New Year celebrations

Why Your New Year's Resolution is Doomed

New Year celebrations

The first week of January is an interesting time to be a people watcher. If you haven’t had a chance to, drive around your neighborhood early in the morning and I guarantee you will see an odd number of people jogging and exercising. Drive past your local gym’s parking lot and you will see loads of cars parked. Ask your friends to go out drinking on the first weekend of January and you may hear humble excuses to pass on the festivities.

Now go through the same routine later in January and you will find something even more odd. Fewer people are jogging, the gym looks empty, and friends are more willing to go out and consume alcohol. Why does this happen -- more precisely, why do we lose the motivation to continue our New Year resolutions so quickly?

New Year's gym resolutions - Motivation to go to the gym is strongest just after New Year's. Then it tends to decrease over time. Source: http://bit.ly/2mUSdXo

It’s easy to say that “it’s just hard” or “people are lazy” but that’s not quite the entire story. People clearly have the capability to continue their resolution, but the willingness seems to decline. I strongly believe that while the framework of a New Year’s resolution is seemingly positive, it’s actually a pretty flawed model of execution if you want to continue doing it. Here’s why it doesn’t work and what you can do to fix it.

The year-long goal model

Setting long-term goals is not the problem I always recommend everyone to set them, whether in business, life or anything else. However, executing against a year long-goal is a completely different animal. While your goal is 365 days ahead, your execution is day by day. Unfortunately, people tend to lose motivation because of the daunting task of being reminded how long they have to continue “the struggle.” This makes meeting any long-term goal extremely challenging.

Let’s explore the example of the medical student who is getting ready for an exciting eight (plus) years of learning. What would happen if this medical student bought a decade long calendar and then simply drew an X after each passing day? Not only would this be a dreadful experience, but the sheer thought of watching time pass would cause duress and a lack of excitement. This is why medical students typically break up their mental model of execution into semesters or even months, generally dictated by exam periods or notable milestones.

Ultimately, most long-term models of execution are not good enough by itself to sustain without a little creative slicing and dicing.

An alternative approach - Think quarterly

While it’s surely important to define year long goals, the execution of them must be further broken down into quarters or smaller (more emotionally manageable) chunks of time. Most powerful models of goal execution are done this way.

If you have never had a chance to read a copy of the Alcoholics Anonymous Handbook, it’s a really powerful work. It stresses the idea that while you surely want to think long-term when it comes to sobriety, your execution strategies need to include day-to-day coping mechanisms and plans.

By breaking up your resolution into smaller periods of time, the long-term goal is not so daunting. This can easily be done by focusing on milestones and such. Here is an example of how I plan to tackle personal fitness over the year.

The fitness example

I started exercising heavily (and dieting) back in December and surely want to keep it up for the entire year. Here’s how I broke up my year long goal into sub-goals:

Jan 1 - Jan 19: I have an upcoming trip to the beach at the end of January and want to look good (read not suck in my stomach for a week). Surely I can make it another 18 days to meet this milestone!

Jan 27 - April 8: April is my birthday and as I am turning 27 soon, I don’t want to feel depressed by waking up to look in the mirror and see a slob. I know that if I can look and feel healthy on my birthday it will set a strong precedent for the next year. Surely I can make it another six weeks to make that happen!

April 9 - June 9: Summer is right around the corner and although I don’t go to pool parties, I don’t want to avoid the opportunity just because I don’t like my stomach (or chest, arms, back..etc). Surely I can make it another eight weeks to make that happen!

[…]

And so it goes. I will continue to set milestones for myself to keep myself focused on the next mini-goal. It’s hard to imagine, but despite setting a resolution to stay fit all year long, I will never actually think about the year long goals - and for good reason. If I think about 365 days I know I will never make it on that alone. I just don’t have the right strategy to execute that.

Keys to success

As we have seen, my long-term fitness goal is broken up into smaller goals that are more exciting, deadline oriented and manageable. Here are some other items to consider as keys to success:

  • Everyone knows how to uniquely "trick their brain" into getting excited for smaller goals. This is unique to the individual, so dig deep to find what will get you through.
  • If it gets tough, make even smaller goals. If two months is too long, reduce the goals down to a week or less. Whatever it takes.
  • Actively assess your progress by setting a recurring calendar event every two weeks.
  • Take breaks and reward yourself for your progress.
  • At the start, try focusing on getting 21 straight days in order to properly build the habit (read more about ways to build habits).
  • Write down your short-term goals and put them behind your door so you have to see them first thing in the morning and right before bed. Recite them while getting ready. Another trick is to write them on your bathroom mirror with a dry-erase marker.

In hindsight, I should append the title to read Why your New Year’s resolution is doomed - and how to FIX it.

Best of luck with your resolution and if you came up with an innovative strategy to get it done, I would love to hear about it through my contact form.

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