It’s estimated that about 92% of all New Year’s Resolutions fail–most by February!
And yet, millions of ambitious Americans continue to make lofty resolutions for themselves every year. The most common resolutions revolve around getting more exercise or improving fitness (50% of resolutions made in 2021), losing weight (48%), or eating better (39%). (Statistics taken from New Year’s Resolution of Americans for 2021 https://www.statista.com/statistics/378105/new-years-resolution/ )
These are all excellent goals to strive for, and as a health coach, these are some of the main areas that I help my clients succeed in.
But the question remains:
If you’re most likely going to fail anyway, why bother setting any New Year’s Resolutions? Is there really even any value at all in making these lofty goals for yourself?
In this blog I want to outline why I think some form of a New Year’s resolution can be powerful and beneficial and which pitfalls to avoid. There are 3 big mistakes that I most often see people making when they’re trying to improve any aspect of their lives (including, but not limited to their physical health) and I have some simple strategies that you can use instead to set yourself up for success.
Why Bother Making New Year’s Resolutions?
I love the week after Christmas and before New Year’s. This is usually a time in my family where my kids are all out of school, my husband’s work schedule is easier (or he takes some leave), and all the hustle and bustle of Christmas is over. It’s a natural lull in the year for me when I love to take a step back from the day to day grind and assess how things are going in my life.
Now, I would argue that you can (and should) make goals (or “resolutions”) for yourself at any time of the year. There is nothing inherently magical about 1 January that makes it the perfect day to start a new habit or behavior. However, I do find it helpful to take some time each year to do some deeper reflecting on what your highest priorities and aspirations are and how well you’re living up to them.
This is what I think the real value of the New Year’s Resolution is. It isn’t so much the lofty goal of “I’m going to go to the gym for an hour every day”, but rather the recognition that your physical fitness isn’t where you’d like it to be and acknowledging that you’d like to improve in the New Year.
What I recommend doing is making a list of the most important areas in your life, and then just taking some time to assess where you are in those areas. What is going well? What was successful in the past year? How would you like to improve in the future? The areas that I like to do this for are:
My relationship with God
My relationship with my husband
My relationship with my kids
My self-care (sleep, exercise, diet)
My career and work
In this way, your New Year’s Resolution time becomes almost more of a yearly review than a lofty goals setting session. The important thing here is to set your intention.
But don’t stop there.
The next step is to think about one or more concrete actions that you could take to improve in your key areas. How could you be better in this area? What could you do? Be as specific as possible.
The next step is to design habits to support your progress toward that goal.
You can think of the goal itself as your inspiration, but the daily habits that you form are really what’s going to get you there. The daily habits are the small steps that you can start taking right away.
Of course, changing habits can be extremely difficult (which is why most resolutions will fail)! So I want to give you 3 strategies that will help you to keep your resolutions this year.
How to Keep Your Resolutions
Strategy #1: Start Really Small
The mistake that most people make when they’re trying to get healthier or develop better habits is that they try to make too big of changes all at once and then they quit too soon.
The big mistake here isn’t being too ambitious; rather it’s undervaluing the impact that small changes can make in your life.
And the fact is that no matter how much willpower or motivation you have to make a positive change, it is almost impossible to be successful if you start too big.
Part of the reason that most resolutions fail is because your brain is designed to resist change–-or anything that it perceives as a threat. So, if you were to suddenly decide that you’re going to go to the gym every day for an hour, your brain is going to do everything it can to stop you from doing this and it’s going to try to “keep you safe” by sticking with habits and patterns that it’s familiar with.
And no matter how good your intentions were at the start or how much motivation you have, if you’re trying to do something that’s really big or super hard for you right now, you’re just not going to be able to do it long-term. Sure, you might be able to white-knuckle your way through a few days of your new resolution, but the odds are really stacked against you when it comes to keeping up with it long term.
And this is so problematic, because what tends to happen is that we internalize this perceived failure and start to believe some pretty rotten things about ourselves. We might start to say things like, “I’’m just so lazy” “I’m just so unmotivated” “I can never stick with my goals.” etc. And the real damage here is that eventually we stop trying. We resign ourselves to our destructive habits because we think that there’s nothing we can do to change, or that we’re just going to fail anyway, so why bother even trying.
So what should you do instead? I propose that you should instead embrace very small changes and habits–at least at first.
So the method here is that instead of making your healthy habit goals or resolutions when you’re at your peak of motivation, that you instead plan for a habit that you can do on your worst days, when your motivation and willpower are at their lowest point. I call this your “minimum viable habit” because it's the least you could possibly do–that will still yield benefits. So it's still viable, but its minimum.
The reason that this works so much better than what most people attempt to do is that it’s a sneaky way to form a new habit without your brain throwing up roadblocks. When you start making changes gradually, you circumvent that “danger” response of the brain and you eliminate the need to have a lot of willpower or motivation to actually keep doing the habit. You basically want to make it so easy to do, that you can’t fail.
So here’s how you can start applying this strategy immediately:
Think of one area of your life that you’d like to improve
Imagine yourself on your hardest day–what small thing could you still do that would move you forward in that pillar?
Commit to doing the smallest version of this habit for at least 2 weeks
After 2 weeks, assess: if your new habit is easy to do everyday, are you ready to add on or increase the challenge? If you haven’t been able to keep up the new habit, how can you shrink it down a bit more?
And I just want to close out this strategy with a Marie Forleo quote that always helps me to take action, “It’s better to start small and sucky than to stay stucky.” So don’t be afraid to start small.
Strategy #2: Strive to Experience “Wins” as Quickly as Possible to Stay Motivated
This strategy is all about setting yourself up to experience the most wins in the shortest amount of time. And why is it so important for you to start seeing results from your habits and experiencing wins as quickly as possible?
