“Effective self-regulation of behavior is not achieved by an act of will. It requires certain skills in self-motivation and self-guidance.” Albert Bandura, 1986
Approximately 50% of Americans make New Year’s Resolutions, most having to do with weight loss, eating healthier, improving finances, or getting a new job. But less than 10% successfully achieve their goals. Here are ten common mistakes that explain why people sometimes fail to achieve their New Year’s resolutions, along with tips to help make your New Year’s resolutions a success.
Mistake #1 Forgetting Change Is Process and Resolutions Are Only the Beginning
Resolutions are not wishes granted by God or a magical “Baby New Year”; you will need a specific plan and some patience. Too many people make their resolutions and leave it at that. You need to do more than just hope for change.
Mistake #2 Making General Rather Than Specific Resolutions
Many People Make Too Many and Too General New Year's Resolutions
Resolutions are personal change goals and research on goal setting as a motivational technique is clear: you need to set specific goals. You might start with a general goal like “get my finances in order” or “eat better” but you need to unpack vague goals into smaller, specific, do-able goals. What exactly do you mean by “eat better” or “improve finances” or “exercise more?
Mistake #3 Making Unrealistic Resolutions
Goal setting research also tells us that voluntarily setting challenging, yet realistic goals is best. You won’t stick to goals that are unrealistic for you and you won’t stick to goals that are not truly yours. This is a Goldilocks situation where the goals have to be “just right,” not too easy and not too difficult. Many people give up on their New Year’s resolutions because their goals were too lofty and unrealistic (making failure likely and demotivating), or because they were “forced” to adopt goals to make someone else happy.
Mistake #4 Having A Half-Assed (or No) Specific Change Plan
You need to create a specific plan that charts a clear path to your goals. What are the specific steps you need to take to achieve your personal change goal? These should become specific mini-goals that carry you down the road to success. Assign deadlines for completion of these success-related tasks. If you’re unsure how to create a plan, seek professional advice.
Mistake #5 Giving Up Too Quickly
You do not have to be perfect and a “slip” or “fall off the wagon” shouldn’t be used as an excuse to abandon the whole endeavor. Old habits are hard to break and new ones take time to develop. Your change may occur in fits and starts because much of our behavior consists of the unconscious enactment of habits. So one key to change, especially at the beginning, is the use of reminders. You may find it useful to post sticky note prompts to help you remember, or phone alarms reminding you to perform the new, desired behavior. Do what you can to remind yourself to do the new behavior and it will become your new normal and you won’t have to think about it so much.
Mistake #6 Failing to Overcome Or Manage Ambivalence
One barrier to change is ambivalence. In other words, there are some good things associated with the behavior you need to change and some bad things about the new behavior you're trying to adopt. Do some research so that you are fully aware of the negative consequences of not changing. To overcome change-retarding ambivalence, remind yourself often of the ways in which changing your behavior fits with important personal goals and how not changing does the opposite. Write these down and place in a space where you will see it regularly.
Mistake #7 Failing to Obtain Social Support & Identify Healthy Role Models
Believing in your ability to do the things necessary for change is critical to your success; this is called self-efficacy. Research on self-efficacy tells us that key to this is social support (“cheerleaders” for our change), and role models (people like yourself that have successfully achieved similar goals). For example, Weight Watchers is one of the more effective weight loss programs because people meet regularly in a group setting where they receive inspiration and encouragement from others and publicly track progress towards their goals. Surround yourself with healthy role models and cheerleaders for your change.
Mistake #8 Failing to Address Emotional Issues That Sabotage Success
Some people are unsuccessful in their change efforts because they need to address the emotional or psychological issues that drive their unhealthy behavior. Many people find that a good counselor can help them overcome this barrier to change.
Mistake #9 Failing to Address Environmental Issues That Sabotage Success
It can be hard to change your behavior without also changing your environment. You can boost your willpower by avoiding the situations and people that “trigger” the behavior you want to change. Avoid or ignore people that ridicule or sabotage your change. Clear your pantry of the foods you want to stop eating. Change your route to/from work so that you don’t find your car taking you to your favorite doughnut shop or budget-busting store, etc.
Mistake #10 Adopting Simple Solutions Peddled By Unscrupulous Salespeople
To avoid the hard work of personal change, people are sometimes seduced by sales professionals offering easy solutions to problems that don’t have quick and easy solutions. It is unlikely that you will meet your goals simply by paying for a “quick weight loss solution” in the form of a pill or exercise device. Do your research so that you know what reputable experts recommend you do to achieve sustainable change.
Bandura, A. (1986). Social foundations of thought and action. Prentice Hall: Englewood Cliffs, NJ.
Locke, E. A., & Latham, G. P. (2002). Building a practically useful theory of goal setting and task motivation: A 35-year odyssey. American Psychologist, 57, 705-717.
Prochaska, J. O., & Velicer, W. F. (1997). The transtheoretical model of health behavior change. American Journal of Health Promotion, 12, 38-48.