The Real Reason Most New Year’s Resolutions Fail by February 1
As we start another year, like clockwork, all the resolution stories start to appear.
Make 2012 your year! Set your goals! Get the job! Live your dreams! Lose weight!
And yet, as the economics of gym memberships illustrate, most people honor New Year’s resolutions for a short time. Tara Parker-Pope wrote in her New York Timescolumn that a third are ditched by the end of January. Four out of five people simply give their resolutions up.
It’s the a new year all right, but it’s the same you.
Does that mean we shouldn’t even bother thinking big? Not at all. In fact, I’m a fan of setting big goals for yourself and saying them <gasp> out loud. Like so many of you, I stand in awe of people who state audacious goals then go about accomplishing them.
I love the new year for the fact that it inspires us to do something we have the power to do all year long. At any time. Even on a random Wednesday in August.
I would argue our problem isn’t that we shouldn’t think big, but that we consider ourselves too small of a player in the quest for our own goals. We set all-or-nothing New Year’s resolutions that we can’t possibly keep, and frankly don’t expect ourselves to. Most resolutions are general, vague, and unrealistic. We don’t really believe we can hit them because we’re not committed to our own locus of control.
We fail because we always expected to. We live up (or in this case down) to our own expectations. Then we can pull out all of our familiar excuses of being too busy, overwhelmed, or inadequate to face the challenge. It also plays into the cynical zeitgeist which supports the gravitational pull of the status quo.
You may be familiar with the field of positive psychology which was started by Dr. Martin Seligman, author of bestsellers on the topic like Authentic Happiness. Seligman began his work by trying to determine why so many people are depressed, including young kids. This interest spawned a new field, in which behavioral approaches have been found to combat “learned helplessness” and help people face adversity with positivity.
One of the root causes that Seligman identified was a national mood of entrenched cynicism. Starting in the 1960s, it became intellectually cool to be mistrustful and negative. The Pollyanna attitude to “Accentuate the Positive” was washed away and never returned. You can see this alive and well in public opinion polls or news coverage which celebrate the negative. (And don’t even get me started on the disaster that is the 112th Congress.)
Consequently, we’ve been trained to be critical and think small. We’re cautious of new ideas and motives, and we wait for the other shoe to drop. We get a lot of social reinforcement for this posture by being heralded as savvy, analytical, and smart.
Unfortunately what cynicism is not is inspiring — to us or anyone else. It will never get us the job of our dreams or the lifestyle we aspire to. If there’s even a hint of cynicism or learned helplessness in your New Year’s resolution, it too will be dead by February.
We need to create big ideas, and also value our own ability to achieve them. We need to shed cynicism for a belief in own sense of agency. A good start is by setting resolutions, or any other goals, that are tangible, actionable, and possible. Here’s how:
- Set goals that matter to you, and that you can put energy around. Don’t make them just because it’s what you do in January. Be ready to commit.
- Every resolution should have a plan to accomplish it. Don’t just vow to change your career, determine what steps you’ll need to take.
- Rather than making all-or-nothing resolutions, build in milestones. For example, instead of attempting to hit the gym every day, commit to exercising 2-3 times a week and gradually increasing.
- Believe in your own ability to change. Consider that every day, people in the worst of circumstances — whose lives have been wrecked by factors like addiction or trauma –decide to change their lives and do. If they can; you can. Whatever has happened in the past has no impact on what you can do with your future. None.
I’ll end with this passage by author Marianne Williamson, which has inspired so many to step into their goals, even when they feel unachievable. Ponder it, and see if it does the same for you.
“Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness, that most frightens us.”
Have ideas for making resolutions real? Share here or @kristihedges.
Kristi Hedges is a leadership coach, speaker and author of Power of Presence: Unlock Your Potential to Influence and Engage Others.
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