Why New Years Resolutions Fail and How to Make Them Stick

“A new year holds so much promise. The slate from the past year is wiped clean, and there is a new sense of hope and potential. It’s an ideal time for self-reflection and to make some changes, particularly if you feel stuck in a rut, confused or overwhelmed”.

 – Mindfood Magazine Jan/Feb 2012

I don’t totally agree.

For lots of us, the year starts out well, we are positive and hopeful about the year to come, we make great plans and schemes and think that yes, this year, it’s the one that will be different. This year, things are really going to change!

Often, we forget that we thought the same last year, and the year before that. If we do remember, we blame ourselves for failing, yet again; because it’s a clean sheet, a new year, a new you, and if those planned changes don’t stick, well then it’s all your fault!

Right?

Wrong!

A new year is nothing but the turning over of a calendar. An arbitrary point in time that because of tradition has come to embody something new. But it’s not.

Everything that went before doesn’t just stop because the clock moved from 23:59pm in 2011 to 0:00 in 2012. If you’re dying of cancer in 2011, you’re probably still dying when the clocks make the change. You’re illness isn’t wiped clean because of a new year, so why would anything else be?

Things are crazy in the blogosphere at the moment. It’s all about new year resolutions, and what we learnt in 2011, best and worst moments, highlights and failures. So, it’s true that it’s a great time for self-reflection and since I’m into that sort of thing, I’ve been doing it too.

But the thing is, I keep reading these posts with goals and lists or other posts where people aren’t making resolutions because they “always fail” and even one where the writer said they weren’t going to make any but then inadvertently made a whole host of resolutions. I’m not criticising. I’ve done the same. I still do.

So I got to thinking. Why is that we, me included, continuously fail in our new years resolutions? Why is it we decide so enthusiastically to make a change, to better ourselves, to change our lives, and then fall short of those goals, throw them out and berate ourselves for being so useless by the time we reach 9:30pm on January 1st?

In the spirit of the new year, and self-reflection, I thought about all of the things I’ve wanted to do over the years. Reduce by body fat percentage, grow my hair, improve my friendships, be nicer to my father, plant a vegetable garden, improve my riding, eat less, exercise more, read a certain number of books, volunteer a certain number of hours, be happier, be healthier, have more fun!

For years, I made goal upon goal upon goal. I always failed, and I always felt worthless because I had. But, last year, as you know (because rumour has it I won’t shut up about it), I actually kept my resolutions.

I made a plan and I stuck with it: Reduce my medication, achieve straight As at university and work on The Bipolar Project. Well. Actually, I didn’t stick with the plan in its entirety. I wanted to improve my physical fitness, and that went down the toilet (oops!). I wanted to read more and write more too, but that was impossible because I was reading and writing at least 8 hours per day for my studies. And seriously, I couldn’t stand the written word at the end of it!

But the point is: I was very successful in some of those resolutions I made. Why?

Because those goals were directly intertwined with my values. On a scale of 1 to 10, 1 being not at all important and 10 being the most important thing ever, my career and my health score 10. To advance in my career, I needed straight As. To be healthier (in my own eyes), I needed to keep my mood stable and reduce my medication. Everything else fell by the wayside because they weren’t as important – and as much as I like to think so – I just can’t do everything!

Everyday was about being as consistent with the level of importance I had assigned my values.

I really, really want to be a Clinical Psychologist. I think about it all the time. I love psychology more than my own mother (figuratively speaking), and I cannot imagine doing anything else and being happy about it.

So, when offers came up that would draw my attention away from my goal, I would ask myself what choice would be consistent with my values. Most of the time, doing anything other than study was not consistent with the importance of my career. So I just didn’t do it.

I knew what I valued, what was truly important to me and why. That made it easier to act in a way that was consistent with what I really cared about.

It was the same with my health. Everyday I made decisions about what I would eat, or whether I would exercise, drink alcohol or stay up late based on how important my health was to me. More often than not I choose those options that were consistent with how important being healthy and well is to me. Sometimes I didn’t (I’m no saint), and that was okay because overall, I was making many small decisions that were consistent.

It was hard balancing the two – career and health – because they are pretty conflicting and I have never been good at multi-tasking. Studying a lot requires a lot of sacrifice, and when it came down to it I sacrificed my social life, my time spent horse riding and even my health suffered some losses (I didn’t work out as much as I needed to, even though I did it pretty regularly).

Now 2012 has rolled around, I have thought about what is important to me again. Career and health are high on there. But I realised that to be really truly healthy I need to have more balance in my life. And I know that if I am not healthy, if my mood is not stable, then I won’t be able to do other things that are important to me i.e., have the career I so desire.

