A new year is around the corner representing a fresh start for all of us. Many people will be setting resolutions for the year ahead. It’s an opportunity for breaking maladaptive habits, focusing on growth, and generally improving our circumstances. Most of us hope for a better year ahead; so then why do so many of us fail to be compliant to our resolutions? Research indicates that nearly half (43%) of those who set resolutions for the new year will abandon their goals before the end of January (Dickson et al., 2023).
The high failure rate tends to negatively impact people’s perception of themselves and their abilities. It’s challenging to foster a healthy perspective on failure to begin with because defeat generally doesn’t feel good. Repeated attempts (without success) to establish new habits can quickly become self-fulfilling prophecies in failing, and engaging in that negative feedback loop erodes our confidence over time.
If nearly half of us abandon our goals by the first month of the new year, should we bother setting them at all? This line of questioning has influenced a growing trend in recent years of people rejecting the practice of setting resolutions at the end of the year. It seems as though in an effort to avoid the discomfort of failure, we’ve started not setting resolutions. I understand the reason for this (I intentionally didn’t set resolutions for 2023 for this exact reason), but I wonder whether we’re throwing the baby out with the bathwater when we reject goal-setting altogether. There’s something about it that reminds me of the “you can’t fire me because I quit” mentality; you can’t fail a goal that you never set.
As a person who has repeatedly failed their annual resolutions, it felt revolutionary last year to reject the practice. I felt free for the first few months of 2023. The feeling of freedom was short-lived and eventually replaced with a growing unease; I had no sense of optimism for the future or any direction. As I came to learn, resolutions are not necessarily an inherently bad thing; maybe my process and perspective was the problem. After some researching, I found some answers. In this blog, I explore factors that influence compliance to our goals and methods to help us stay on track so that we can all experience a gentler path to success in 2024.
Why do so many of us fail our resolutions?
Understanding the factors that lead us to failure is an important step in cycle-breaking. Some of us may have individual circumstances that prevent us from sticking to our resolutions. Generally speaking though, researchers have found factors that are experienced globally amongst people, and may explain the overall reasons why we fail to create healthier habits through our resolutions. These reasons are itemized and described below.
If you’re not prepared for encountering obstacles, you’re probably going to fail
Breaking bad habits is challenging work. Unless we’re intentionally mindful of our daily practices and notice the circumstances that lead us to failure, we’re doomed to repeat our patterns unconsciously. For example, if you’re trying to reduce sugar consumption for the sake of your long-term health, it’s probably a good idea to eliminate easy and fast access to the candy bowl. Tucking the candy bowl into the cupboard instead of keeping it within arm’s reach can help you avoid mindlessly eating sweets, especially on days when you come home from work overtired and hungry.
I should mention that I don’t personally believe in abstinence with specific foods; it’s very situation-dependent, but being militant about food can lead some people into disordered eating, which comes with its own health risks. For me, avoiding sweet treats altogether would feel like deprivation. There’s a difference though between eating sweets and enjoying them mindfully, versus habitually consuming a bowl of candy out of a subconscious attempt to regulate our internal states (ex: emotionally eating). I’m not judging, I’ve been “stuck” doing the latter many times.
In order to prepare for encountering obstacles, following the “out of sight, out of mind” strategy is helpful. Specifically, you want to put things “out of sight” that will contribute to maladaptive behaviours that you’d like to change (such as the candy bowl), while introducing things into your line of sight that help you stay focused and motivated. Another example: don’t bring your cell phone into the bedroom if you have an early morning doom-scrolling habit that prevents you from achieving your goal of going to the gym. Instead, keep your phone outside the bedroom. Set your gym clothes out before going to sleep. This way, you don’t have to think about getting dressed for a workout. Just put the clothes on and grab your phone on your way out the door.
If you’re not focused on the process instead of the result, you’re probably going to fail
When we set ambitious goals, it can feel very overwhelming; we realize how much work there is to do. That can be a very daunting realization, and some of us trip before we even get started because we’re scared of committing to big changes. Instead of focusing on the end result, it’s much more manageable to focus on bite-sized pieces to help us move in the direction of change.
If you’re not ready to commit to accountability, you’re probably going to fail
It’s important to contextualize the experience of committing to change on a neurological level; this can help you understand why creating new habits is so challenging, and it’s validating to learn that our own neurology is working against us in establishing new habits. The brain actually doesn’t like change, even if it’s change for the better. We have a strong bias towards “the Devil we know”; simply put, the brain likes familiarity, even if it’s maladaptive.
