We’re in the midst of February, and by now an estimated 80 percent of New Year’s resolutions have failed. And the thing is, most people will admit that the lofty goals they set on the first of January almost never last. Why do we fall into this cycle of setting ourselves up for failure, and how can we break it?
First of all, I’ve never really been a fan of New Year’s or the whole tradition of resolutions. Not to be too cynical, but it’s probably one of my least favorite holidays. The whole magic of Christmas has worn off, going back to school or work is right around the corner and January is known to be the most depressing month of the year. The concept of starting fresh sounds nice, but I think the holiday causes people to set ridiculously high expectations for themselves. It’s one thing to want to create a new habit for the start of a new week or a new month, but the notion that we can erase all our bad habits and become perfect versions of ourselves for the new year is all wrong.
Let’s take a look at some of the most common resolutions. The top five are: exercising more, losing weight, saving more money, improving diet and pursuing a career ambition. These are not only big goals, but they are broad and vague. I’ve fallen into this trap myself, thinking that when the clock strikes midnight on New Year’s Eve, I will suddenly become a new person, motivated to complete all my biggest goals and aspirations. One of the best tips I’ve heard for achieving some of these goals is to start small and be specific. Rather than say you’ll eat healthy, maybe start with a goal of adding one serving of fruits and veggies to your diet every day. Small goals like this are easy and being successful at them will give you the confidence to add on to them. Maybe you start with the fruits/veggies goal for a month, then the next month you stop eating fast food, then the month after that you learn a new recipe once a week and so on. You can’t go from zero to a hundred in one day; resolutions take time.
I was recently listening to a podcast called “The Happiness Lab,” created by Dr. Laurie Santos, a psychology professor at Yale who teaches a course all about happiness. The episode that stuck out to me (and ultimately inspired this article) was titled “Dump Your Inner Drill Sergeant.” The episode talked all about how being too hard on ourselves can negatively impact our self-esteem and cause us to fail, especially with big goals or resolutions. There was a study conducted where students were given a test that was so hard that it was impossible to pass. After they all failed, some of the students were told to engage in positive self-talk (“You’re smart,” “You can do it,” “It’s okay to fail”) while the rest of the students were naturally hard on themselves. Surprise, surprise, the first group of students performed much better on the second exam – not only because they were more confident, but because their self-love motivated them to study more.
Our downfall with New Year’s resolutions is that we think that being tough on ourselves will motivate us to get after our goals. While this might work to get in you in the gym or eating healthy or studying excessively for the month of January, it doesn’t work in the long run because the second you miss a day or make a mistake, you see yourself as a failure and are ready to give up. Motivating yourself with shame and guilt will never work.
So, if you’ve failed your New Year’s Resolution, remember you are definitely not alone. Take the time to think about why it didn’t work out: was your goal too big, too extreme, did you make it for the wrong reasons? I personally am ditching New Year’s resolutions and instead sticking to daily, weekly and even monthly goals – you should join me!