So this year my focus is on creating and maintaining life balance. I’m not going to be ludicrous and list off a complicated schedule of when I’ll do what and how often like I have in the past (because the schedule is always broken).

All I’m going to do is state that I am going to work on creating more balance in my life; more time with family, friends, more time for myself, for my workouts, for enjoying my life.

So why do I think new years resolutions fail?

Because more often than not they’re unrealistic, overzealous, almost impossible to successfully carry out, and made mindlessly without regard to what we actually value in life.

If you write a list of 100 things you are going to do, you will fail. Unless you’re obsessive about it. We need to ask ourselves, why do we want to do these things? What value underlies those goals? And is that value really that important to us?

Often our new years resolutions fail because:

  • They are made based on what we think we should do, or what we think we might be a good idea, as opposed to what is actually most important to us.
  • They are unrealistic (i.e., too complicated, too big, not specific enough)
  • We make resolutions based on idea that with the new year, and the new slate it brings with it, we can finally make those changes we always wanted.
  • They are made when we are on holiday. When we’re on holiday we can forget how hectic and stressful day-to-day life can be, and how little time we actually have for actioning our goals.

So how do we make them stick?

  • Figure out what’s important to you (e.g., health, family, career, leisure/hobbies, religion, community, intimiate relationships etc)
  • Figure out what you need to do to behave in a way that shows how important something is to you
  • Ask yourself regularly, is this choice consistent with what is truly important to me?

And remember, the new year isn’t really new.

It’s the same old life, in the same old place, with all the same problems and issues and concerns.

All a new year is, is a chance to remind yourself what you really care about in life, and what you need to do to show it.

I’d love to hear about your resolutions. What are your hopes for this year? What do you want to do the most, and why? Tell me in the comments if you dare to share!

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6 thoughts on “Why New Years Resolutions Fail and How to Make Them Stick

  1. I have always fallen prey to the “New Years Resolution” idealism. Until this year, when I decided I wanted to take part in The Day Zero Project. Now, I made a personal journal entry on the first that bashed the idea of Resolutions, until I reviewed my progress on last years. Without even knowing it, because no one really ever goes back through their list, I managed to hit most of my goals. I changed the way I was living, because I was unhappy with it. Not because a resolution told me to do it.

    I don’t care what I am and what I’m not anymore. I just want to live every single day like it counts. That’s what the Day Zero List is for, at least in my interpretation. All of the things I always wanted to do, but either forgot or never got around to it.

    • Good point! I changed how I was living too, because I was unhappy and it had nothing to do with resolutions. I think as long as what you are doing is actually important to you then that’s what is going to help you stick with it.

      I have made ridiculous lists in the past (I re-read one from 2005 in particular…) with all these idealistic goals and it was just completely unattainable for me. I failed then because I didn’t really understand why I wanted to do them, or how to make it work, and there were too many things on those lists.

      I think if I set out to do the Day Zero List I would fail. I have always had a bit of a problem with follow through…I do agree with your interpretation though. I don’t think I would be able to stick with it because of things I mentioned in this post but I think you will have loads of fun and will really live every single day with it, because that is what is truly important to you to do. I still plan to write the letter to myself though!

  2. Great post Sara! Full of wisdom. And I love hearing how you met your resolutions this past year regardless if you said it before–big kudos!

    I gave up resolutions awhile ago for the main reason you talk about–feeling of failure. Now I set intentions. I intend to do more video to promote Mental Health Talk and I intend to do it based on what I value in support of what I believe (you’re so right–this is key). I think “intend” is an action word and I believe that once you make an actionable step toward something, the Universe shifts and the next action becomes clearer (usually in the form of a problem to be solved–in my experience).

    And the part about making a choice–stopping and deciding does this support or help to derail what I value right now? That is huge!

    Sending you much love towards your intention to have more balance in your life this year! xo

    • Thanks for your comment Trish 🙂 I really like your way of saying “I intend”. It feels to me much more flexible than saying “I must” or “I have to” and far less likely to lead to feelings of failure.

      I am very excited about all the changes to mentalhealthtalk.info this year and I wish you all the best with your intentions too x

  3. The truth is a “New Year” can start any day of the year you choose! My “New Year” started towards the end of a year! It was the day I decided I was going to do whatever it took to be balanced. If I remember correctly it was around September. And to be honest, I had no idea how I was going to do it, just that I was! It was a place to start and sometimes, I believe, that is all a resolution is – a place to start!

    I do not make “New Year Resolutions”, I resolve, everyday, to be aware of the choices I am making and to understand the consequences of those choices! This is how I stay balanced, and balance is a very good thing!

    Hugs, V

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