It happens to the best of us. January 1 rolls around and, like clockwork, so do the resolutions. We overhaul our fridges, dust off the treadmill, and get ready to Marie Kondo our way to more organized living...only to mostly abandon our good intentions by the end of February. In fact, surveys suggest that 80% of all New Year’s resolutions fail.
It’s only natural that we see the new year as the perfect time to make big changes, explains Art Markman, PhD, a professor of psychology at The University of Texas at Austin, and author of “Smart Change.” That’s because when we change out the calendars from one year to the next, it creates a “time boundary” — an idea that everything that happened the previous year is in the past and will stay in the past. “Psychologically,” he says, “that gives us the sense that anything is possible next year, no matter what things might have happened in the previous year.”
But even if not much changes from year to year, it doesn't mean it’s not worthwhile to make aspirational goals. In fact, important dates can help motivate us to put past imperfections behind us and focus on the big picture to set new goals –– researchers call it the “Fresh Start Effect.” You might just need to think about your goals in a different way.
If you want to make 2021 the year you finally stick to your goals, read on for five of the top reasons your resolution hasn’t stuck, and how you can fix it.
1. You’re trying to break an old habit
A lot of goals involve breaking old behaviors — whether it’s smoking, unhealthy eating, or spending too much time on your phone. But “unlearning old habits is very, very hard,” says neuroscientist Sarah McKay, PhD. “It’s like unlearning how to ride a bike.”
Stick It: McKay recommends identifying the cue to the habit you’re trying to break, and developing a new, positive routine as a replacement. Tend to get bored after dinner? Instead of setting a goal to unplug from the TV more, start a new habit of going for a short walk after dinner each night. Or, when the afternoon munchies strike, swap out your daily potato chips for a bag of carrots and hummus in lieu of skipping a snack altogether. “If you don't turn those negative resolutions into a series of positive actions, then you're unlikely to succeed,” says Markman.
Once you have identified the cues setting off the behavior you’d like to change, it can be helpful to create an “If-Then” plan for how you will deal with future obstacles. For example, if you don’t have time to walk after breakfast, then you will make time after lunch. “These “If-Then” plans can help prepare you to overcome challenges and reach your goals” says Ingrid Melvaer Paulin, Senior Behavioral Scientist at Rally Health.
2. You weren’t prepared for the going to get tough
Changing habits is difficult, and if you don’t have a plan to deal with the discomfort, you’ll ditch your efforts at the first sign of hardship.
Stick It: Say your goal is to lose 20 pounds. One nuisance you’re likely to experience is some hunger at night, says Pauline Wallin, PhD, a psychologist in Pennsylvania and author of “Taming Your Inner Brat: A Guide for Transforming Self-Defeating Behavior.” Make a plan in advance for dealing with late-night cravings — like eating an easy-to-prep bowl of Greek yogurt with frozen berries. Otherwise, you may embark on unsustainable habits like going to bed hungry.
Another preparation strategy is to allow yourself to pare down your healthy routines instead of totally forgetting them on days when the desired behavior feels hard. “People who are developing an exercise routine might decide they don’t feel like running on a particular day,” says Markman. “Instead of giving up, tell yourself that you only have to get dressed and run for five minutes.” What people often find is that, after they get over the initial hurdle of getting started, they end up completing the whole routine. (And even if you don’t, five minutes of exercise is better than none at all.)
3. You set the goal for someone else — not yourself
“Some people’s resolutions are not something that they truly want, but goals they feel they have to achieve because everyone else is,” says Jonathan Alpert, a psychotherapist and author of “Be Fearless: Change Your Life in 28 Days.” While external motivation has its place in habit formation, research shows that intrinsic motivation — wanting to do something because you think it’s fun, challenging, or rewarding — may be a better predictor of success.
Stick It: Set goals that actually matter to you. For example, if you’re going for a promotion at work, make sure it’s because the extra responsibility or extra pay appeals to you and not because other people expect you to go for it. Think about other things you want in life, and what habits you can implement to get there. Want to feel healthier and more energetic? Start an exercise routine that you genuinely enjoy (for inspiration, check out these eight fun workouts that don’t feel like working out).
4. Your goal was too lofty
Goals are not worthwhile if they’re overly ambitious. For example, if you’ve never been a runner, you don’t have to set a goal to complete a half marathon by the end of the year. Wallin says many goals fail because they’re too unrealistic. “This sets up an all-or-nothing mind-set, and at the first lapse, you are more likely to feel like a failure and to give up,” she says.
Stick It: “Break the larger end goal into manageable smaller ones,” Alpert says. If you haven’t exercised for years, you probably won’t be successful at starting a six-day-per week fitness routine. For example, start to make it a habit by doing two days of exercise per week, and build from there. It’s also important to find a lifestyle you can stick with long-term, Alpert says. When setting your goal, give yourself some room for grace — maybe you’ll stick with your healthy diet all week, and allow yourself a treat or two on the weekends. It’s all about balance.
5. January wasn’t the right time
There’s nothing that says goals have to be set in January. It can actually be a pretty tough time of year if you’re experiencing a slight case of the winter blues or are still exhausted from the holiday season.
Stick It: It’s never too late for a fresh start. The beginning of a new year may be the most common time for a reset. But there is no shortage of landmarks on your calendar that can be just as effective for turning the page and setting new goals. It could be a new week, month, season, semester, birthday, holiday, or whatever date motivates you to put the past behind you and start working on the habits that will help you reach your goal. It could even be today.