Why are we so bad at keeping New Year Resolutions?

A New Year’s resolution is a tradition in which a person resolves to change an undesired trait or behaviour, to accomplish a personal goal or otherwise improve their life.  So, with 1 January approaching, it’s easy to get caught up in the excitement of seeing a new year as a fresh start. Maybe you have a New Year’s Resolution ready to go.  After all, everyone has a mental list of habits they would like to change, and the New Year seems like a perfect time to start. The phrase “New Year, new you” has a nice ring to it!

Someone said: “New Year’s resolutions are kind like a drunk uncle.  You know you shouldn’t take him too seriously…. But you can’t help but laugh and play along when he comes along once a year.” 

In an earlier blog, “New Year’s Resolutions – the good, the bad and the ugly” I pointed out that the key driving force behind this tradition lies in the human animal’s fundamental imperative to survive.  In other words, we feel anxious about the future, and to counter that worrisome powerlessness, we make resolutions to take control.  Whether we hold our resolve and make good on these promises is not of importance.  Committing to them, at least for a moment gives us a feeling of more control over the uncertain days to come.

In the previous blog, I also pointed out the reasons why people make New Year resolutions.  During this time of reflection and self-assessment, it is easy to identify areas where there is room for improvement.  For example:

  • A study, investigating New Year’s resolutions, found that 55% of resolutions were health-related, such as exercising more or eating healthier. Clearly a positive response to a situation where only one-fifth of us get the recommended amount of exercise and overall about 13% of the world’s population was obese in 2016. Worldwide obesity has nearly tripled since 1975 and of great concern is the ever-increasing number of children under the age of 5 that are overweight or obese.  For more information look at this link https://www.who.int/news-room/fact-sheets/detail/obesity-and-overweight . 
  • The study also found that about 20% of resolutions dealt with money management related matters, such as getting out of debt. This is again expected to an extent as the majority of people are either not making ends meet or are anxious about their financial well-being.  Recommend that you visit phase-one.co.za and look at the financial literacy programme.
  • For the record, among the top resolutions are: losing weight, save more money, enjoy life to the fullest, buy a gym membership to get fit or learn something new.

We are thus well aware of the need to do something about the situations.  For example, we are always being told how a healthier lifestyle can lengthen our lives.

Unfortunately, we often start with the best intentions but rarely achieve our goals.  In fact, while over 50% of Americans make New Year’s resolutions each year, only 8% of them succeed, whilst 24% never succeed or actually fail.  Further study shows that 80% of New Year’s resolution fails by February as people just can’t stick to the targets they have set themselves on January 1st.

New Year’s resolutions are not necessarily bad, because  they provide an opportunity to reflect on ways in which one can improve,  personally and physically.  And all of us can always improve. 

 Various studies looked at the reasons and/or the psychology behind why we are in general  so bad at keeping New Year’s solutions.  I am only going to list some of the findings on why New Year’s resolutions often fail: 

  • People set themselves targets that are unrealistic;
  • People don’t have the right mindset when setting targets;
  • The targets being set are not specific enough, many are vague;
  • Targets are set in an impulsive way – not enough time given to plan resolutions carefully;
  • People think some magic words, some avowed promise will magically transform their lives, when we all know that the real transformational work is tough, gruelling and involves sacrifice and unpleasant choices;
  • Resolutions are based on willpower, not systems. Having a goal isn’t enough.  We need a plan and a system.
  • Some people make resolutions and immediately break them because they are not really resolving to do anything different. They are just wishing.
  • People fail in achieving their New Year’s resolutions because they think of them as brief, fleeting goals. Lasting success can only occur via lasting change.

I believe the question and our focus should move to: do you really need to make a New Year’s resolution?  When you resolve to do something you’ve never before been able to accomplish, you know you  are in for a serious struggle.  If you haven’t been able to make it stick before, what will change this time? 

The reality is that there is no point in setting the same resolutions you’ve been setting for years on end, only to feel disappointed and down on yourself.  Remember what Albert Einstein said: “Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expect different results.”  This cycle only perpetuates feelings of failure and inadequacy, which is wholly negative and certainly not conducive to achieving goals.

Perhaps it is time for a new focus along these lines: This year is time to make a real change.  It’s time to take stock of where you are and what you want out of life, not to continue doing what others expect you to do or what you think might make you seem or feel more successful or more appealing.

So this year how about not setting New Year resolutions.  If you got to set a goal, set a goal to set no goals!  You enter the New Year in a mode of being absolutely present, and absolutely positive about how great it’s going to be.  If you do this and endeavor to maintain this approach, you will end up doing everything  that you are supposed to do and when it’s supposed to be done.

In due time you could start with an assessment of your total life strategy.  Your total life strategy is a collection of every habit, behaviour and thought pattern, conscious and unconscious that you use to resolve the problems you have in life, meet your needs, and stay alive.

So this year, I am throwing the rulebook out the window and offering you an alternative pathway.  In the next blog, we can explore more about what to do instead.

Happy New Year.