Because that’s what’s going to lock in the “reward” sensation in your brain and make it way more likely that you’ll actually stick to your new healthy habits and keep doing them for the long-term.
The mistake that most people make here is telling themselves that it’s going to take a really long time to reach their goals, so they accept making such slow progress that they aren’t inspired or motivated to keep going and they just quit. Now the idea behind this seems like a good one at first glance, after all, doesn’t slow and steady win the race? And didn’t I say to start small?
The trouble with this misconception is that there is an element of truth to it—yes, you absolutely should start small–but you shouldn’t expect to stay small and you shouldn’t expect for it to take an indefinite amount of time before you start feeling better.
This strategy comes down to focusing on implementing the highest impact habits first–the ones that will help you experience the most benefits in the shortest amount of time. This means choosing carefully what small habits are going to have the biggest bang for your motivational buck.
One example of this when it comes to diet is cutting sugar vs. reducing portion sizes. Most people attempt to lose weight by restricting calories and “eating less while moving more”. But this has been shown time and again to be ridiculously ineffective, slow, and tedious. If instead you focus on the high-impact habit of eliminating as much sugar from your diet as possible, you’ll find that you can actually eat to satiety while still losing weight rapidly.
Instead of having to wait for months or longer to see any results, you’ll start noticing changes to your mood, energy, and weight within the first few weeks.
And when you’re experiencing those kind of wins quickly, within days and weeks and not months and years–that’s when you’re going to really be motivated to stick with your healthy habits forever and experience real and lasting change.
The way to implement this strategy is to get curious about the area that you want to improve. Do some research. What has worked for people who are really excelling in this area? What are some best practices that you could adopt that will help you achieve rapid progress? The great news is that you don’t have to reinvent the wheel. Someone, somewhere has done what you want to do.
Once you figure out what your strategic habit is going to be, use strategy # 1 to shrink it down to a dimension you can start with.
In the sugar example, maybe your first goal is to just cut sugary drinks. Then after a few weeks you can reassess.
I find it helpful to remember this Steve Jobs quote here, “Start small, but think big.”
Strategy #3: Tap into Your Big “Why”
One of the biggest mistakes that I see people make when they’re trying to get healthier is that they don’t have a strong enough why for making healthy changes in the first place.
What this looks like for most people is a kind of hazy sort of wish for what they’d like. So for a lot of people this might be something like, “I’d kinda like to lose some weight” or “I know I should exercise more, so I guess that’s what I’d like to do” or “Well, I probably should stop eating so much sugar.” but the thing is that none of those things are really very compelling or motivating reasons for making changes when you’re having a hard day.
Because you’re going to have hard days on your health journey, even if you’re using all of the strategies that I’ve outlined in this article–you’re still going to have days when you face a case of the “I don’t wannas.”
It’s on days like that that you’ll need to have a deep, compelling reason for sticking to your goals.
For me, that compelling reason is a desire to preserve my mental health. After a nearly debilitating battle with depression, I had to make changes to my lifestyle that would help heal my brain and help me to feel some level of joy again.
After making sweeping lifestyle changes (that all started with very tiny–yet strategic–steps) I was just washing dishes in my kitchen one day when I suddenly had the thought, “I’m really happy right now.” I always think of the title of C.S. Lewis’s book, Surprised by Joy, when I remember that experience.
So for me, I’ve been able to stick with certain lifestyle changes long-term because I remember how awful depression feels and what it was doing to my relationships. I never want to go there again. And that’s my “deep why” on the days that I’d rather have a cookie binge than eat vegetables or I'd rather stay up late watching TV instead of going to bed on time.
Your deep why could be totally different. Maybe you're trying to conceive a baby and you want to be in better health so you can do that. Maybe you’d like to lose weight so you can feel more comfortable with intimacy in your marriage because you want a deeper relationship with your spouse. Maybe you have aging parents who you see unable to do basic tasks and you want to stay as healthy as you can for as long as possible to be around for your grandkids.
The key here is to keep asking yourself, “Why is that important?” until you dig down to your deepest motivation for wanting to make a change.
Bonus Strategy: Get an Accountability Partner
Did you know that The American Society of Training and Development found that people are 65% more likely to meet a goal after committing to another person?
That’s a pretty significant increase in your chances for success!
This strategy can be as simple as checking in with a good friend or a spouse every few days to let them know how you’re doing on your goals. Even if your accountability partner has different goals than your own, it's still valuable just to have an external source of accountability.
One way to supercharge this strategy, however, is to work with a trained health coach. (Check out this article from Harvard Medical School if you’re not sure what health coaching is all about: Health Coaching is Effective. Should You Try It?)
As a health coach, I help my clients tap into their deepest motivations, decide which habits to implement first to have the biggest impact on their health and happiness, and help with the practical nitty-gritty of getting it done (including providing recipes, workout plans, and tips for balancing parenting and other responsibilities).
If you’d like to see how I can help you in reaching your goals in the New Year, I invite you to book a free Health Breakthrough Consultation with me. In this 45-minute, focused session, you’ll be able to:
Identify your health goals and you're aspirations for your life
Figure out what you truly want to accomplish long-term
Understand what may be preventing you from reaching your goals
Learn how you can permanently transform your life and your health with coaching support
This session can be a powerful “kickstart” for you towards meeting your goals in the new Year. And, since it is completely free, you have nothing to lose should you choose to take this time for yourself. You can book your Health Breakthrough Consultation here.
What are Your New Year's Resolutions?
What are your New Year's Resolutions this year? Which strategy do you think will be most helpful to you? Let me know in the comments below :)