Why You Should Rethink How You Make Your New Year's Resolutions

December 23, 2013

Thinking about setting a New Year’s resolution this year? Before you commit to tirelessly counting calories in order to lose that holiday weight (again), or cutting all unnecessary expenses to pad your savings account (again), stop. It’s time to shake up that tired resolution game.

A study published by the University of Scranton in 2012 was able to put an actual percentage to the number of people that are successful with their New Year’s resolutions, and it was dismal – a meager 8% of the American population. Not only is that depressing, it says something important about how we go about setting these goals – it’s not working.

While not following through on resolutions can lead to guilt and frustration, Ramit Sethi, author of the book “I Will Teach You to Be Rich,” points out an even more troubling and far-reaching consequence:

“Failing at our resolutions has implications…we start to distrust ourselves. If you’ve set the same resolutions for 5 years, and you never follow through, what makes you think you’ll be different this year?

And yet every year, we set yet another one (because that’s all we know), saying things like, ‘Ok, this year I’m going to buckle down’ and ‘I’m gonna get serious about___this time,’ but as we say it, in the back of our heads we KNOW we’re not actually going to do it.”

Here are a few reasons why these resolutions don’t stand the test of time:

They don’t speak to you.

So many of us make goals simply because we logically know it is what we should be doing – eating healthier, exercising “x” times per week, saving more for retirement. But making goals that we have no real attachment to other than it’s what society tells us is “right,” won’t provide any kind of incentive for actually making them happen.

They are vague.

Simply saying you want to “save more money this year,” is pretty meaningless when you stop to think about it. How much are you going to save? Where is it going to come from? How are you going to change your spending habits to accommodate the change? What are your measurable benchmarks and timeline?

Studies show that abstract goals take a huge amount of willpower – something our brains aren’t set up for. Instead we have to determine which habits need to be established in order to achieve our goals and create behaviors that support those habits.

The more measurable a goal is, the more likely you are to push for results.

They are unrealistic.

Big goals shouldn’t necessarily be avoided, but if, in the back of your mind, you’re already convinced that your goal is too big to actually come into fruition, you’re doomed from the start. Set goals that will allow you to have regular milestones in order to keep the momentum going, and know what will keep you from trying altogether.

According to Eric Schumacher, psychology professor at the Georgia Institute of Technology, large goals are easier to set aside. “The reward is so far in the future that we don’t stay motivated to keep moving toward it. When you set small, specific goals, your brain can activate behaviors it knows will help you achieve them.”

There are too many.

This goes back to being overwhelmed and simply not knowing where to start (i.e. not having a well-thought out plan) – if you have too many resolutions, the chances of just throwing in the towel altogether are greater.

According to this article from Harvard Medical School, “Studies have also shown that goals are easier to reach if they’re specific (‘I’ll walk 20 minutes a day,’ rather than ‘I’ll get more exercise’) and not too numerous (having too many goals limits the amount of attention and willpower you can devote to reaching any single goal.)”

Now that we know what doesn’t work, what does?

Get clear on what you want your big picture to look like.

What do you want your life to look—i.e. what’s your “big picture” or your “why?” All goals you set should support this picture you have in your mind. If they don’t, it’s almost a guarantee that you lack the motivation to make it happen, or it’s just not in your best interest anyways.

The other perk to sitting down and actually deciding what you want? Well, you actually know what you want. Going through life without knowing what you’re working towards is akin to going through a busy day without a schedule or to-do list. You’ll survive, but chances are you won’t make any substantial progress.

Establish small habit changes.

Lasting change comes from replacing current habits with habits that are more in alignment with what you are hoping to achieve – small changes make up the larger goal.

While many people like to restate the idea that it takes 21 days of repetition to establish a habit, this isn’t a one-size-fits-all answer. Studies completed at the University College London focused on cue-based behavior (when you do “X,” then you follow with “Y”) and found that the average was closer to 66 days (this was when automaticity was at its highest), although for some it took as long as 200+ days.

The point? Don’t give up after the 21 day mark. Selecting small habit changes that support your larger goal and sticking to them until they do seem like second nature will ensure that you don’t give up on your goal after January 3.

Concentrate on one area of your life at a time.

I read something awhile back about taking one month at a time to concentrate on a specific area of your life. It sounds so simple, but for me at least, it made total sense. If you know that January is your “finance month,” for instance, you know that for those 30 days, those goals and tasks take priority. And then, before burnout sets in, you’re able to move on to another area of your life.

If the area in your life you’re concentrating on needs a significant amount of work, you can consider giving it a longer block of time. The idea is simply to funnel your energy into one thing and tackle it from a variety of different angles. The momentum will then motivate you to change other areas of your life.

What do you plan on doing instead of traditional New Year’s resolutions?