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Why Your New Year’s Resolutions Suck (And How to Create Goals that Actually Work)

It’s that time of year when we’re likely to reflect back on the past 12 months, thinking about what went well, what didn’t, and how we can do better in the New Year. Often, this goes hand-in-hand with making resolutions aimed at improving ourselves and our circumstances.

The problem with New Year’s resolutions, however, is that they’re so darn hard to keep. We wake up on January 1st with the best of intentions, lots of energy, and even a well-laid plan to tackle the resolutions, but in reality, by March most of these goals are simply a distant memory. Old habits return, and life goes on.

When we look at the psychology behind failed resolutions, there’s a few reasons why even the most practical of goals tend to bomb:

  1. You’ve bitten off more than you can chew—Often when making resolutions we identify a major life theme that we want to change and take a broad, general approach to tackling it. For example, saying that you’re going to “eat healthier” in the New Year is really abstract. Are you going to try a specific diet plan like Paleo? Are you simply going to swap out your morning bagel for fruit? Big hairy goals are great, but you have to pick somewhere to start.
  2. A year is a long time—It’s human nature to evolve and shift our habits and preferences over time as our surroundings and circumstances change. Add to that unexpected life changes. For example, say you get laid off from your job after resolving to get to work by 8:30 every morning, or become bored with that exercise routine you committed to doing five days a week. The fact of the matter is, things change. Committing to one resolution for an entire year – with no wiggle room for that resolution to evolve — therefore, doesn’t fit into how life really works.
  3. You get caught up in the New Year hype—You’re more likely to break New Year’s resolutions than other goals because of the sheer peer pressure to make one even if you aren’t intrinsically motivated or ready to change. It’s much easier to fall off the wagon quickly if your heart’s not in it, especially when you see people around you breaking resolutions of their own.
  4. You try doing too much, too soon—The holidays are crazy hectic. Most people, by the time they get to the end of the year, are totally burned out and don’t give themselves time to slow and renew their willpower and decision-making reserves heading into the New Year. If you start on an empty tank emotionally, physically, or mentally, it’s going to be hard to keep any goal.

Though sometimes hard to keep, in the end resolutions can make a big difference. They can set the tone for your entire year ahead, and force you to get clear about taking steps to achieve new success. The key lies in creating resolutions that promote self-growth and understanding in a structured way.

So how can you cultivate New Year’s resolutions in a way that won’t leave you frustrated in a couple months? Here are alternatives approaches to seeking goals that will help you improve your quality of life in the coming year:

  • Pick a theme for the year

    Identify a word or mantra that maps back to a theme you’d like to focus on in the New Year and weave into your daily life. For example, if your word is “ease,” consider how you can create match your actions to the value of “ease”. How can simple tasks such as running errands feel less rushed or structure your schedule differently to eliminate hecticness? Repeating this enough can help you invite new people, habits, and behaviors into your life that aligned with your values and the goals you seek to achieve.

  • Aim for small wins within a big goal

    Major goals can feel like they’re miles away, and when we don’t achieve them in the (often unreasonable) time frame we expect, it can lead to feeling depressed, discouraged, and defeated. Motivation begets motivation, afterall. Start by setting mini-milestones that are reasonably attainable. You can measure your success against each of these, adjusting and gathering momentum as you go along. Rather than making a huge resolution—say, to start a business in 2015—break it down into smaller pieces: set up time to meet with mentors in January, write out a business plan in March, set up a website by July, and raise $10,000 by September. This way, you can measure your progress and celebrate each success as you achieve it. You’re avoiding feeling overwhelmed (starting a business is a huge deal) and have metrics to measure against as you go along.

  • Compartmentalize

    Similar to setting numerous smaller goals throughout the year, consider setting an individual resolution in each area of your life you’d like to improve upon — health, career, finances, and relationships. For example, you might commit to monthly dinners with your roommates for the “relationships” bucket, taking a new fitness class each month for the “health” bucket, and automatically transferring $150 to your IRA each month for your finances. All of these are attainable goals, which can lead to huge differences in multiple areas of your life.

  • Bulletproof your resolution

    Once you’ve decided on a goal, bolster it against the craziness of daily life. Think through possible scenarios that might come up that could derail you from your goal. For example, say you want to live a healthier life by setting goals around diet and exercise, but you know you have work trips planned. You could defend your goal by researching restaurants beforehand, finding out if the hotel has your gym and working that into your schedule, etc. You want to be defensively pessimistic and anticipate challenges before they come up the way, rather than being surprised when they inevitably appear and catch you off guard.

This New Year, think about approaching resolution-making differently, so that you’re actually able to experience lasting transformation, rather than setting sweeping, overwhelming, and unrealistic objectives that—let’s be honest—you know won’t last.

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Master your psychology with therapeutic insights for your life, relationships, & career