Every year, a significant slice of the population resolves to change something about themselves, their behavior, or their circumstances. Every year, a significant percentage of those resolvers fail.
The actual success rate of New Year’s resolutions varies according to research, but the reported failure rate is commonly quite high. One of the underlying reasons for this high failure rate is the very nature of a resolution.
A resolution is simply a decision to act. By itself, in a vacuum, an isolated resolution doesn’t mean much. It doesn’t have much power. It isn’t tied to our greater purpose or driven by our guiding vision or major motivation.
A resolution is just something we say we’re going to do. An empty statement. If we don’t tie it to a goal and devise a strategy for seeing it through, we will likely fail to keep it for very long.
The good news, though, is that we can dramatically increase the likelihood of a resolution actually sticking. By answering three simple questions, we can transform our resolution from a hollow proclamation into a sustainable agent of change.
Why am I doing this?
Resolutions are often just statements of intent to achieve some desired short-term outcome. It’s one thing to say, “I’m going to lose fifteen pounds this year,” but what is the bigger aspiration supported by that resolution? To be healthier? To look slimmer? To feel better? To improve your self-esteem? To raise your fitness level?
It could be all of those, or maybe one reason rises above the others. Regardless, it’s much easier to stay committed to a resolution if the reason for doing it supports a higher personal aspiration.
“I want to increase my income by $10,000 this year.”
Fantastic. Who doesn’t? But again, why? To better provide for yourself or your family? More financial independence? To boost your investment portfolio? A dream vacation? An extravagant purchase? To pay down debt? Almost everyone wants more money, but it’s easier to stay motivated to go out and get it if we have a clear vision of why we’re ramping up our effort.
Analyzing Twitter data, one group of researchers evaluated over 160,000 tweets across five languages. They found that people’s New Year’s resolutions were most commonly associated with the following values:
- Effort. Determination, focus, motivation, and the pursuit of goals.
- Self. Self-care, self-love, and self-expression.
- Culture. This could relate to either producing or consuming cultural artifacts. You might decide to read twenty books this year, or to write one.
- Body. These resolutions generally relate to your health or appearance.
- Relationships. Making new personal connections, or strengthening existing ones.
- Collective well-being. Contributing to the greater good. Usually by donating to or volunteering for humanitarian, political, or social causes.
- Pleasure. Enjoying our lives. Having more fun. Devoting time to hobbies, relaxation, or vacation.
- Money. Make, save, or invest more. Spend less, or maybe just spend differently.
- Recognition. Acknowledgement, attention, fame, or notoriety. Get more followers or subscribers. Do some interviews. Win an award or be honored for some notable achievement.
- Transcendence. These resolutions usually relate to your personal religious, spiritual, or philosophical beliefs and practices.
Most people’s resolutions will reflect one of the above ten value categories, but they can be about anything, really. The important thing is to understand why you’re doing it.
A sustainable resolution should clearly connect to your vision or purpose, and should reflect your values. You should never make a resolution based merely on what you think you ought to do. Or even worse, on what you think other people think you ought to do.
Also, while our resolutions should be driven by our aspirations, it’s important that we align our aspirations with our expectations.
Our aspirations represent our ambitions and desires. Our expectations are based on our own confidence that we can achieve our desires. Resolutions should be more than just things we want to do this year. They should be things we sincerely believe we can do.
What am I going to do?
Once you know the why behind your resolution, you need to tie the decision to act to a specific goal. Preferably, your goal should be challenging, realistic, and flexible.
If your goal is too easy, it won’t provide much motivation. It also won’t lead to much growth or improvement. If your goal is unrealistic, you risk burnout from pushing too hard to achieve the unachievable, or you risk simply giving up when it becomes apparent that your goal is unattainable. If your goal is too rigid, you risk feeling like a failure if you don’t meet all the criteria.
“I’m going to start running regularly this year, so I’ll feel better and be more fit,” is a fine sentiment. But it doesn’t say much about what you actually plan to do.
“By the end of the year, I’m going to run a 5k in less than 30 minutes,” is probably better. It’s a specific, manageable goal. It’s challenging, because if you’re not a regular runner, you’ll have to train and work up to running 3.1 miles. It’s realistic, because as long as you are of at least average health and fitness, you can get to that level in a year even if you’re not a runner now.
