Why Most New Year’s Resolutions End in Frustration and Failure

I avoided the gym today because I wanted to avoid the resolution tourists that plague it on National Gym Sign Up Day. Most of the newly signed (gym general managers call them rubes but count on them to turn a profit) are long gone by the Super Bowl, but the monthly deductions from their bank accounts may last the rest of the year.

New Year’s Resolutions are not new. There is evidence that Babylonians, Romans, and millennia of Jews and Christians vowed to make changes at the start of a new year (the wikipedia article is quite interesting). If there is such a long history of resolutions and people really mean it when they make them, why do so many fail?

1) Too vague – I’m going to lose weight. I’m going to start working out. I’m going to drink less. I’m going to save money. None of these are specific. I’m going to lose 15 pounds by May. I’m going to work out three times a week for at least a half hour each time. I’m going to have five drinks or less a week. I’m going to save $500 more a month. These are much more specific. They are also measurable.

2) Too ambitious – I’m going to lose 50 pounds by March. I’m going to work out every day for at least 90 minutes. I’ll never drink, smoke, or gamble again, and I’m also going to give up sugar and caffeine. I’m going to save 40% of my gross income. Failure is not only almost certain, but probably immediate. Set reasonable, specific, and measurable goals.

3) No plan – Plans are specific and set up a course of action. If you want to quit smoking, you should talk to other people who have quit. You should investigate different medications, gums, patches, and cessation groups. You probably should avoid other smokers (when they are smoking…this is really important for anything you are quitting). You may need to carry gum (I suggest Wrigley’s) or toothpicks or a squeezey ball (to squeeze when people irritate you and you feel like smoking).

4) People don’t track/measure them – You are far more likely to succeed with exercise, weight control, saving money, planning a trip, or quitting smoking if you measure the progress of your plan. Daily. That means writing things down. In the same place (not on scraps of papers, napkins or on your phone).

5) An utter lack of support – Alcoholics Anonymous works because people are trying to make a major change with the support of other people who are either (a) just making that change themselves or (b) made the change a long time ago and offer wisdom and support. This is the major key to Weight Watchers. It is also why most people do better with a workout partner (at least early on). There will be a day (in week 2 or week 5 or month 9) where you want to give up. Or cheat a little. Having another person or group you are accountable to helps you stay on your new path.

If you do all five, you still aren’t guaranteed success. But, it will be much more likely. And here is where it gets really cool. Once you’ve changed,other people will eventually see it (in the long run) and then you can help them change too.