There is a new year—and a new decade—upon us. That means my favorite winter holiday tradition is coming: New Year’s resolutions. I love the idea of challenging myself to do things and then actually doing them!
But New Year’s resolutions are often easier said than done. In fact, more people fail at their New Year’s resolutions than succeed. Unless you’re Piggy from Bitches Get Riches (shoutout to BGR, btw), chances are you’ve failed at a few resolutions, yourself.
Piggy and Forbes both give great advice to help you succeed at your resolutions, and I’ll repeat some of that great advice here. But I want to look at the problem through a slightly different lens. Instead of how to win, I want to talk about why we lose. What is it about New Year’s resolutions, or really any long-term goals, that are so damn hard to actually achieve?
They say those who don’t know their history are doomed to repeat it. So, let’s peer into our pasts, examine all of our screw-ups and flaws, and see what meaning we can derive from them. Sounds fun, right? Hope you’re in the right headspace to receive information that could possibly hurt you.
Your Goals Are All Show and No Go
Think about your most commonly failed New Year’s resolutions for a moment. Maybe you’re thinking of things like: “Get in shape” or “Write a book,” or “Get out of debt.” All of these goals are admirable but, when you get right down to it, they don’t mean anything.
What does “get in shape” mean? How will you know you’ve succeeded or failed? What are the milestones you can use to track your progress? How will you reward yourself for successes? What is your plan to stay interested or excited in achieving your goal? What will you do when things get hard?
Achieving a goal is not a single thing you do; it’s many, many things you do over and over again for what can be a very long time. You need a contingency plan for all of the probable upsets and obstacles, including your own lack of motivation. Because, as I’m sure you’ve learned over the years, New Year’s resolutions are not always fun to work on. Sometimes it’s a slog. But, the more you prepare for that, the more likely you’ll be able to work through it and stay on-track without too much suffering.
Your Priorities Are out of Whack
I’m a fat person. I always have been. But I’d resolve to lose weight every year and fail every year. Just the words “weight loss” give me a Pavlovian-style fear response now. Over the years, my body has transformed from a cool biological construct that allows my brain to do things like reading and blogging, to a trap from which I cannot escape.
But this year, I realized something: I don’t want to lose weight.
It’s not that I enjoy being fat—bullying and exclusion aside, I have health issues that would improve (but not be cured) by losing some excess fat—it’s more that I’d rather have a less abusive relationship with the body I am apparently stuck with for the next few decades. I tried the bullying and self-hate route for almost 30 years. It’s not working. I’d like to try other things, now.
Sidenote: Stop Setting Yourself on Fire to Keep Your Toxic Relatives Warm
Sometimes, whether we know it or not, we don’t pick our own resolutions; we let our parents, our doctors, our peers, or even our inner bullies choose them for us. Maybe you feel like you “should” make a particular New Year’s resolution because it’s what the world “expects” you to do. Your resolution isn’t about making yourself better by your standards; it’s about making yourself more agreeable to your haters.
I have bad news: even if you do succeed at these resolutions, you’re going to be miserable the whole way. That’s no way to live.
It can be painful and hard to shed the expectations of your inner and outer critics. But nobody likes to do things they don’t want to do. Nobody wants to do things that don’t matter to them. If you want to succeed at your New Year’s resolutions, or at least minimize your struggles with them, you have to want to win. You have to aim for something that has serious meaning to you. If you’re not excited to work on your resolution on January 1st, how the hell do you think you’re going to feel in March? July? September?
Your Difficulty Setting Is Too High
A year is a pretty long time. You can get a lot of stuff done in that time. However, you will most likely not lose 300 pounds, run six marathons, write and publish a nine-part novel series, produce the next hot pop album, and backpack through the entire Andes mountain range in one year.
In fact, you will most likely not accomplish even one of those things in the course of a year. Kudos if you do, though! Maybe take a nap after? Cuz holy crap.
We are always taught to shoot for the moon. I believe this is admirable advice—it tells us that we can be more than we currently are as long as we dare to dream it—but it can also be heinously misguided. Dreaming big and doing big is not the same thing; the latter involves effort and time, two things in very short supply for most.
If you want to run a marathon this year, that’s great, and you should absolutely aim for that as your endgame. But it’s called an endgame for a reason: the final boss of a game is not usually the first thing boss you fight. You spend the whole course of the game doing smaller, easier, and significantly less glamorous tasks to prepare for that final fight.
So, you better make sure you can even run one mile, let alone 26.2 of them. And if you can’t, well, now you’ve got a place to start, at least.
But if you’re feeling a bit in the weeds, start with the things you know you can do. Then move to the things you can probably do. That’s how you accomplish the stuff you never thought you could do.
You Don’t Believe in Yourself
If you’ve been failing to keep a New Year’s resolution and you haven’t figured out why by this point, it’s probably because you lack the self-efficacy to achieve whatever that resolution is.
Self-efficacy is the personal belief that you have the power to accomplish something. Our self-efficacy is context-dependent. You may have high self-efficacy at work but low self-efficacy in social settings, for example. High self-efficacy makes you feel confident and capable. You don’t buckle under stress and can even enjoy the challenge of setbacks because you know you can overcome them.
Low self-efficacy, on the other hand, can completely psyche you out of realizing your potential, without you even realizing it.
It’s not that you can’t accomplish your goals; it’s that you think you can’t. Consciously or unconsciously, you don’t believe you’ve got what it takes. And because we don’t like to be wrong or have our worldviews questioned, you may even be unconsciously sabotaging yourself as a way to “prove” that you’re incapable of change.
For example, say you decide to quit smoking cigarettes, but you don’t throw away your ashtrays or lighters. Why keep them if you won’t need them anymore? Maybe it’s because you “know” you won’t be able to quit smoking forever and don’t see the point?
What to Do About Low Self-Efficacy
I can’t tell you why you lack self-efficacy. The reason is likely deeply personal and unique to you. I can, instead, tell you how to overcome it: Develop a growth mindset.
Developing a growth mindset is as simple as changing your “I can’t do that,” to “I can’t do that yet.” When you have a growth mindset, you give yourself permission to change, even if it means screwing up a few times. In fact, screwing up—and learning from it—is an important part of the process!
According to Jane McGonigal’s book SuperBetter, reframing your mindset is as simple as verbally pumping yourself up. Just telling yourself that you’re excited and ready to rock can completely shift your perspective and turn even your most intimidating goals into epic quests to conquer.
What Are “Good” New Year’s Resolutions?
In my opinion, New Year’s resolutions should be fun and exciting. They should be honest and realistic things you want to achieve over the course of a year. Things you genuinely want to do for the sake of doing them.
But they should also be SMART: Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Realistic, and Time-sensitive. You can’t just stop at establishing what you want to do; you have to plan out how you’re going to get there and what you’re going to do when things go sour.
I can’t decide for you what your resolutions should be. But, based on my own experiences, the best New Year’s resolutions are the ones you can actually keep. Pick things that genuinely excite you, not just things that sound sexy or what you think is gonna cure you of your flaws. Change doesn’t happen just because you want it to. You have to do more than want it; you have to actually act.
I, personally, will be resolving to read 100 books next year. I’ve been resolving to read 52 books each year for the past two years and blew past my goal this year. So, I’m stepping it up in 2020. I may make a similar resolution for video games I want to play, too.
Here’s to a happy and productive 2020!