Resolved to Fail: Why Your New Year’s Goals Never Stick and How to be Better in 2021

By Lily Vining || Staff Writer 

Hi there. I spoke with your future self, and you let me in on a secret: You know that New Year’s Resolution to exercise more, eat healthier, or follow a study schedule that you keep swearing you will stick with this time? Yeah, that did not survive past Valentine’s Day 2021. Don’t believe me? According to U.S. News & World Report, 80 percent of New Year’s resolutions fail by February. This equates to a figure of over 156 million people who abandon their goals before they are complete. Unless you are one of the disciplined 20 percent who do stick with their plan past the initial drop-off, your chance of making 2021 drastically different from the previous year is low. (Remember when everyone remarked, “This is going to be my decade”? Yeah, I don’t either.) Amidst the stress of a possible J-Term course, spring semester, and the ongoing constant changes inflicted by the coronavirus, your New Year’s resolution does not stand a chance.

However, there is hope.

The biggest reason why New Year’s resolutions, or any major goals, fail is not personal inability. A combination of internal and external factors can take away the motivation to work towards big life changes, even those we want to accomplish. Dr. Stephen Graef, a sports psychologist at the Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center, says that the biggest mistakes he sees people make are setting goals that are too broad, too big, or too many. “I think we try to set not only too extensive of a goal but also too many goals,” he says, advising those who plan to change in the New Year to evaluate which goals are most important to them in order to choose ones that will stick. If your goals are not aligned with your priorities, they will not stand up to any roadblocks along the way.

Another contributing issue is a lack of planning. The most common resolutions are to lose weight, exercise more, and be a better person, according to Marist polls. All of these statements are vague and contain no action plan or timeline to follow. In order to make these more attainable, one must have a game plan to chart out their progress. It is okay if this plan needs to be adjusted along the way after you have experienced some of the challenges and nuances of your new lifestyle. But since most resolutions crumble right from the beginning, it is crucial to have a detailed game plan to start your year strong.

The next reason we fail to achieve our goals is because they appear too lofty or unattainable. Once the goal-setter realizes that they have bitten off more than they can chew, they can become discouraged early on in the year. They can also become impatient in the process, especially if they are treating a marathon like a sprint. Dramatic changes cannot happen overnight, and one must be realistic in the time and effort they will take. This tendency towards disappointment also reflects our lack of planning, especially when hurdles (like COVID shutdowns) appear unexpectedly. Anticipating some challenges can be part of the planning process for making your resolution.

Other things that can deter people from reaching their goals are external and internal pressures. One’s environment may simply be incompatible with change. For example, if you wish to eat healthier, but your family or roommates subsist on exclusively processed foods, your motivation will be seriously tested. While you cannot always change your environment, you can alter how you respond to it. One beneficial way to respond is to find a support system to hold you accountable and encourage you on your journey. According to the American Society of Training and Development, people have a 65% greater chance of achieving their goals if they have an accountability partner and a 95% greater chance of completing their goal if they set an appointment to share their goal status with another person. Whether you ask a friend or family member to hold you accountable, join a group or team to motivate each other, or find a community online to share your process with, you will feel more enjoyment and support in pursuit of your goal.

One popular method for setting attainable and quantitative goals uses the acronym “SMART“, standing for specific, measurable, attainable, realistic, and time-bound. This strategy is proven effective in the workplace and daily life alike because it solves the common issues with goal setting discussed above. Thinking about the SMART acronym while planning your New Year’s resolution sets you up to actually work towards your goal, rather than dreaming of it.

Finally, determine your “why” that motivates you on your journey. Why is your goal important to you? If you do not know, you are far less likely to stick with it. Write down your why and put it somewhere you will see it every day: Make it your phone lock screen, put a sticky-note in your mirror, whatever will remind you of your motivation whenever it may be lacking. Studies show that by writing down your resolution, you are already 50% more likely to see it through to December 2021 and beyond.

Even if you did not succeed with your resolutions from January, you must give yourself credit for all of the things you did accomplish this year. 2020 threw major curveballs our way, which might have derailed your initial January 1st plans. However, many of us have grown throughout the pandemic, and these changes are worth celebrating. Maybe you discovered a new talent for baking sourdough or banana bread. Maybe you turned a hobby that was always put on the back burner into a passion project, or something more. Maybe you became more independent and self-aware through virtual learning. Maybe you became more connected with your family and loved ones, whether you were quarantined across the hall, or across the country from them. Even small accomplishments, like getting out of bed, putting on a fresh pair of sweatpants (or even… *gasp* jeans), and making the decision to tackle the day—even with the uncertainty it contains—are monumental. 2020 was tough enough without us criticizing ourselves for the things we “should have” done but did not.

New Year’s resolutions may be motivating to some people, but for most, the pressure created by this tradition prevents us from actually sticking with our goals. Who says, though, that on January 1st we must completely turn our lives upside down? Instead of making major resolutions, maybe we can each try to set small daily intentions to get through the year ahead. Rather than pinpointing a final destination for the year, you can create a roadmap to make the larger goal less overwhelming. Better yet, you can start off on one path, and decide to change your route as you go along. If at any point along the way you stray from your goals, you can always resolve to start fresh in the middle of the year, month, week, or day. Even though it has not yet started, it appears that 2021 will be filled with many opportunities for starting anew.

First-year Lily Vining is a contributing writer. Her email is lvining@fandm.edu

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