Why some resolutions succeed while others fail


By this time, many people have already blown their New Year’s resolutions; whatever the resolution may be, from habit change to aspirations, the desire for change is a normal human experience, one that speaks to our innate desire for development. The fact that many of us continue to make bold declarations with the beginning of each New Year, despite the same poor outcomes, says something about the persistence of the human spirit. As it turns out, change is possible as supported by research and testimonies of people who have experienced significant improvements in areas they previously struggled. For those who have already exceeded their predicted daily caloric intake or individuals who have overspent their budget once again, the discussion that follows may prove encouraging.

Several years ago [2010], Leona Tam and her colleagues wrote an article entitled, “When Planning is not enough.” The paper focused on challenges for those changing snacking habits who truly desired to make healthier choices. It became immediately clear that the findings of this article could be applied to many habits. To begin, these three questions need to be asked: 1. How strong is the habit? 2. How clear are my plans to change? and 3. What is my orientation to change?  Let’s look at these questions and consider how they affect change.

  1. How strong is the habit?

Years ago I remember talking to a friend about his desire to stop gambling because it was a waste of his hard earned money. When I asked how strong his habit was, he responded, “Well, how am I supposed to answer that? I really don’t know.” The same question has generated similar responses from people who felt they consumed too much ice cream or smoked. A habit is defined as something we do in a specific situation, with some frequency; an example would be eating a bag of chips while binge watching a show on Netflix. The strength of the habit is determined by how frequently you perform the behavior. Strong habits are difficult to change, but change is possible. Often, poor plans lead to bad outcomes. That is, failed efforts to change can result in a cascade of unpleasant emotions [low self-esteem, anxiety, depression, etc.]. The best resolutions for change are based on a clear understanding of the problem habit.

  1. How clear are my plans for change?

Change does not happen without a specific approach to implement a particular course of action. There are many people who lament that they should spend more time outdoors, hiking and doing other activities. Yet others protest that they need to stop spending too much time on social media. While there is no question that these are great aspirations, what is missing in such statements is a specific plan of how this will be carried out. The most important aspect of planning is specificity. When are you going to do it? What materials or resources must you have to do it? And what happens if you do not follow through? I recently had the pleasure of hearing a gentleman tell me that he lost forty pounds because he set a goal to live a more health conscious life style for his wife, child, and grandchildren. In addition to answering the specific aspects of planning, this man went a step further and provided his motivation to do so.

  1. What is my approach to change?

Studies suggest that change is more likely to happen when we change our orientation away from prevention [e.g., “I must stop eating snacks after 7:00 pm”] to promotion [e.g., “I will sleep a little better if I stretch and do light exercises after 7:00pm”]. In other words, change is more likely when the focus is on pursuit, instead of avoidance. Studies found that stating or writing down healthy intentions was more effective than doing something because of obligation [e.g., “I ought to stop lying on the couch watching TV.”]. Success is more likely when our change efforts and resolutions are based on positive gains rather than negative things that we dislike.

We started by taking about people who have already given up on their resolutions for the New Year because they indulged the things they hoped to avoid. It is not too late. Perhaps you can tweak your goals by doing the following and share with us your success stories:

  1. Write down one or two goals to be attained in a specific time frame
  2. Share your plan with one supportive person
  3. Describe the benefits of the new, positive changes you plan to implement
  4. Get started today