However, it might not be flexible enough. After all, should you feel like a failure if at the end of the year you run a 5k in 32 minutes? Of course not. That would still be a big accomplishment, and your fitness level would be far above where it was when you started.
It might work best to have a primary (superordinate) goal of running to be more fit this year, and two distinct secondary (subordinate) goals of running a 5k, and finishing a 5k in under 30 minutes.
In fact, research indicates that combining superordinate and subordinate goals facilitates successful long-term goal pursuit. People are more motivated to pursue specific subordinate goals that are linked to a more abstract, intrinsically important superordinate goal.
Superordinate goals relate to why we are doing what we intend to do, and subordinate goals are more specific as to what we are going to do.
Also, approach goals have been found to be more effective than avoidance goals, at least as they relate to New Year’s resolutions. Approach goals have positive outcomes that we work to achieve, while avoidance goals have negative outcomes that we work to avoid. For example, running to look and feel better may be more motivating than running to reduce your chances of heart disease.
Both types of goals can be used effectively. But one study found that while 59 percent of participants were successful with approach-oriented New Year’s resolutions, only 47 percent were successful with avoidance-oriented resolutions.
How am I going to do it?
After connecting one or more practical, subordinate goals to your resolution, you need a workable strategy for getting there.
Revisiting the example of running a 5k, you might commit to following one of the popular running plans out there. Usually, you download an app that guides you through alternate intervals of running and walking over a period of nine weeks or so. This gradually builds up your running ability until you can run a 5k without walking any of it.
Your goal strategy is a plan, and plans must address things like budget, scheduling, resources, milestones, how you will track progress, how you will measure success, and how you will deal with setbacks.
In the 5k run scenario, do you need new running shoes? How much will those cost? When will you run? How many days a week? Which days? Where will you run? Streets and sidewalks? A designated running path or trail? A synthetic track? What do you consider important milestones between beginning your program and actually running a full 5k? Will you use an app to track your progress? What will you do in the event of illness, injury, or inclement weather?
Planning allows us to focus on the process necessary to achieve our desired outcome. We can’t just leap to our visualized goal state without taking the requisite actions.
Having a plan also gives us more confidence. We feel like we have mapped a clear path – and hopefully some alternate paths – to our goal. We also will have identified and prepared contingency plans for anticipated (and maybe even some unanticipated) setbacks.
Dwight D. Eisenhower said, “In preparing for battle, I have always found that plans are useless, but planning is indispensable.”
He meant that while plans may sometimes be just a lot of guesswork that will inevitably need to be modified as circumstances change, the activity of planning forces us to think things through and gives us focus, direction, and motivation.
Resolutions aren’t just for New Year’s anymore
We can make our New Year’s resolutions more sustainable by answering three simple questions: why, what, and how?
Why am I making this resolution? What, exactly, is it that I am resolving to do? How do I propose to do it?
It’s also important to note that resolutions don’t have to be tied only to New Year’s Day. A common mistake people make is that when they fail or otherwise give up on a resolution early in the year, they just push it aside, thinking they’ll give it another go next year.
But you can tie resolutions to any important date (or any date, really). The day after the Super Bowl (probably a better day to start cutting down on your drinking than New Year’s Day), your birthday, any holiday, the beginning of a semester, the first day of any given month, or any given Monday.
Calendar events and special occasions like those mentioned above are known as “temporal landmarks,” and the belief that these points in time give us an opportunity for a fresh start is widely held. We see certain dates as a chance to improve ourselves, and research shows that this belief is associated with increased aspirational behavior.
We structure our experiences and memories around temporal landmarks, and they allow us to segment life into discrete “mental accounting periods.” This, in turn, enables us to push our past failures and flaws into a previous mental accounting period. The ability to distance our present self from our past self this way motivates us to pursue our higher aspirations. Further, this promotes a big-picture focus, and allows us to direct more attention to our most important goals.
It doesn’t matter when you start or restart.
Tie your resolution to your vision or purpose; state a clear, challenging, realistic goal; then make a plan and get started. If you falter, pick a new date (not next year) and tackle it again.
Resolutions don’t fail because they’re inherently pointless and stupid. They fail because of how most people approach them. If you improve your approach, you will improve your success rate. Over time, making and keeping your resolutions (regardless of when you actually start them) will become standard operating procedure for your more effective future self.