Why New Year's Resolutions Don't Work - And What To Do Instead

It’s no secret: most New Year’s resolutions don’t succeed. Across the country, gyms fill up on January 1, only to empty back out by the end of the month. A study showed that the two most common New Year’s resolutions are “Eat healthier” and “Get more exercise.” These were closely followed by “Save more money,” and “Focus on self-care (e.g, get more sleep).”

While these are great ideas, results are pretty terrible: On average, only 8% of people succeed at their New Year’s resolution (link).

Say what?! 8%! That’s even worse than a random roll of the dice! How can we do better?

Before we get to some strategies to help set you up for real progress in 2019, let’s analyze some inherent problems in these New Year’s resolutions that make it unlikely for you to succeed:

  1. Too Broad: Goals like the ones shown in the picture are way too broad to be meaningful. While it’s great to want to get more exercise, eat healthier, or spend more time on self-care, these big ideas are not specific enough to provide clear direction and accountability. There are a million ways to accomplish each of them. It’s easy to hide inside of a broad goal, which makes it less likely that you will follow through long term.

  2. Too Many: You get absolutely psyched about making some big life changes, and decide to focus on too many things at once. As a general rule of thumb, it’s hard to make more than one or two changes at once. While it sounds great to aspire to all of those resolutions above - who doesn’t want to sleep more, eat healthier, learn new skills, and make new friends? - they can’t all be our top priority.

  3. Outcome oriented rather than behavior oriented: Most New Year’s resolutions are what we call “outcome oriented.” They are focused on the end result, such as “Get six-pack abs,” or “Lose 20 pounds.” You might be saying, “Of course they are about outcomes — that’s what I want! I want results!”. Right, we agree, but the problem with focusing only on outcomes is that there are always factors outside of your control that contribute to or detract from your success. Take “Get six-pack abs”: Success on that goal depends significantly on your genetics and your age, along with your commitment to a nutrition and exercise program. There might also be life factors - a new job, family stress, or something else - that effect your pursuit of the goal. In short, you cannot guarantee the outcome. But what you can 100% control is your behavior. No one can with complete certainty say that they will get six-pack abs, but they can commit to something like “Strength training and cooking dinner at home 3 times per week.” Behavior-oriented goals provide direction and accountability.

  4. Focus on quick fixes: The post-holiday time is absolutely awful when it comes to advertising quick fixes. These are the ads promising “Six pack abs in six weeks,” or “3 minute full body workout” or “4 day juice cleanse to detox the holidays”. Come on. If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is. Why? Because anything that is meaningful in life takes hard work, consistently, over time. This is true of a career, relationships, and certainly health and fitness. To generate real progress and success, we need to think long term, with planning for both progression and ways to stay motivated over the course of months and years. Quick fixes, even if they provide short-term results, usually set you even further behind in the long run because their don’t teach sustainable skills or habits, and generally lead to a “hangover” in which you are so exhausted from the quick-fix effort that you don’t do anything at all for far too long.

  5. All or nothing mindset: This is the person who goes to the gym every day in the first week of January, and then doesn’t show up again. Their mindset is something like, “If I can’t follow the perfect program, then it’s just not worth it at all.” In reality, nothing could be further from the truth. Rather, the exact opposite is true: Following an imperfect plan consistently is far better than following a perfect plan a few weeks out of the year. The person who works out once per week month after month will be in much better shape than the person who does a 5-day in a row assault at the gym every couple of months. Progression and consistently are absolutely critical for long term success.

  6. Lack of tracking, accountability, and support: Many people do not have any way to track their progress, or have others hold them accountable for their New Year’s resolutions. Lack of tracking means that it is hard for you to recognize your own success, making it difficult for you to build momentum and self-efficacy. And without accountability and support, it’s easy to stay in bed on those cold, dark mornings. Humans need support around them to truly achieve long-term goals.

How to EVOLVE Your New Year’s Resolutions

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So what should you do instead? Here is a foolproof method for setting excellent goals and increasing the likelihood that you will succeed in changing your life this year. We suggest that you spend at least 30 minutes, quietly and without distractions, writing down answers to each step below in a place that you can reflect back on.

  1. Choose ONE area to focus on with cascading benefits: Before we set a specific goal, we are going to choose a single area in which we want to focus. It’s OK to start broad here. We’ll get more specific soon. This area should ideally be one that has “cascading benefits”: If you were to meet or exceed your goal in this area, it will have meaningful and positive benefits that reverberate throughout your entire life. Getting stronger, improving cardiovascular fitness, eating healthier, sleeping more, strengthening relationships are all great categories. BUT, this is where most New Year’s resolutions stop. Not you. Choose your category, and then let’s keep going. (Note: This can be a big objective, like run a marathon, climb a mountain, complete a triathlon, etc. - but you’ll still have to complete ALL of the steps below, and we recommend having that big goal at least 6 months away to give you time to work towards it).

