Be honest: did you already fall off the wagon when it comes to your New Year's resolutions this year? Don't be embarrassed! You're not alone. In fact, more than 30% of resolutions quickly die off by the end of the second week of the year, and only 64% of them make it through to February. Only 8% of people who make New Year's resolutions are actually successful in keeping them. Most New Year's resolutions fail.
So why are we so bad at achieving goals that we really want to achieve? If we want it and it's good for us, shouldn't it naturally be easy to accomplish what we set out to? Breaking a bad habit is hard. Picking up a good one is even harder. And planning is almost impossible for most of us.
Here's the good news: those who explicitly make New Year's resolutions are 10 times more likely to achieve their goals than people who don't. But even though we actually really want to achieve our goals, why is it that we so rarely manage to carry through? The key might be in looking at 2014's top New Year's resolutions.
Top 2014 New Year's resolutions
Here are the top 10 New Years' resolutions for 2014, according to the University of Scranton:
- Lose weight
- Get organized
- Spend less, save more
- Enjoy life to the fullest
- Stay fit and healthy
- Learn something exciting
- Quit smoking
- Help others with their dreams
- Fall in love
- Spend more time with family
Now that's a lot of resolutions! And I think it's safe to assume that some people have more than one resolution, for example, lose weight and spend more time with family.
Here's the problem with these resolutions: they are vague, which renders them unachievable because you can't quantify them. My personal favourites are 'enjoy life to the fullest', 'help others with their dreams' and 'learn something exciting' is also one of these goals. There's nothing inherently wrong with these resolutions overall. But if they are not also accompanied by quantifiable, actionable steps, then these resolutions are bound to be part of the majority that fails.
The thing is, when we make New Year's resolutions, we think of things to last us the whole year. We think big. And there's nothing wrong with that, except for Rome wasn't built in a day. Taking on big, bold goals makes them intimidating and hard to attain, if they're not accompanied by bite-sized actions.
Also, the chance for positive feedback from peers, or even for the joy of small victories, is diminished with goals that last all year. And that can make many well-intentioned goal-getters a lot less motivated.
The science behind achieving your goals
In a Stanford experiment, professor Baba Shiv divided several dozen undergrads and divided them into two groups. One group was given a two-digit number to remember, and the other was given a seven-digit number. Then they were told to walk to the end of a hallway, where they were presented with two snack options: a bowl of fruit salad or a slice of chocolate cake.
Here's where things get interesting: students who had to remember the seven digits were twice more likely to choose the cake than students who had only two digits to remember. This is because they are a 'cognitive load', taking up valuable space in the brain, overtaxing the prefrontal cortex and thus weakening willpower. And making good decisions takes a lot of mindfulness and brain power.
It's easy to see how this applies to our broad New Year's resolutions. The bigger the goal (are you aware how much work must go into 'living life to the fullest'?!), the more taxing it is on our already over-solicited brains.
How you can improve your resolutions
The first step is to get away from broad, unquantifiable goals. A review of health behaviour change and maintenance in diet and exercise shows that setting specific, challenging goals leads to better performance than vague goals. It's very likely that this also applies to areas outside of nutrition and physical exercise.
The lesson here is that instead of resolving to 'lose weight', you can set the goal of losing 10 lbs. by April. Or instead of telling yourself that we will 'spend more time with the family', you can make it your goal to make it home for family dinner every weekday. Instead of 'saving more, spending less', you can set up a certain in your savings account monthly. You get the idea.
Another approach that is proven to help with achieving goals is formulating implementation intentions. Implementation intentions are simple 'if-then' statements. For example, if your weight problems are caused by overindulging in snacks after work, then your implementation intention can be "If I get a craving for chips after work, then I will have baby carrots instead."
It sounds simplistic, but these intentions really work. Having a clear action plan of what to do in 'emergency cases', when you're likely to stray from your goals, makes it more likely to take goal directed actions.
You can do it
Of course, the most important ingredient of all this goal-setting and goal-achieving is for you to believe that you can actually make it happen.
Make sure you foster that trust in yourself by sharing your goals, successes and especially setbacks with trusted, supportive friends.
So what are your bite-sized, quantifiable New Year's resolutions? We'd love to hear from you in the comments below!