The Real Reason Why We Fail at Our New Year’s Resolutions

It’s that time of the year – New Year’s resolution time.

However, there’s a problem. All those cookies, brownies, hams, turkeys and whatever else was put before you at the holiday dinner table are now begging for you to remain within their oh-so-delicious grasp.

They’re doing everything they can to foil your plans to lose weight or get in shape, two goals that made the top five New Year’s resolutions in 2015.

The truth is, temptations and unexpected hurdles are quite effective in derailing our goals, so much so that only an estimated 8% of us actually follow through on our New Year’s resolutions.

That’s a pretty small slice of the more than 100 million of us who make resolutions each year.

What’s even more interesting is, that every January there are literally thousands of articles and posts from casual writers, so-called “experts” and legit experts who write, at length, about why we fail and how we can succeed with our resolutions.

In our opinion, it would be pretty amazing to be part of the 8% who actually succeed. But more than that, we want to see that 8% change.

Wouldn’t it be fantastic if 88% of us succeeded instead of a meager 8%?

Call it idealistic, but we’d like to change our success rates for New Year’s resolutions. To do that, we embarked on a three-part series on resolutions. Our trio of articles includes:

  • Why we fail at our New Year’s resolutions
  • What we can do to succeed with our New Year’s resolutions
  • Top New Year’s Resolutions tips from psychologists, mental health professionals, and fitness experts

Throughout this series we dig into the real reasons why we fail and how we can succeed, consulting a wide range of experts to come up with useable, powerful information.

We get the fact that we’re one of many sources to which you’ll turn for resolution advice – you’ll have plenty of choices.

What you’ll find here at Highya is a dedication to getting the best possible information to help you overcome failure and succeed.

We don’t want to feed you fluff; we want to turn you into a wise, empowered outlier who defies the odds and finds success.

Are you ready? We hope so because we’ve been waiting all year to figure out why it’s so hard to follow through on resolutions.

New Year’s Resolutions Change Habits & Habits Are Hard to Change

Nearly every resolution we make has to do with habits. We act a certain way or we do certain things that we just don’t like, so we want to alter them to become or do something different:

  • We don’t like how much we weight, so we say we’ll lose weight
  • We want to get in shape, so we say we’ll get a gym membership and work out
  • We don’t like how easily frustrated we get, so we say we’ll become more patient
  • We hate how cluttered our life is, so we say we’re going to get more organized
  • We know smoking is bad for us, so we say we’re going to quit

Each of these resolutions is in the top 10 most popular that we make, and each requires a change in habits.

You may have noticed some of those habits are physical and some are mental.

Regardless of the type of habit you want to transform, though, everything is based on changing and old way of doing things.

It’s Hard to Make a Change and Keep It Going

David Herskowitz, a 15-year vet of the fitness industry and co-founder of Sandbox Fitness in Sherman Oaks (Calif.), talked to us about the basic principle of habits.

“New Year’s resolutions are about trying to change habits, and that’s very difficult,” David told us. “It’s like saying you’re going to get good grades in school. It’s easy to study hard for one test and get an A; a lot of people can do that. But to keep that up continuously is the hard part.”

David pointed out that habits are basically routines we go through every day.

“Any break in that routine, and we don’t like it,” he said.

While talking about habits identifies what makes resolutions so difficult, it’s only the first step in figuring out why we fail.

To dig deeper, we need to ask the basic question, “Why is it difficult to change habits?”

Behavioral Drift Makes Us Want to Go Back to Our Old Habits

To get more insight into the question of why habits are hard to change, we reached out to Dr. Josh Klapow, a psychologist and professor of public health at University of Alabama at Birmingham.

Josh told us that the engine behind our tendency to go back to our old habits is something scientists call “behavioral drift”.

“When we try to shift to new behaviors, our natural tendency is to drift back to our old habits,” he said.

When it comes to New Year’s resolutions, behavioral drift pops up when we, for example, miss a day of working out.

“What happens to most people is they find themselves turning one day into two days and two days becomes a week. People will typically say, ‘I was going great and, all of a sudden, I was back in my old ways,” he said. “What’s happening is behavioral drift; you’re being drawn back to your old ways one day at a time.”

Think of behavioral drift like what happens when you live in one place for five years and you drive home the same way every day.

After five years, you move to a house a few of blocks away. For the first couple of weeks, you find yourself driving home to your old house out of habit.

