of thought. Others refer to this as the “what the hell” effect, with around 60% returning to the very same resolutions the following year. It’s Groundhog Year.

But is there a way out of this cycle, for those of us seemingly stuck in it? Is there a better way to approach the whole idea of “resolutions” in the first place? This would be a pretty pointless post if I weren’t about to say, “yes”, right? So, YES! 

What Sort of Resolutions Do People Make?

Before we get to a few suggestions you should consider (if you need to), here’s a list of 10 of the most common resolutions people tend to make; it turns out that I can identify with almost all of them (number 10 isn’t an issue for me, while number 2 was only a problem until I quit when I was 6 years old). Here they are:

1. Get fitter and healthier

2. Drink less alcohol

3. Lose weight 

4. Get out of debt 

5. Stop smoking

6. Find a new job/change career

7. Spend more time with friends/family

8. Start my own business

9. Travel more

10. Find love

So, What’s the Problem?

The thing about resolutions is that we tend to start off with all of the will in the world. “I can do this! This is my year! The last five years are behind me. I’ll definitely do it this time!” We sign up for that gym membership or weight-loss programme, and force a smile as we chew on some lettuce and fat-free yoghurt, and hold our breath and suck it in so that we can fit into those ridiculous lycra tights. And that’s just us men.

You head off to the gym, finding some inspirational music to “get down to” along the way, sweat it out in the gym, narrowly escaping a heart attack, and hate everyone who doesn’t have any sweat patches compared with your drenched outfit. You look down at the puddle you’re barely jogging in, and immediately regret wearing beige lycra…

But you try again on Wednesday, this time not looking like you time-travelled from the mid-90s. But then, on Friday, something happens, and you decide you won’t be able to make it, even if for a later session. Monday comes around, and you feel less enthusiastic…

When Failure Leads to Giving Up

The thing is, when we “fail” – where “failure” means skipping a session, or eating more than you should have – we tend to tell ourselves that we might as well not bother for the rest of today, or this week, or… Before we know it, we’re back in our same old patterns, and decide to try again some other time. December roles around again and, “Hey! I know what I can do next year!”

Who or What Can I Blame?

Of course, we don’t tend to readily admit that we simply gave up; that it was easier to collapse on the sofa and watch a whole season of The Walking Dead in a single weekend (Oh, the irony). We find anything or anyone to take the blame for our failure to stay committed. My boss needed me to stay late. I couldn’t very well go to a barbecue and not stuff myself full of food, could I? I really needed that new TV because those 2 extra inches make a real difference. Our sofa was already 5 years old. I can eventually pay off the credit card

Whatever our excuses, the end result is the same: we find ourselves drawing up a list – even if just mentally – towards the end of the year, and the thing/s we did not stick to over the past year have made their way onto the latest version of Failed Attempts at New Year’s Resolutions.

Why do we keep doing this to ourselves? A big reason is that we seem to think that our excuses – or “reasons” – for not committing to our plans are things that probably won’t happen again. This coming year, I’ll manage my time at work better, and won’t need to stay late. That means I won’t need to skip the gym. Maybe we’ll have a better summer with less rain, and l can cycle more. I’ll get more sleep and have more energy than I do now… But once you look at it, you can see that, often, commitment to change requires commitment to some other specific change first. 

What reason is there to believe that we’ll do things any differently this time? Is there any hope, then? Well, I already said Yes to this earlier, and it involves changing our expectations.

Start Small

Stop making resolutions that are difficult to keep on a daily, weekly or monthly basis. Saying that you’ll go to the gym 3 days a week sounds great. But rather than starting that way, why not begin with 1 visit a week for 2 weeks? Then 2 visits, and so on. You’ll find it harder to justify not going when it’s just once a week. But with a bit of commitment under your lycra belt, you’ll be encouraged, and start looking forward to upping your game a bit.

If keeping the house clean and clutter-free seems like difficult work, don’t think of the whole house. Don’t even think of the whole room. Start with that pile of magazines you never read. Pull out clothes you haven’t worn in a year and either give them away or sell them. 

Don’t think of the whole novel you want to write. Don’t even think that you need to plan it all out first. If you have a rough idea, just write for 15 minutes; it doesn’t matter where in the story it is. Just write something, and don’t bother editing it yet. If you hit 15 minutes and want to continue, go ahead. Once you get into the habit, you can increase the time you spend doing it.

But you get the idea. 

Analyse That!

Take some time to analyse previous “failures”. What went wrong and why? Why did you even want to do that thing in the first place? What would you get if you succeeded? 

It’s no surprise that people generally prefer pleasure to pain. The thing is, when we attach pain or discomfort to something, we’re less likely to commit to it. If going to the gym makes us think of burning muscles (which we don’t particularly want to feel), unwanted huffing and puffing, and paying money we’d rather not pay, then we’re doomed before we start. But if we focus on the “pleasure” of what we’ll get if we commit – a better body, more energy, more time to listen to a good book while going for a run – we’ll be more likely to commit to it.

If we attach the right motivations to our actions, and determine that we will no longer allow ourselves to remain unchanged (i.e., in “pain”), we will see positive change.

No Time Like the Present

How many times have you said you’ll start something next week or next month? There’s always a good reason, isn’t there? I mean, I still have 37 cans of beer to drink. When they’re finished, then I’ll start drinking less… But why not start today? Ask someone to hide them from you… at your father-in-law’s house. Sell them to a friend who has better control than you.

Maybe you can’t start the gym today, but you could do twenty push-ups, or run for ten minutes up and down the road.

Stop making excuses and let today be the start, if you haven’t yet started anything.

Failure is Not an Option… It’s a Certainty

You will fail. Let’s just be realistic. The question is, what is failure? Where “failure” means “not going to the gym on one of the days you said you would”, rather than using this as an excuse to give up altogether, go at the next possible opportunity, or do some exercise at home after work, and think of tomorrow as a chance to reset the counter.

But what if we decided not to use the word “failure”? Words are powerful, and it’s interesting that when people use less emphatic words to describe something, the accompanying emotions are less extreme, too. How many of us love and hate stuff. But when we stop to think about those words, we realise that we actually only like something, and that thing we “hate” isn’t really that bad after all. You might say, instead, that you’re “not a big fan”. Just that slight toning down makes a difference in the way we perceive our circumstances.

The principle is the same if we adjust how we think about things we call “failure”. Why not think of it as an opportunity to do better tomorrow? What did we learn that we can apply next time? Who can we help, thanks to what we learnt by “failing”?

Are You Resolved?

Does any of this resonate with you? If you’re still reading, I’m guessing the answer is “yes”. How much of this can you identify with? Have you attempted any of the resolutions listed above? Have you succeeded and have some advice for the rest of us? If so, tell us all about it, and be an encouragement to others.

This isn’t just a New Year message. Many of us need to make changes that don’t follow the calendar year. So, whatever time of year, let today be the start of not just a new level of resolve, but success beyond that which you’ve experienced up to now.

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