If nothing else, resolutions are resilient. Despite the fact that surveys suggest up to 80% of resolutions fail after just 1 month, people continue to go back to them year after year. It’s not that having goals or wanting to improve is a bad thing. It’s just that the low likelihood of success is not an accident.
The idea of a resolution is fundamentally flawed. They are hopes and dreams. Not plans and systems.
It’s time for you to draw the line if you want to stop settling for less than your best. Over the last 20 years, I’ve watched far too many people make resolutions want to lose a few pounds in the New Year and come out frustrated and angry at themselves.
Instead of making resolutions, it’s time you try something different. If you’re pushing for results and aren’t willing to be dragged down by a broken process, it’s time to rebel.
If you choose this approach, you won’t return next January with the same frustration.
Why Most Resolutions Fail
Most resolutions depend on motivation and inspiration. And for a few weeks, those 2 traits can take you surprisingly far. Unfortunately for human beings, motivation, inspiration, and willpower are all in limited supply. Much like a gas tank, eventually, you hit empty, and that’s why so many people fail and end up watching their resolutions fall apart at the same time.
If you were to break it down farther, there are 4 reasons why most resolutions have such a low likelihood of success.
Big Dreams Crash Fast
Most people shoot for the moon with their resolutions. It’s great to dream big when you're setting goals, but, if you’re serious about achieving your goals, psychology research shows that these “moonshot” approaches to goal-setting are the least likely to succeed.
Confidence is An Issue
When you aim for something you really want but have yet to achieve (like most resolutions), there’s a part of you (and, really, anyone) that doubts whether it can happen. And self-doubt triggers self-protective strategies and self-destructive behaviors that prevent you from succeeding prematurely so it’s easier to process and understand how you fell short of your goal.
Think about it: if pursuit stops after 1-month, it’s much easier to rationalize if you work hard for 12 months and still don’t achieve your goals. The fear of failure is powerful and becomes more prominent the bigger (and more unrealistic) the goal feels.
Focus Is Underappreciated
A great goal needs to be backed-up by extreme focus. If you’re going to set an unspecific goal — I want to lose 20 pounds — then, you’re setting the stage for disappointment. Goals are outcomes. Better goals focus on processes, and, more importantly, a plan of action.
When you lack clarity, it’s harder to know when your seemingly innocent daily behaviors are actually undercutting your goals.
Goals Are Prioritized Over Systems
As you’ll see in a moment, a focused ritual is much more powerful than an unfocused (but appealing) goal. The rituals will help build new habits, and habits inherently have a system that makes them more doable.
To gain focus, steal a tactic from James Clear, bestselling author of Atomic Habits. He suggests completing the following sentence:
I will [FILL IN BEHAVIOR] at [FILL IN TIME] in [FILL IN LOCATION].
You can’t say “I will lose 20 pounds in 3 months in my home” and feel confident that it’s a blueprint for success.
Setting up several smaller rituals will build habits that will be easier to process and help you achieve the bigger picture goal you desire.
Not to mention, there’s another risk associated with failing year-after-year. At some point, you start to no longer trust your ability to succeed at goals and tasks. You can only fall short so many times before you erode your confidence.
So, the next time you want to tackle a specific goal, it’s time to approach it in a completely different way.
The Power of Rituals
The most successful people in the world create rituals that make it easier to have a higher rate of success on their goals. That’s because they trust systems that make it more likely for them to learn a new skill, overcome a bad habit, or turn a dream into reality.
Arnold Schwarzenegger is well-known for his obsessive habits, which helped him in bodybuilding, as a movie star, and when he was governor of California.
“[Rituals] are the blueprint for success because the more things you can do automatically the more you can achieve every day,” says Schwarzenegger. “You don’t think about breathing or eating, you just do it. You don’t think about putting on clothes before you go out. You don’t think about recharging your car when it’s low. I make as many things in my life as automatic as possible.”