After six or seven months, you’re pretty much in your new groove but, every once in a while, you go into old-behavior mode and drive to your old house without thinking.

Resolutions are the same way. We want to work out more, but our natural behavior of sleeping in calls us back to bed every morning.

Sometimes you give in, most of the time you don’t. Either way, you’re dealing with a set pattern of action burned into your mind.

That set pattern becomes more natural the more you do it.

Our Failed Resolutions Start in Our Minds

The principle of behavioral drift reveals that much of why we struggle with resolutions is based not in our bodies, but in our minds.

Tiffany Cruikshank, the founder of Los Angeles-based Yoga Medicine and former yoga instructor at Nike’s World Headquarters, makes a living helping people understand the relationship between the mind and body.

“Anytime you have a goal, the mental side of it is 100% of it,” Tiffany said.

Most people who write down goals never take the time to look beyond what’s posted on their fridge or bathroom mirror, she said.

To have success, though, people setting New Year’s resolutions – whether exercise-related or not – need to think through what kind of connection they have with that goal.

For those of us who simply chase after an idea of weight loss or fitness, the chances of failure are higher because we’re dealing with an idea and not a goal we’ve connected ourselves to based on how we see ourselves if, in fact, we reach our goal.

We get into more detail about what that means in our second article on resolutions. For now, though, the main thing you need to ponder is that goals, whether physical or not, live and die by what happens in our mind.

With the connection between resolutions and the mind established, we turned to Jacksonville-based licensed mental health counselor Pat Moore, who specializes in sports psychology.

We wanted to find out from Pat why we often let our failures – behavioral drift or otherwise – ruin our ability to push through and pursue our resolutions.

Your Thoughts Are Interfering With Your New Year’s Resolutions

Our interview with Pat took place at her practice. When we sat down with her to talk about the mental side of resolutions, we posed the following question to kick off our discussion: Why is it that two athletes with the exact same body and skill perform so differently in pressure situations?

Some people seem to choke and some seem to excel, and the same thing could be said about New Year’s resolutions. Some of us power through the entire year, while many of us give up on our goals after a few weeks and one or two failures.

Why Do Some People Seem Destined to Blow It?

Pat’s answer started with a visual: She held up a clipboard with a piece of paper on it that read, “Performance = Potential - Interference”.

She went on to explain that you can have two football players in the tunnel before a game. Both are at the same level of skill, body size, and experience.

One is nervous but believes he’s going to have an amazing game. The other is equally as nervous, but believes his nerves will lead to a panic attack. Can you guess which athlete will have the better game?

Pat says that scenario is the prime example of why, in many cases, we don’t achieve the goals we’re able or willing to do: We think ourselves out of success.

“If you believe you’re a failure, you’ll fail,” Pat said. “If you want to be able to accomplish your New Year’s resolutions, you have to notice what you make up if you miss a day of workouts.”

What You Make Up Determines Your New Year’s Eve Resolution Performance

“Make up” is what Pat uses to describe the mental thoughts you create when you’re faced with an obstacle to your resolutions.

Negative thoughts about a certain fact create interference, which undercuts your potential and hampers your performance.

For the NFL player, this could mean that he chokes in big games.

For the average person making a New Year’s resolution, it means they’ll probably say goodbye to their goal after their first slip-up. But, Pat said, it doesn’t have to be like this.

We can maximize our potential and our performance by making up positive situations in response to facts.

 “All of life and sports and all people who make New Year’s resolutions live in a world where it’s not about facts, it’s about what we make up, which is why we have to be careful,” she said. “Whatever you make up will determine your future.”

Pat said she can tell how effective a person will be simply by listening to what they make up.

For example, she said, imagine sitting in a room with your fellow employees. It’s rainy outside (fact), but you think it’s a beautiful day (what you make up).

Other employees agree with you, but there’s a real grinch of a colleague who complains about how ugly and miserable it is outside.

“The one who says it’s ugly isn’t going to be as productive, but the employee who enjoys the weather will be more productive,” Pat told us.

Our Past Can Influence What We Tend to Make Up

Basically, the thoughts you have about a particular situation are going to dictate what happens after that.

For someone who is setting New Year’s resolutions, they’re committing to a change of habits, no matter what those habits are.

At some point along the way, they’ll face a setback or an unexpected situation.

It’s at that point, what we say to ourselves dictates what happens in the future. But, in many cases, those thoughts we have are dictated by certain factors that go back many, many years.

