5 Reasons We Suck At New Year's Resolutions (And What To Do About It)

Friday, January 09, 2015 by Meg   •   Filed under General

Let’s be clear up front: this is not an article about how to stick wholeheartedly to your resolutions. I won’t tell you to set your alarm across the room so you can’t hit snooze if your goal is to work out every morning. I won’t tell you to throw out all the cookies in the house because you gave up sugar “from now on.” 

Plus, life without cookies? Puh-lease.  Screw that noise. 

Here’s the thing, guys: resolutions are bound to fail. Resolutions come and go partially because no one really expects that they will stay for any length of time. It’s the ultimate joke for many. 

“Oh, you resolved to give up yoga pants? See you at the grocery store wearing Yogi’s special in a week, girl.”

It’s not your fault, though. It’s the way we approach the goals that somehow became critical at the first of the year when we were still coming out of that sugar and carb coma that makes the holidays so damn delightful.

“SO MUCH SUGAR! Staring January first, I’m never eating sugar again!”

Except you will. You know it too.

Why We Suck At Resolutions

Problem#1: We Make Resolutions Impulsively 

It’s January first! I better decide to do something quick so I can post it on Facebook! 

If you feel pressured to make a resolution because everyone else is, you’re not really setting yourself up for success. Let’s be honest here, if it’s something that’s critical to you, you can make changes any time and not just because it happens to be January. “New Year, New You” is a jingle to sell gym memberships that we got sucked into believing was true. 

A new you doesn’t happen because it’s a new year. If your resolution is something you’ve been considering for some time, you might have a better chance at fulfilling it. But if you just feel sick and terrible because you ate too many candy canes, you’re less likely to stick to your goal once you stop sweating mint. 

How to Succeed: 

Instead of making a resolution that you can get pissed off at in a month, think carefully about what things you’d like to alter and give yourself time to get used to the idea if you need to. Whether you start in January or in March it’s all about conscious choices. If you weren’t in a rush in December, don’t assume you need to be come the first of the year. If you're ready and it matters to you, you’ll do what needs to be done. 

Problem #2: We Focus on Deprivation

Why are we so damn awful at moderation? Resolutions tend to take the all-or-nothing route which is remarkably unwise. We have a bunch of processing systems and structures yelling at each other inside our heads about how many rewards we are (or are not) getting. The main ones are the orbitofrontal cortex, amygdala, ventral striatum, and medial prefrontal cortex, but really none of that matters or our purposes here. What you really need to know it that they are jerks and will eventually try to get you to do SOMETHING to get all high on neurotransmitter rewards. They crave the excitement whether it’s from sugar or buying new shoes or roller coasters or sex or god forbid a night alone to do whatever you want.

Even the simple loss of choice can make us feel angry, upset, out of control or anxious. (For more on this, see The Art of Choosing or check out Shame, Maternal Anxiety and the Illusion of Control.) And when you finally cave in, how you see “breaking” your resolution will depend on how stringently you think you need to adhere to your all-or-nothing mandate.

How to Succeed: 

Focus on what you're getting instead of what you're giving up, and acknowledge that it is a CHOICE. Instead of, "I can't do that," go with, "I can totally do that, I just don't feel like it." It seems minor but it's a different cognitive perspective that is far more palatable. And when you simply cannot make yourself believe that, give yourself permission to cheat. Unless it’s heroin than for fuck’s sake find a meeting. But if it’s a cookie or shopping or something relatively benign, choose a day once a week, or once a month, treat yourself. You can also replace that need for a thrill with something else. The sex thing is always good (unless you swore off wild sex, in which case, ignore this sentence). Though it seems counterintuitive, by giving yourself a day to cheat, you are more likely to be able to cut down on whatever behavior you are trying to stop. And if you cheat outside your chosen day, acknowledge it and move on instead of throwing things in a self-induced aggravated shame spiral. Ain’t nobody got time for that.

Problem #3: We Don’t Define the Ultimate Goal

Most common wisdom says to set specific goals. This is a good idea, in ways we are going to go over next, but you need to have a bigger goal in mind. Because while never again eating sugar may be out of reach, being healthier overall isn’t. And if you’re fulfilling the whole “health” thing and feeling better, you’re more likely to make better choices as opposed to shoveling cookies anyway. Because nothing fuels sugar cravings like stress and failure.  

