The Problem With New Year's Resolutions: What to Do Instead
Better strategies for an improved you in the New Year
Posted December 29, 2018
Why you’re bound to fail and why you needn’t
Yes, it’s that time again—the turning of the page, the stretch of a brand-new year, and, hopefully, a whole new you, right? Well, I happen to be a believer in the whole new page thing, especially as it applies to the beginning of a month or a change in season because you can psyche yourself into gearing up and getting off whatever hamster wheel you happen to find yourself on. But why is the New Year’s thing just a bust for most people? Shouldn’t a New Year energize the hell out of all of us?
Well, yes but no.
It’s been thirty years since John Norcross and Dominic Vangarelli conducted a study of what happens to all that New Year’s resolution-making and discovered—surprise, surprise! —that most of us are abject failures at it. At one week’s time, 77% of those questioned were still hanging in but only 55% were left standing at the end of a month. Two years later, only 19% had actually succeeded.
Let mosey on down the road and see why that is precisely.
What’s really motivating you? That’s the question
Most of our resolutions aren’t things we actually want to do deep down in our hearts but things we feel we ought to do. Intrinsic goals—ones that reflect our inner selves and our truest aspirations—tend to be those we actually set our minds to achieving; studies show that people display more resilience when they’re thwarted in their progress when a goal is intrinsic, in contrast to one which is extrinsic. Extrinsic goals are those we may go after but we are motivated to achieve them because they’re set by other people (our parents, spouses, or friends), the culture, or society as a whole. It’s not often that I love a quotation from scientific research but here’s my own fav on the difference between intrinsic goals and extrinsic one, courtesy of Richard M. Ryan and Edward L. Deci, who note that extrinsic motivation is “a pale and impoverished (if powerful) form of motivation that contrasts with intrinsic motivation.”
Seen from that point of view, the key question is what lies behind your resolve? Are you doing it for you or for someone else? Because you want to or because you think you should?
You’re being unrealistic (and impatient too)
Resolutions get us focused—like crossing 42nd Street in Manhattan without getting run over—and not in a good way either. The likelihood is that your resolution is either unrealistic (“I’ll lose 20 pounds in a month!” “I’ll stop over-reacting to my sister’s annoying behavior by Valentine’s Day,” “I am going to step up my game and get a way better job by March”) or the timeline is way too short or, as in these examples, both. Resolutions tend to have us looking for magic wands and even when we can’t see them, we tend to believe in them.
You’re pleasing or appeasing someone (and that someone could be you)
These are the worst of the extrinsic goals—the ones that are supposed to satisfy or placate others. Your boyfriend is always complaining that you’re not game to try something new so you decide you’re going to do a personality do-over and become the woman who’s willing to try stand-up, sky-diving, or something else that really interests you not at all. Or it might be your self-critical self you’re appeasing—the voice in your head that tells you that you’re fat and unappealing—and that motivates you to start dieting on the 1st of the year as you always do. Of course, your ultimate failure to keep the weight off just adds a bit more authority to the voice the next time out.
So, this year, abandon the pack, ignore all the articles about resolutions, and focus on setting some goals for 2019 instead.
5 Things You Can Do to Set Goals
Get rid of pie-in-the-sky thinking and pipe dreams because if jumpstarting your life is what you want to do, it is eminently doable. The old year doesn’t have to phase into the new year one unless you want it to and the best way to do that is to become the driver of the car that is you.
1. Plot and plan
Research shows that just thinking about setting a goal isn’t as good as writing your goals down; by writing, you’re using a different part of the brain. Prioritize your goals, keeping in mind that multi-tasking is largely a myth. Make sure that you actually have the ability or the skillset to achieve your goals; setting the bar really high isn’t a reliable motivator unless you have what you need in hand.
Divide your goals into short term and long term on either a piece of paper or on your computer screen; you may well discover that a long-term goal such as finding a new job or switching industries requires you to set and achieve interim goals such as learning to code, taking a management course, or any other training you might need.
Continue to ask yourself if your goals are realistic.
2. Make sure your goals are congruent
You’d be surprised how many people fail at goals because they’re not paying attention to whether goals are in conflict. It seems obvious enough that if you’ve set the goal of being promoted at work but you also want to spend more time at home with your family, you’re setting yourself up for failure in one arena or the other.
Think about the time and effort you will have to invest in achieving your goal and whether, in fact, that’s going to contribute to your ability to thrive in the short-term or will create other problems.
3. Anticipate setbacks and opportunities (and bolster your resilience)
Research shows that using “If/then” thinking encourages us to be more flexible and creative when it comes to problem solving; it’s what Peter Gollwitzer has called “implementation intention.” Basically, your mindset is “If X happens, then I’ll do Y.” This has you thinking proactively and forces you to pay attention to situational cues; it can be used in almost every situation too. Let’s say you are trying to smooth out what has been a bumpy relationship with a friend; you begin by thinking, “If she’s open to talking, then I’ll talk to her about how we might resolve our differences.” Needless to say, if she appears not to be open to talking, you will reframe and wait for a better moment.
Sticking to a single plan is a terrible idea so keep using “If/then” thinking. Your ability to quit and pivot is absolutely key to success.
4. Be prepared to abandon ship and set a new course
Commitment is a part of goal-setting but you can’t be so wedded to Plan A that you lose the ability to be flexible and accommodate a change in strategy. Cultural mythology preaches that we must always be persistent—yes, the Little Engine and all of that—but the reality is that humans are actually hardwired to persist even when things aren’t going well. Different biases in thoughts such as the sunk cost fallacy—focusing on how much time, energy, or capital we have invested in something that’s going south rather than thinking about greener pastures—tend to keep us stuck and persisting, rather than moving on as we need to. Once we’ve chosen a course, we’re also easily swayed by the power of intermittent reinforcement and often see things more positively than we should. Always have a Plan B in your back pocket and be prepared to bail if you need to.
5. Savor your progress and quell self-criticism
Do set a realistic schedule for whatever it is you want to achieve. I would love nothing more than to be able to write a book in six months, for example, but if I were to set that as my goal—knowing that I’m not a first-draft writer and that my prose always needs tinkering with—I would fail miserably. A new you isn’t going to show up on January 1st so you need to anticipate with self-knowledge so that you can kick-start your progress. If going to an exercise or cycling class always makes you feel lousy and self-conscious, that’s probably not going to change; why don’t you start taking long walks instead? If time management is always a problem for you, factor that into whatever goals you’re setting; again, there’s no benefit in self-sabotage.
Most important, be patient. It takes time to achieve important goals, especially changes in behavior.
These observations are drawn from my book, Quitting---Why We Fear It and Why We Shouldn’t—in Life, Love, and Work. (Da Capo Press, 2015).
Norcross, John & J. Vangarelli, Dominic. (1988). The resolution solution: Longitudinal examination of New Year's change attempts. Journal of Substance Abuse. 1. 127-134
Deci, Edward L and Richard M. Ryan, “The ‘What’ and ‘Why’ of Goal Pursuits” Human Needs and the Self-Determination of Behavior,” Psychological Inquiry (2000), 13(4), 227-268.
Gollwitzer, Peter C., “Implementation Intentions: Strong Effects of Simple Plans,” American Psychologist (1999) 54 (7), 493-502.