  2. Determine Your “Why” and “What Then”? Once you have your big category, you need to write down answers to two big questions:

    • Why is this important to me? Why do you want this to be your big, singular focus of the year? What are all the benefits that you want? More energy, playing with your kids or grand kids, going on a big trip without pain, avoiding diseases that have affected your family…this could be anything. But because we are only choosing one area to focus on, there should be several reasons why, and these should be powerful and honest. This is what is going to keep us motivated when times get tough.

    • If I accomplish my goal, what then? How will your life be different? Where will you go next? How will your life be different when you succeed? Although this is similar to “Why,” it has a slightly different angle: one that plans for success and progress, and makes everything more tangible. You need to be able to visualize what success looks like, and where you’ll go once you hit it. This is of particular importance if you choose a big objective for your goal, like running a marathon or doing a triathlon. You need to have a plan for “What then” - will I be happier? More fulfilled? Or consistent with a new set of habits? Life won’t stop when you hit your goal. Many people who find success often find that they are still unsatisfied when they get there because they don’t have a plan for what to do next. Answers to this question make not come easily, but don’t skip it. An example could be, “If I succeed at getting stronger, I’ll be able to ride my bike without knee pain, will be consistently going to the gym twice per week, and will have more energy to do things outside of work.”

  3. Set a specific behavior goal for January (or the next 4 weeks if you are reading this at some other time during the year). Now, let’s get focused and specific. We’re going to take our broad outcome or category from Step 1, fueled by a powerful “Why,” and “What then” from Step 2, and give it true life with a weekly, tangible, action-oriented goal that will start us off in our first month. This is perhaps the most important step! Why? Because our category doesn’t tell us what to do, when and how to do it, or provide accountability. We need all of these elements for success. We are also just going to plan one month at a time, because in order to truly succeed long-term, we need to plan for progression, and have a way to reflect and refine. And because we are avoiding an all-or-nothing approach, our priority in January is creating sustainable, consistent momentum. So your weekly action goal should be something that is a change from what you are currently doing, but at the same time sounds almost too easy. We can always make it harder later, after we’ve proven that we are consistently taking steps in the right direction. Also, we like goals that start with adding something positive rather than removing something negative. This is another way to help ensure success. It’s hard to just cut out something enjoyable, and oftentimes we don’t need to cut out our small pleasures if we surround them with healthy behaviors. Examples for a few common categories are:

    • Exercise more:

      • Go to the gym once per week, following a specific program, every week, in January.

      • Run twice per week according to a 5K training program, every week, in January.

      • Go to one yoga/workout class per week, every week, in January.

    • Eat healthier

      • I will have two handfuls of vegetables at 4 weekday dinners, each week, in January.

      • I will cook two weekday dinners at home, every week, in January.

      • I will eat a balance of protein, carbohydrates, and healthy fats at every weekday breakfast in January.

    • Sleep more

      • I will set a bed-time of 9:30pm every weeknight in January.

      • I will stop using all electronic devices at 8:30pm every evening in January.

      • I will replace 30 minutes of TV in the evening with 30 minutes of reading fiction in bed, every weeknight in January.

  4. Create a system for tracking, accountability, and support: You can’t do it alone, and being able to clearly track and visualized progress is important for sustained momentum over time. This means a couple of things:

    • Tell a few supportive family members or friends the area of life that you want to improve AND your weekly action-oriented goal. Then, ask them to check in. There are three components to be aware of here. First, not everyone will be immediately supportive of you making big life changes. Or, people can be intimidated or self-conscious when they that see you have a big goal and plan to achieve it while they do not. So you need to enlist the right people in your support system. You need to be vulnerable to ask for support, but save that vulnerability for family or friends who are like-minded and supportive. Second, you need to tell them what specific actions you plan to take on a weekly basis. It’s much easier and more productive for someone to ask, “Did you go to the gym at least once this week?” rather than, “How’s getting into shape going?” Third, you must ask them to check in, preferably weekly at the start. Help them put a reminder in their phone, perhaps. Support doesn’t mean anything, though, if there is no follow-through.

    • Set up a system to track your progress. This could be a calendar, planner, or notebook that you review weekly (set aside time on your calendar for this). Or, it could be a workout app that lets you enter your results and helps with planning your next workout. Visually seeing your results is a powerful tool to help you stay on track.

    • A coach or therapist can also be a valuable part of your support system, because you’ll be paying them for their help. Just be sure to ask for the specific type of feedback that you think will work best for you (e.g., “Text me if I miss my workout”; or “Charge me anyway if I miss appointments - it’ll hold me accountable.”)

