Why New-Years-Resolutions inevitably fail

It’s that time of the year again: the calendar changes “significantly” (we get one full new digit after all!) and suddenly we feel the urge to make a dramatic change, to finally start moving, to face our most dreaded challenges. Yet this is inevitably the first step towards an almost unavoidable failure. Why you ask? Let’s take a closer look…

Decisions and motives

First off, every major decision in life is made by weighing up certain determining factors which may lead you to choose one rather than another. If you look back at some of the most significant decisions in your life, decisions where you decided to change something once and for all, can you identify what they all had in common? It’s fairly simple: you had a solid motive. Note that the key word here is “solid” and not “motive” alone. Many factors influence our decision making and – indeed – there is an infinite variety of options that could nudge us in one direction or another. Therefore, theoretically speaking, we could find the underlying motive for any decision we make. The direction we decided to steer in will inevitably remain the same until a counter-motive makes us turn around or – in less extreme cases – modifies our course. The stronger our motive, the more solid and determined our course of action. Hence a stronger motive will require a stronger counter-motive to deviate our course.

The stronger our motive, the more solid and determined our course of action.

Let me give you a concrete example: imagine you decide to learn a foreign language (let’s pick one you’d actually like to learn). Now ask yourself this: why do I want to learn this language? If you’re already struggling to find an answer to this question, good luck finding any inner motivation to even open a book or lookup a single word in your “desired” foreign language! If you do however have a good answer to this question, analyze it carefully and objectively as we often fall prey to the biased judgment of our own mind). What is the motivating factor behind your desire to acquire these language skills? Is it a solid motive, an essential need, a strong desire, a wish or simply curiosity? Let me make this clearer. Are you trying to learn this foreign language because, in reality, you like the food of that culture? Or is it because you just met the love of your live and he or she happens to only speak that language?

This is the reason why motive plays such a pivotal role. In the first case, you can perfectly enjoy the food without speaking the language, so it would be pleasing to speak the language, but there will be no real loss if you don’t. In the second case the situation is dramatically different, for you may lose the love of your life if you cannot communicate! The loss here would be significant to say the least; hence chances are you’ll do whatever it takes to learn this language in a heartbeat. Don’t be surprised if you suddenly discover you were a previously undetected language-genius!


The drawbacks of extrinsic motivation

Exactly the same theory applies to New Year’s resolutions, with an even greater caveat. First off, your motive is often nothing more than a single digit changing in our arbitrary calendar system (maybe more than one every now and again; but you get the point!). Yet for some strange reason this number-change causes a world-wide burst of short-lived motivation and hubris. Secondly, and more damaging, is that we are reacting to the pressures of society and a set of often unquestioned beliefs that “require” we act in a certain way. Suddenly we feel that we must change something.

If you look closely at these driving forces, you will realize they are all purely of external nature. Extrinsic (outside) factors can work beautifully as solid motives in a variety of situations. But weak extrinsic factors coupled with a weak intrinsic motive (or complete lack thereof) are a guaranteed recipe for failure. In other words, your New Year’s resolution will inevitably fail, if the reason you chose to pursue it was purely “because it’s January 1st”.

Weak extrinsic factors, coupled with a weak intrinsic motive, are a guaranteed recipe for failure.


What you need to make it work

Is there a way to make New Year’s resolutions work? There is indeed! And luckily a few, albeit a small, percentage of these resolutions actually are seen through and yield the desired result. So, which factors must we consider, in order to set ourselves up with a New Year’s resolution that will be successful? 

  1. Find a true motive along with the strongest possible driving factors. Consider that the most meaningful ones are often those with the strongest emotional charge.
  2. Make your resolution concrete, clear and measurable.
  3. Raise the stakes: artificially increase the pain-factor, should you fail to stick to it. Get your friends involved, make a bet, get creative!
  4. Visualize your successful achievement as clearly and as frequently as possible. The clearer the picture the clearer your action!
  5. Split your big goals into bite-sized daily portions and write them down (e.g. as a check-list).

The wonderful thing is that these five steps will work successfully – if applied properly – at any given date of the year, not just on January 1st. 

Are you wondering how you can artificially set up your environment to push you towards your goal in a way that will almost inevitably guarantee your success, in any chosen endeavor? How to effectively raise the stakes? How to clearly define your goals and visualize your success? Stay tuned and learn how to set yourself and your environment up for success! In the meantime, get creative in your dreams and goals and follow these steps in planning to achieve them.