We See Ourselves as Failures

Some of us, when faced with a new situation that will test our resolve, revert back to our own personal history to determine how we respond.

If we view our past as a catalog of bone-headed mistakes and failures, then we’ll most likely immerse ourselves in those thoughts when we respond to the situation at hand. The outcome? Not so good.

Family/Friend Traditions Haunt Us

For others, their New Year’s resolutions mean breaking a cycle of behavior that’s been in their family for generations.

Pat illustrated this point with an example of a family with a history of obesity – years upon years of certain thoughts and norms shape the way each family member responds to facts.

When one of those family members decides their New Year’s resolution is to lose weight, they’re battling against their own thoughts and the decades of family history behind those thoughts.

How do you change what you make up, no matter what mistakes you’ve made or what family you came from?

Pat says the answer is pretty complex, but it usually starts with one step.

Start Your New Year’s Resolutions the Right Way: Analyze Your Thoughts

One of the first things Pat does with her athletes is she asks them to notice what they’re making up in their minds.

The emphasis here isn’t necessarily solving the problem; it’s encouraging self-awareness. 

“You make up 90% of your day,” Pat said. “It’s an important step to making any lasting changes.”

Our advice? In the first two weeks of your resolution, take notice of all the thoughts you have when pushing for that goal.

Write them down. Read through them at the end of the day. What do you notice about your thoughts? Are they positive or negative?

As you notice patterns in your thought, there’s a good chance you’ll become aware of them in the future.

“We cannot control if a thought that is going to make us nervous comes into our brain,” Pat said. “But you can control what you do with it when it comes into your thinking process.”

The best way to corral those thoughts? By focusing on what you can control, Pat said.

For an athlete, this might mean countering pre-game nerves by focusing on warm-ups.

For the person starting out with their New Year’s Resolution, this could mean focusing on your new routine.

Let’s say your goal is to work out five times a week by next January.

You wake up one morning in February and you just don’t feel like getting out of bed. It’s cold, the blankets are cozy and your body hurts from the previous day’s workout. 

In your head, you start to feel that weird sensation creep in again – the desire to quit.

After all, you tell yourself, you were bound to fail this year just like every other year. Oh well, you think, I just don’t have what it takes.

In those moments, identify the facts – you’re sore and tired – and what you’re making up about those facts – you always fail and you aren’t cut out for it.

You can’t control your doubts in that moment, so take control of what you actually can do.

Get out of bed, get your gym clothes on, walk to your car or subway and go to the gym.

Final Thoughts on Why We Fail at Our New Year’s Resolutions

We’ve tried to get to the bottom of the problem of why we so often fail at our New Year’s resolutions.

What we’ve learned is that your success is based on what goes on in your mind.

Sure, resolutions are, in reality, a commitment to choose our habits. But those habits are linked to our minds, and how we handle what goes on up there dictates the success we’ll have in our future endeavors.

First, remember that your mind will always want to return what’s familiar. Like a car with alignment problems, behavioral drift will try and pull you off course.

If your goal is to work out five days a week, your brain is going to have a tendency to want to return to the schedule you had before you set your resolution.

If behavioral drift succeeds and pulls you off your schedule or plan, you’re faced with the fact that you missed a workout, for example.

Just like a football player who makes a mistake in a game, you have to make a decision about how you will respond. 

Will you think back to past mistakes and tell yourself the error you just made confirms the fact that you’re a failure or that you always choke in the big moment?

Or will you tell yourself that mistakes happen, you’re a great player and you’ll learn from that mistake and move on?

What you make up in your mind won’t always be so simple, though.

If the goals you set for yourself require that you change habits considered normal or acceptable by your family or friends, you’re going to have your work cut out for you.

What’s Next? How to Succeed with Your New Year’s Resolutions

With the mental groundwork laid out in this post, we can now talk about what you can do to help yourself succeed once Jan. 1 rolls around and you’re ready to tackle your fitness or weight goals.

Though we’re focusing on fitness-related goals, what we’ve talked about here is applicable to almost any situation in your life.

If you want to learn more about how to increase your chances of success with your New Year’s resolution, head to the next article in this series.

If you feel like what we’ve covered is too deep and you want more digestible tips, then check out our quick tips article about New Year’s resolutions.


J.R. Duren

J.R. is an award winning journalist who uncovers the hard truths about personal finance, health and fitness through in-depth research and interviews with experts.


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