The key with rituals is having a very specific vision of what you want to achieve
(our bigger picture vision) and then a set of actions you see needing to make the vision coming to life.
“No matter what you are doing, if you don’t envision the end result, the work is going to feel very hard,” adds Schwarzenegger. “If you know where you want the work to get you in the end, you feel good doing it. Spend the time to figure out that vision. And after that, everything is reps, reps, reps.”
The Power of Simplicity
Most people love checklists because it feels awesome to cross off items and feel accomplished. The accomplishment part is great. The long list of things? Not so much. Whether or not you realize it, you’re laying the foundation for failure.
Success depends on consistency more than anything. So instead of asking, “What do I want to accomplish?” ask, “What are one or two small things I can do every day that will help me toward my goal?” Think of them as small, daily rituals.
The “every day” part is important because you’re shifting your mindset away from nuanced, difficult tasks to practical, doable ones. When you do good, you feel good. Success breeds success, and that creates a habit. And habit makes everything easier. That’s the real goal: making the change feel almost too easy.
If you swear off alcohol and then go out with your friends the first weekend in January, you might feel torn: Stay with your goal or break it? Do what you love or do what you feel is necessary to succeed?
Those are not questions you want to be faced with. At least, not initially. Instead, you want to create a different construct. Start with simpler, short-term goals you can master. For example:
- I will eat vegetables twice per day.
- I will sleep at least seven hours per night.
- I will drink two glasses of water with every meal.
- I will go to the gym three times during the week.
Then, build rituals that make these behaviors automatic. (Here’s how you can build a ritual that sticks.)
You could list endless habits that are designed to build behaviors. But, start with one or two rituals. And then when those feel easy, you can add more.
Go slow to go fast. The narrow focus will make it surprisingly easy to take on new tasks rather than drinking from a fire hose.
Trust me on this one. You’ll be glad you did when it’s June and you’re still kicking ass, instead of jumping off the wagon before January is even over.
Making change is hard. So don’t make it harder by creating too many goals at once or by focusing on goals that seem like scaling a mountain instead of going for a walk. You’ll get to the mountain, but it’s better to build up momentum.
Unlock the Advantage of Easy
The other key is to leave room for imperfection. Let’s say your goal is: “I will go to the gym three times during the week.” Setting a goal of three times should not be your goal if you think that’s the maximum amount you’ll be able to go per week. Because if you’re slammed at work and only make it to the gym once, you’ll feel like you’ve failed.
Since you want to create behaviors that are easy, seamless, and become habitual, you might want to set a goal of two times per week. Declare that it will happen and then make sure you hit your two sessions every week without fail.
You want to make it as easy as possible to succeed.
We all are susceptible to a psychological concept called “learned helplessness”: Fail enough, and you come to expect failure. This is the foundation of bad fitness. Yet, all too often we set goals that increase the likelihood of failure. If you make your goals easy, you’re on the right track. Small successes will create positive reinforcement.
Give yourself two or three weeks to crush each mini-goal. Once you’re consistently hitting the gym twice per week (or whatever makes sense for you), then add another goal. Then another.
Each opportunity will give you the chance to build a habit you can master. As time goes on, you can make the goals much more specific and difficult. But when you do, you’ll be building on a solid foundation of habits that will make it very difficult to slide back to the old you.
Think of it as a classroom test. Focusing on getting an A doesn’t make it more likely that you’ll earn that grade. Instead, if you focus on learning the material, that’s when you’ll see the high scores. “Don’t focus on the grade you want in a class; put all your energy into learning the material.”
Whatever you do, as you take on new rituals, don’t paint the picture of a life you wouldn’t want to live. Too many goals and habits are supported by things that you hate. There are many ways to achieve the goals you desire. If you’re not a morning person, don’t make your success revolve around winning the moment. That itself is a separate goal.
There is no one way to build a plan that works. When you play to your strengths, stay small, remain focused, and move fast, you will pave a road of success on any challenge you want to conquer.