It takes a lot of energy for the brain to predict what might happen in a new experience’ the “new experience” in this example being setting new habits/routines. The brain does its best to conserve and store energy, but when we make big changes, it has to work much harder (burns more energy) to predict outcomes and “keep you safe”. Yes, the brain can literally interpret the gym as a type of threat. Knowing this can help you self-soothe when fears start getting triggered. I like to repeat to myself “I hear you brain, thank you for trying to keep me safe, but we’re doing this anyway”. It seems a silly thing to say to yourself, but it really helps if you acknowledge the internal fear-based thoughts. Confidence tends to come after proving to yourself that you can do hard things.
If being accountable to yourself is hard, you can try the following: identify an accountability buddy and report to each other, hire a coach or trainer, purchase accountability apps or journals, or join a support group.
If your goal-setting is done for the sake of tradition alone, you’re probably going to fail
This concept is very simple: it comes down to intention. If your only source of motivation in changing your habits comes from a place of obligation to the tradition of setting New Year’s resolutions- that’s flimsy inspiration. Research shows that if you focus on the type of person you want to become (identity) as a result of your habits changing, you have a much higher chance of sticking to your goals. To quote James Clear, “With outcome-based habits, the focus is on what you want to achieve. With identity-based habits, the focus is on who you wish to become”. Focus on your identity when you set your goals, and you’ll be more likely to succeed.
If you’re not ready to be uncomfortable, you’re probably going to fail
Research done by Hal Hershfield (Professor of Marketing and Behavioural Decision-Making at UCLA) has exposed something fascinating about our brains; the brain activity that happens when we think of our future selves looks like the brain activity that happens when we think of strangers. This means that our compliance to goals that benefit our future selves (such as working out, saving money, eating healthily) is challenging from the start; for one, because changing set habits is an uncomfortable experience, and for two, because it feels like we’re suffering for someone else, not ourselves. The beneficiary of all the changes we’re making now is a future version of ourselves, but it’s hard to keep that in perspective when we feel like we’re suffering “for free” for a separate person.
According to Dr. Hershfield’s research, it is much more adaptive to think of ourselves as a “collection” of selves in order to maintain perspective. His research has shown that people who struggle to make changes for the benefit of their future selves often display a lack of empathy towards that self. If we’re able to keep in mind that the changes we make now positively impact a future version of ourselves, who will be very grateful to past you for those changes, then we’re better able to commit to our goals.
Thinking about your past can be helpful here. Which past decisions seemed like minor transgressions at the time (ex: ordering takeout too often, not maintaining exercise routine, not investing in a social life) but overtime became amplified and are now your current struggles? In keeping with our examples: ordering too much takeout can very quickly deplete your savings. Not maintaining an exercise routine can negatively impact the immune system, leading to a sense of physical and mental unwellness. Not investing in a healthy social life can lead to isolation and a sense of disconnection. The small changes we make now are bids for a better future. Every single small choice we make on a daily basis is like casting a vote for the type of future we want to have, and the type of person we want to become.
With the above strategies in mind, I wish us all a gentler experience with goal-setting for 2024. May your approach in cycle-breaking and habit-creating be patient, gracious, and steadfast. Your future self is worth your effort!
Dickson, JM., Moberly, NJ., Preece, D., Dodd, A., Huntley, CD. (2021). Self-regulatory goal motivational processes in sustained New Year resolution pursuit and mental wellbeing. International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health. 18(6):3084. DOI: 10.3390/ijerph18063084.
Hershfield, H. (2018). The self over time. Current Opinion in Psychology. 26:72-75. Accessed December 29, 2023: https://static1.squarespace.com/static/5dd05454f1a7771855d537b7/t/5dee9cd39fcc7715ba587e7b/1575918804337/Hershfield_2018_CurrentOpinion.pdf
Norcross, J.C., Vangarelli, D.J. (1988). The resolution solution: longitudinal examination of New Year’s change attempts. Journal of Substance Abuse. 1(2):127-134. DOI: 10.1016/s0899-3289(88)80016-6.
About the Author
Ashley is a Massage Therapist from Moncton, New Brunswick with a special interest in managing concussions and persistent pain. Outside of clinical practice, she is a Lead Instructor in our “Understanding the Complexity of Concussion” courses as well as the Editor of this website’s blog. She recently became a College Instructor in massage therapy at ACTM in Fredericton, New Brunswick.
Ashley decided to pursue massage therapy as a second career in order to help others. With prior experience in the field of Archaeology at the Master’s level, Ashley is an integral part of course development, helping to improve and assess the quality of our course delivery.