It’s just that reality is stacked against us. Despite all the hype, the average New Year’s resolution has the lifespan of an anemic Mayfly. One study suggests as many as 80 percent of New Year’s resolutions fail in the first 30 days and a mere 9.2 percent of us ever achieve our resolutions. That’s a lot of unused gym memberships, treadmills used as clothes racks and cobweb-draped swear jars.
So why is this? Is it because we’re weak-willed? Or is it because change is downright difficult? According to research from University College London, it takes 66 days to completely break an old habit, and it can take much longer to master something new.
Let’s face it: if new habits were easy, we would all be vegan, non-smoking Olympians who run Fortune 500 companies and are fluent in 19 languages.
Regardless of how neuroplastic they say our brains are, my own brain feels like neurotitanium. Some of my bad habits have been around so long that I’ve named them. There’s Nellie the Night Eater, Roxanne the Ruminator and Patty the Procrastinator.
I’ve grown pretty attached to them, as they all seem to serve a deeper purpose — at least temporarily.
So what do we do about it?
Change is hard, yet growth and self-improvement are essential parts of the human experience. As the wise John A. Shedd quote says: “A ship in harbor is safe — but that is not what ships are built for.”
I don’t know a lot about success, but I am well-acquainted with failure. And if I’ve learned anything from past fails, it’s this. Typically, our resolutions fail in the planning stages:
- We expect too much: We set impossible goals and take on too much. It’s not enough to lose 30 pounds and create a “No eating after 7 p.m.” rule. No, we must eat less than 18 grams of carbs per month and CrossFit our way to American Ninja Warrior condition by mid-April.
Numerous studies show we are more likely to be successful if we take small, achievable steps and consistently stick to them. Being a tortoise isn’t flashy, but it’s more likely to get us over the finish line than all those spectacular, hare-brained sprints and crashes.
- We aren’t clear on what we want to accomplish: Sometimes our goals simply aren’t defined enough. What does it really mean to “eat healthier” or “be more financially responsible?” These vague generalities are bound to maroon us on the Island of Lost Goals.
For best results, goals need to be specific, measurable and reasonable (“I hope to lose 30 pounds by next Christmas, so I’m going to start going to the gym three times a week and reducing my daily carb intake to ____ g.) This allows us to keep track, reward ourselves for the little victories along the way and stay focused.
- We don’t pick goals that truly resonate. We can have the best financial adviser or personal trainer in the world, but our goals won’t stick unless they represent something we really, truly, deeply want. Before committing to losing weight or going back to school, ask yourself if you are truly ready for a change – or if you’re just trying it because someone else suggested it to you. We tend to do better if we are intrinsically motivated and the idea came from our own heart and soul.
- We aren’t addressing the real issue. I know that I overeat because I love food. But I also use food for everything from soothing myself to feeling comfortably numb. And, unless I get curious about that and find healthier ways to get my needs met, I’ll wind up back at the smorgasbord.
And, most importantly:
- We call it a “resolution” and swear we have to start on Jan. 1. Resolution is a harsh word — conjuring up a feeling like: “I MUST COMPLETELY FIX THE HOT MESS THAT IS ME OR I AM A COMPLETE FLOP AND EMBARRASSMENT TO HUMANITY!” This rigid, all-or-nothing thinking creates undue pressure.
It is so much less daunting and more compassionate to think of it as a “self-care goal.”
Another common mistake: Believing you absolutely MUST start on Jan. 1. Here you are, suffering sugar withdrawal, exhausted from the New Year’s Eve bash, your refrigerator and freezer still stuffed with leftover Christmas cookies. The credit card statements from all your gift purchases are arriving, you’re suffering post-holiday depression and there seems to be about 11 minutes of daylight a day.
Do these conditions — exhaustion, emotional hangovers and financial stress — seem conducive to success? Does it seem smart to heap one more expectation on yourself at that time?
Here’s my thought. How about a Groundhog Day self-care goal? By February, we should be caught up on our rest, we’ve had enough time to carve out a sensible, non-eggnog-induced care plan and spring is at least within distant view. (Well, if that little rascal doesn’t see his shadow.)
So are you ready? Go ahead and circle Feb. 2 on your calendar.
And let me know if you need a treadmill.
I happen to have three of them for sale on FM Garage Sale.
Readers can reach columnist Tammy Swift at firstname.lastname@example.org.