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The Reasons Why You New Year Resolutions Fail (and How to Set Them Properly)

by Jessica Wu |


It Might Be Because Your Brain Is Lazy

Making resolutions work involves changing behaviors—and in order to change a behavior, you have to change your thinking (or “rewire” your brain). 

Habitual behavior is created by thinking patterns that create neural pathways and memories, which become the default basis for your behavior when you’re faced with a choice or decision. Trying to change that default thinking by “not trying to do it,” in effect just strengthens it. Change requires creating new neural pathways from new thinking.

The Brain is fundamentally lazy, and wires behaviors into circuits deep below the surface where they become automated. The brain seeks rewards and avoids pain or fear. When fear of failure creeps into the mind of the goal setter, it becomes a “demotivator,” with a desire to return to known, comfortable behavior and thought patterns. (raywilliams, n.d.)

Too Many Goals Means Too Many Distractions. 

Jonah Lehrer, writing in the The Wall Street Journal, concludes that the latest neuroscience research suggests spreading resolutions out over time is the best approach. He says this: “Willpower, like a bicep, can only exert itself so long before it gives out; it’s an extremely limited mental resource. Given its limitations, New Year’s resolutions are exactly the wrong way to change our behavior. It makes no sense to try to quit smoking and lose weight at the same time, or to clean the apartment and give up wine in the same month. Instead, we should respect the feebleness of self-control, and spread our resolutions out over the entire year.”


Overly-strict Plans Can Devastate Your Motivation  

Peter Bregman, writing in the Harvard Business Review Blog Network, argues: “When we set goals, we’re taught to make them specific and measurable and time-bound. But it turns out that those characteristics are precisely the reasons goals can backfire. A specific, measurable, time-bound goal drives behavior that’s narrowly focused and often leads to either cheating or myopia. Yes, we often reach the goal, but at what cost?” Bregman advocates creating an area of focus rather than goals: “An area of focus that taps into your intrinsic motivation offers no stimulus or incentive to cheat or take unnecessary risks, leaves every positive possibility and opportunity open, and encourages collaboration while reducing corrosive competition. All this while moving forward on the things you value most.”


Milestone with Reward is a Must 

A study, led by Kaitlin Woolley from Cornell University and Ayelet Fishbach from the University of Chicago, found that participants believe that both enjoyment and importance are significant factors in whether they stick to their resolutions. In fact, the researchers found that the enjoyment factor was the only thing that mattered. In other words, if the participants were getting immediate rewards from their new habits, they would be more likely to stick to them.

According to research from University College London, it takes about 66 days to completely break an old habit, and it can take much longer to master something new. While you are anchoring this unique pattern of action into your life, you are also uploading a new program in your subconscious. To stay motivated, it is important to celebrate even the smallest positive changes.


Lack Of Why Leads To Weak Motivational Purpose 

The biggest reason why most New Year’s resolutions fail: you know what you want but not why you want it.

Whether you’re getting in shape because you want to live longer, be a good example, boost your energy, feel confident, have an excuse to buy hot new clothes, or increase your likelihood of getting laid (hey, I’m not here to judge) is up to you. Forget about any preconceived notions and be true to yourself.


It’s Not About Setting Goals, It’s About Changing Behavior 

Unlike goals, which can interfere with the attainment of regular long term behavior, the development of habits, and systems to support them, can result in long term gains and behavior change. A habit is a fixed way of thinking, willing or feeling acquired through previous experience repeated over an extended time and usually occurs unconsciously.

There are 3 layers to making change: changing your outcomes; changing your processes (systems) and changing your identity (your beliefs, worldview, self-image and judgment about yourself and others.

Understanding and practicing the habit loop is a key to success. The habit loop is the cue (trigger); craving or motivation; the response (the actual habit you perform); and the reward (which satisfies the craving).

If your goal is to write a book, your system is to hit a daily or weekly quota (Google Tim Ferriss’, “two shitty pages a day”).

Systems are effective because they conserve self-control. When you systemize a behavior by doing them consistently (counting calories, flossing, writing…), they become a habit. Once it becomes a habit, you don’t need to “will” yourself to do it.

The general consensus among behavior change researchers is that you should focus on changing a very small number of habits at the same time. The highest number you’ll find is changing three habits at once and that suggestion comes from BJ Fogg at Stanford University. Let’s be clear: Dr. Fogg is talking about incredibly tiny habits. “Lose weight” is not specific. Losing 10 pounds in 90 days would be.


Final Thoughts

In conclusion, don’t let New Year’s Resolutions become another reason to beat yourself up. We are who we are, which is, depending on our age, a less or more fully baked casserole consisting of leftover ingredients (your family DNA) and seasoned with all of the experience you’ve soaked up from your environment (family, peers, places, sensory inputs, past behavior patterns) so far in your life. 

The degree to which our greatest feats deserve self-congratulation and accolades from others, and the degree to which we should be punished or loathe ourselves for our missteps, are both greatly exaggerated. We are, in the end, going to do what we are going to do. Relax. Focus on gratitude, wonder, appreciation and spreading love the best way you can, and trust me, you’ll be fine. May your 2022 be a fantastic journey! 


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