Around 88% of people who set New Year resolutions fail, at least according to this study.
I don’t know about you, but I’m careful with my resolutions this year. I know from experience that I tend to “over-resolve.”
Why do so many New Year resolutions fail? Here’s what I think.
1. Not setting small, measurable goals and deadlines
Being practical about our resolutions helps a great deal. We’re more likely to make it when we know exactly what we want to do and have a deadline to strive against.
Many people don’t manage to lose weight not because they can’t, but because they resolve to “lose weight this year.” Those who make progress are more specific. They resolve to “lose x pounds by [enter date].”
This thing about weight loss is of course only an example. It’s definitely not on my to-do list—I could do with a few extra pounds!
2. Hoping to put an end to a bad habit through sheer willpower
Willpower is important, but often, it’s not enough to break the habit loop, which is a strong neurological pattern.
The best way to get rid of a bad habit is to replace the habit routine while keeping the cue that triggers the habit and the reward that follows it.
For more on this, I recommend the book The Power of Habit by Charles Duhigg.
3. Wishing for things that won’t make us happy anyway
Let’s face it—we often have the wrong notions about happiness.
We long for things that can only make us happy in the short term, or that else prove to be a complete disappointment.
When we add these as resolutions to our list, it’s probably good for us that they don’t come true.
4. Not understanding ourselves
You imagine an ideal version of yourself, and you hold on to that fantasy and adapt your goals and resolutions to match it—we’ve all done this at some point.
Because we don’t know ourselves, we set unrealistic goals that are either beyond our abilities or that don’t motivate us to achieve them.
How do we know ourselves? It doesn’t have to take a lifetime, does it?
I think there’s an inner compass in me that guides my steps. When it leads me into error, I feel it’s because I have to make that error to move on with my life.
I see this compass as a kind of distillation of my knowledge, experience, and sense of self. We all have it from an early age, but we lose track of it when we focus too much on what we think we want or what other people or society expects from us.
5. Assuming we have total control over our lives
I’ve only been around for twenty-something years, but I’ve seen people who live healthy get sick and people who live unhealthily bury them.
Life is unexpected through its complexity and our cognitive biases—we tend to see only the benefits of doing something (i.e. what’s in it for us), without factoring it the potential for disappointment, sorrow, loss, or accident.
We also like to think that self-development, positive thinking, etc. can keep us in control of our bodies and minds. But that’s true only up to a certain point.
There’s something in our lives which we can never control—to call it simply chance would be perhaps an oversimplification. Even if we call it God and agree that in the end, in another life, all will be well, that element is present in this life and we are vulnerable before it.
6. Comparing ourselves to others, not to ourselves
If you were the only person on Earth, would you still set the same New Year resolutions?
Maybe you’d drop some resolutions and alter others. Maybe you wouldn’t want to be the best at something or move into a certain role at work anymore.
But Vincent, what about resolutions such as being kind to others or donating to charity?
How can these be resolutions? You could call these reminders, but I think that if you must resolve to be kind, you must be a wicked person indeed.
Kindness, charity, understanding and the like, these come naturally when we live well, in keeping with our nature and abilities.
“I Want” Versus “I Need To”
I believe we all have true resolutions, those that we feel a strong inner need to complete. And then we also have plenty of “I want’s” that pose as resolutions, and which are the result of social pressure, faulty ways of thinking, and other causes.
True resolutions are best spread out—we know deep down what they are, and we need to keep on working at accomplishing them. We may not check them off our list within the span of a year, but it’s great to renew them every year—to remind ourselves about them and to return to them with renewed energy and enthusiasm.
As to most other resolutions, well, if they are not right for us or necessary, I guess we can safely fail them, right?