How to Succeed: 

Figure out why you’re doing what you’re doing and identify why this choice will ultimately enhance your life. When you look at the bigger picture, smaller failures (and I use that word loosely) won’t seem so critical. 

We don’t learn new habits in a week or a month. Every day you reevaluate your choices. Expect that. Don’t expect that you’ll suddenly be in the habit of going to bed at nine when you are used to binge watching Game of Thrones and passing out at two in the morning. Give yourself time to adjust, make choices that get you closer to your ultimate goal incrementally and don’t worry if you feel the need to stay up late and watch Game of Thrones or Sons of Anarchy once a week. Muscles are delicious. (Drool.)

Problem #4: Resolutions are Overly Optimistic or Unfeasible 

Did you resolve to reduce your debt by 50%? If it’s really, truly realistic, go for it. If it isn’t, end up pissed in two months and go buy a pony. Because, fuck it. 

How to Succeed: 

Break any large goals into smaller steps and avoid resolving to do things that you cannot realistically accomplish. If your ultimate goal is to reduce your debt by 50%, make a list of small things you can do to achieve that end. Resolve to do it over three years or five. Decide what’s manageable every month and try to put that aside. Make an appointment with your mortgage guy to learn some new skills. If your goal is to eat less meat, reduce your intake by one day a week to start, or buy higher quality pastured meat as opposed to going vegan for a month and ending it all in a huge B-B-Q that smells of pork and broken dreams. 

Make a list of small things that will lead you to success, instead of trying to do it all at once, and change comes easier. 

Problem #4: Lack of Social Support

Did you resolve to quit smoking when everyone around you is a virtual chimney? You might as well resolve to get new friends too. 

How to Succeed: 

This is a tricky one, but people are far more likely to stick to any goals when they have social support around it. If your goal is to get healthier, find something you can do with friends, whether it’s running, sharing recipes or holding one another accountable. If you want to save money, find a friend you can complain with and explore free activities together when you don’t go on vacation. People often benefit just from having someone there to be supportive of their goals. You can even join an online community, though be aware that those you see in person will be slightly more influential. As a last ditch effort you can even feel supported (or at least more motivated) through documentaries, such as Fat Sick and Nearly Dead or Hungry for Change if you're trying to be healthier. In short: find support. 

Problem #5: We Forget Resolutions are a Process 

When it comes to resolutions, most look at the end goal and see everything up until that point as failure. It isn’t. 

How to Succeed: 

Change your definition of success. Call your resolution what it is: a process. Stop thinking it’s all or nothing. Nothing is just that simple. (Except for my pure, dark hatred of Rush Limbaugh. That shit’s real, you guys.)

STOP MAKING IT SIMPLE (Unless your goal is to stop listening to Rush.)

If you must, choose small incremental goals that you can celebrate. “One week without sugar” works better than “One year without sugar.” We love instant gratification. Get as close to that as you can. And everyday you work more towards something than against it, consider it a success because it’s one more day of learning new habits that will lead you where you want to be.

Learning is near constant failure if done correctly (more on that here in Reducing the Fear of “Wrong”: Learning and the Importance of Attitude). Getting one question wrong on a test or even failing one class isn’t that big of a deal in the long term. A goal you latch onto after a few drinks at a Christmas party is not any different. No matter what it is, it will be a series of failures, a series of stops and starts that end in incremental improvements that eventually lead you towards that desired result, but not necessarily right to it. Maybe you think you want to give up sugar but find out you’re happy getting it down to a point where you don't have acne. Maybe you thought you wanted to lose fifty pounds, but now that you’re feeling better health wise, you decide you like your booty just how it is. It worked for J-Lo, people. 

Even if you never reach your original goal, this in no way means failure. Having a growth mindset and respect for the process matters. By looking at what we do and making choices every day that in some small way better our odds of achieving an end, we can make our way towards long term successes as opposed to brief periods of success followed by a period of drowning in our own tears.

Keep it small, keep it manageable, keep it realistic. Be patient, define landmarks along the way and don’t be a dick to yourself when you screw up. And you’ll get where you ultimately want to be.

Related Posts: 

Topic-Relevant Resources

The Art of Choosing
Research on personal choice and its implications for mental health

Salt Sugar Fat: How the Food Giants Hooked Us
An in depth look at how the food industry alters physical and emotional health through advertising and addictive substances.