  5. Plan how you will reflect and progress monthly. This is also essential. Now that we have very clear, actionable, behavior-oriented weekly goals, we need to set up a time to reflect at the end of the month. Block it off on your calendar. During this time, you’ll start by asking a question that is now very straightforward: Did I meet my goal, or not? This should be easy to answer if you set your goals up correctly. We want a clear “Yes,” or “No.” If the answer is yes, great! You’ll repeat the process of step 3, and set a new, slightly more challenging but still achievable action-oriented behavior goal for February. If you did not meet your goal, don’t despair or beat yourself up. But also, don’t make excuses. Instead, be honest about why you did not succeed. What barriers did you face in January? Write these down, and then we will game plan to overcome them. For example, if your goal was to go to the gym once per week in January, why were you unable to do so? Was it something outside of your control, like getting getting the flu and have a 102º fever for a week? Or was it due to something that you might be able to affect, such as: Difficulty getting out of bed, not scheduling time during your day, pain or an injury that made it hard to work out, poor recovery following your workout, not having a workout partner, or something else? Be honest, and write down real reasons why you did not succeed. Then, do two things:

    1. Set a new behavior goal for February, that is perhaps slightly easier than January’s. We want consistency, momentum, and success, long term, so it’s OK if it sounds too easy. That’s the key to changing habits.

    2. Make a plan to overcome the barriers that you identified (see below).

  6. Determine what you need to overcome your barriers. If you are not consistently meeting your initial weekly action goal, then you must reflect and determine why. Then, dig one layer deeper and ask what resources you need to overcome that barrier. Here are a few examples:

    • Was the goal just too challenging? Did you start too complex, skipping the basics? This is common with workout programs and nutrition plans — they ask for big sweeping life changes, include complex exercises or recipes, or have a lot of moving parts. If this is the case, adjust to a simpler plan to help you build consistency, skills, experience, and momentum. You might also consider enlist a coach for help. This could be a strength coach, personal trainer, dietitian, organizational coach — in almost every domain, there are people who are experts in what you are trying to do.

    • Did you feel too busy, or not have enough time? If this is the case, there are two potential solutions. 1) Dial your action-oriented goal back to something that easily fits with your schedule. Stick with that for a month or two, and then often you’ll find that you become more willing to prioritize the new habit, and the new routine is no longer as challenging, allowing you to progress. Or, 2) Block off time for the activity on your calendar, so no appointments can be booked over it. Include time to prepare for or go to/from the activity, if that’s relevant. Remember, this is one of the most important areas in your life that you want to improve, and you have powerful reasons for wanting to improve it, so it deserves priority in your calendar. We recommend that you do this for a month or more in advance, before other commitments get scheduled. (You don’t manage your day with a calendar? That’s another issue and could be a goal in itself! We highly recommend it for stress relief and productivity. Read more about it here and here.)

    • Did you start off well, and then lose steam? There could be a few root causes for this, so go one more layer down: why did you lose steam? Was it due to scheduling or time (life just got too busy), mental health (depression, anxiety, or other issue), or something else (injuries, finances, medical issues, etc.)? If so, address each one of those issues in turn. Here are some resources:

      • Injury, pain, or other issue getting in the way or activity or exercise: Book a consult with a physical therapist to help resolve that issue

      • Strength or workout program too complex, not effective, or not quite right: Find a coach, trainer, or workout program that can help you with an individualized plan

      • Nutrition, cooking, body composition, energy, or gastrointestinal issues: Consult a Registered Dietitian for help improving your approach to nutrition.

      • Motivation, depression, anxiety, negative self-talk, or other mental health issue: Seek out a professional counselor to help determine the root causes of these issues and strategies to overcome them. There is no shame or stigma in going to a mental health provider. Even if you don’t have a clear mental health “diagnosis,” you can probably benefit from talking to a professional provider. Our brain is the most powerful and most complex organ in our body, and mental health professionals are there to help you!

    • If you barrier is not on this list, that’s OK. Identifying it is the first step to overcoming it. Don’t just attempt to “try harder” the next month. Keep asking “why” until you get to the bottom of what stalled your progress. Brainstorm (perhaps with your support system) how you can overcome that barrier.

So there you have it! A six-step process to goal-setting and New Year’s resolutions to help you make this coming year your best yet. And remember, if your first attempt isn’t an immediate success, don’t lose hope. Follow the formula, determine why, and adjust. These learning experiences can be powerful, and going through is process will create more meaningful and sustainable life changes for you than either smooth sailing all the time, or just getting frustrated and giving up.

Here at EVOLVE, we build this process in to all of our services. Our Performance Training program takes individuals through a progressive strength training and nutrition program to ensure there is a proper foundation before layering in complexity. Strength coaches are present for every workout to help with technique and to hold you accountable, and we even include quarterly goal-setting sessions to help you stay on track. In our one-on-one Nutrition and Injury Rehab appointments, we dig even deeper to determine root causes to problems, barriers to progress, and action-oriented plans to move forward. This year, if you want to improve your health or fitness, dial in your nutrition, or overcome an injury, give us a shout! We would love to help you make a plan for success. Click below to set up a FREE 15-minute strategy via phone to get started.

Brian Kinslow