A new year and a new decade have arrived, and with them comes fresh energy to enact positive behavior changes and to create healthier habits. It’s the time to create resolutions, bold intentions, and strong declarations of purpose.
Sometimes, even after a promising start, that resolve that initially feels so good begins to fade after a few weeks. Why does that happen? What allows some people to readily meet their goals while others struggle to maintain their commitments?
In today’s article, we’re going to explore some of the common reasons why New Year’s resolutions get met and why they don’t. To do so, let’s break it down into a few steps: setting up, enacting, and evaluating goals.
Setting up your goals
Perhaps weight loss is your New Year’s goal. If so, you’re not alone; Time magazine reported in 2012 that it is one of the most common resolutions for a new year. Gym memberships and attendance always peak in January. Yet, research shows that by mid-February, gym attendance is usually back to normal levels, and about 60% of people with a gym membership go less than once every month.
The use of SMART goals is recommended by many consultants, trainers, and health care providers. First described in the 1980s in the academic literature on business management, SMART is an acronym standing for specific, measurable, attainable, reasonable, and timely.
Here’s an example of transforming a standard goal into a SMART goal:
Standard goal: “I want to lose weight.”
Here’s that same goal, using SMART criteria:
Specific: “I’d like to lose 15 lbs. of fat.”
Measurable: “I’ll weigh myself once per week.”
Attainable: “I’m going to lose about one pound per week.”
Relevant: “I want to lose weight because it will help me increase my physical endurance.”
Timely: “I would like to lose this weight over three months.”
By providing details and by breaking down the goal into its components, losing weight becomes less of an abstract concept and becomes a more concrete possibility. Research shows that goals set up in a SMART format are more likely to be achieved.
Need help choosing a goal, period? Check out this post.
Enacting the goal
Now that you know your goal, how will you go about achieving it? How will you stick with it? What are your likely obstacles?
A common pitfall to achieving a New Year’s goal is a lack of a coherent plan. Meeting these goals often requires a significant deviation from your standard routines.
Let’s use the weight loss goal again as an example. Even with the reasonable and attainable goal of losing one pound per week, that means you’ll have to figure out how to lose about 500 calories per day. That can be achieved through diet (for example, reducing daily intake from 2,500 calories per day to 2000 calories), through exercise (increasing calories burned by 500), or a mix of the two. Which approach will work best for you?
Even after a coherent plan is in place, there are likely to be barriers to enacting the plan. Perhaps financial considerations limit your healthy food options, or the need for child care prevents you from going to the gym regularly. Plans for behavioral change require a realistic appraisal of the plan’s potential obstacles.
Sometimes the barriers to meeting your goals come from within. Many psychological forces — fears, insecurities, past traumas, and more — are at work with even everyday decision-making. For example, let’s say that you desire weight loss to get healthier, but you’ve been the victim of abuse. The additional weight you’ve carried may have, in some ways, protected you from experiencing unwanted attention, and you might unconsciously engage in behaviors that make your weight loss goal harder to achieve.
Other psychological forces include:
● denial (“it’s not that bad of a problem”)
● rationalization (“all this food will go to waste if I don’t eat it”)
● externalizing the problem (“if the gym weren’t so far away, I’d go more”)
Factors like these are known as resistance, and just like the resistance on an elliptical machine, psychological resistance makes each step toward a goal more difficult.
Your goals are far more likely to be achieved if you have adequate accountability around them. If someone else is helping you monitor your progress (and calling attention to your lack of progress if appropriate), it increases the chances that your goals will be met.
Accountability partners can be anyone who will give you honest feedback about your adherence to your plan. Examples include a spouse or partner, a good friend, a co-worker, a trainer, a therapist, a coach, or a teammate.
Evaluating your progress
Since meeting goals often requires the creation of new habits, every action of your day should be evaluated, even the trivial, mundane ones. Some central questions to answer are:
● Does this action bring me any closer to meeting my goals?
● Does this action take me farther away from my goals?
● Why am I engaged in actions that lead me away from my goals?
● What would I have to change to put my actions and goals in better alignment?
New Year’s resolutions are often about replacing unhealthy habits with healthier ones. They are the quintessential examples of behavioral change, and it takes work, planning, and practice to make those changes stick. Approaching your desired goal with a system in place makes it more likely to be achieved.
With an effective and thoughtful approach, the resolutions you make now can be the reality that you enjoy later!
Top 10 Commonly Broken New Year’s Resolutions. Time Magazine. Accessed January 2, 2020
Singer, Natasha. Your Recycled Resolutions Are A Boon For Business. The New York Times, December 31, 2011. Accessed January 2, 2020.
Doran, G. T. (1981). “There’s a S.M.A.R.T. way to write management’s goals and objectives“. Management Review. 70 (11): 35–36.
Aghera, A., Emery, M., Bounds, R., Bush, C., Stansfield, R. B., Gillett, B., & Santen, S. A. (2018). A Randomized Trial of SMART Goal Enhanced Debriefing after Simulation to Promote Educational Actions. The Western Journal of Emergency Medicine, 19(1), 112–120.
Forsell, LM, Astrom, JA (2012). An Analysis of Resistance to Change Exposed in Individuals’ Thoughts and Behaviors. Comprehensive Psychology. https://doi.org/10.2466/09.02.10.CP.1.17