Why Do Resolutions So Often Fail?
And what we can do to make them stick.
Posted December 31, 2021 | Reviewed by Lybi Ma
- Humans too easily believe that changing our situation will result in a change in ourselves.
- Meaningful change comes through deep learning about why we engage in damaging behaviours.
- Resolutions can succeed as long as we do the hard work on ourselves to make them happen.
This is the time of year that many of us plan for change in our lives. It could be a new job, exiting a relationship, moving to a new city or just the standard new year resolutions such as giving up alcohol, going to the gym, or eating more healthily.
But often such desired changes either fail to happen or disappoint in terms of their impact on one’s life. Resolutions also all too often just fail to stick beyond a brief promising flourish at the start.
This begs an interesting question for psychologists: Why do so many new year’s resolutions disappoint and get broken? And, if we really want to get deep about it, how can we actually make these aspirations stick and work?
The answer is simple. The one constant we carry is the same old self. Too often, we confuse a change in context with a change in self.
It’s very common. Think about a time when you’ve looked forward to a new job, a new relationship, a big move, or even just a new wardrobe. We assume that once we get this shift in our environment or situation, this will somehow automatically trigger a transformation of our character. We can leave our insecurities behind and emerge, the myth goes, into happier, more confident, successful people.
If only meaningful change were so easy. The truth is that as long as we take the same self into any new situation, the problems we encounter are likely to re-emerge. This is why people often encounter the same conflicts in different relationships, the same insecurities being replicated in new jobs or the same junk food items being scoffed from the fridge two days after your pledge to eat more healthily.
How do we combat that?
If we really want to change ourselves, we’ve got to do the hard work that gets us there. This means shifting from learning about what we do to a deeper form of learning about why we do it. We need to understand what is it about ourselves that has contributed to disappointment say at work or in a relationship.
The first way to do this is to address the root causes of our behaviour or the disappointment that we feel with an aspect of our life. Let’s stick with the example of junk food. Many of us learned years ago that what we are doing was wrong; it’s why we’re making the resolution in the first place. We need to look deeper at why we’re doing it. Are you bored? Rewarding yourself? Feeling unloved? Overly tired?
Once you identify the true cause of your behaviour, you can begin to put some meaningful alternatives in place. Whether it’s taking a long hot bath, buying a new outfit, phoning a best friend, or re-watching a favourite comedy, find what you need to fill the void that might otherwise be stuffed with chocolate and crisps.
The same process applies to not being satisfied in a relationship. It is easy to see the faults in the other person that creates this feeling. But we also have to ask what do we do that contributes to this situation? Has this pattern been repeated for me before? Why have I made the choices I have made in the past?
This deep learning mindset requires real self-honesty, reflection and often help from a trusted friend or a professional. It is not something we do easily or naturally.
Apart from the failure to understand oneself and why we do what we do, a second major driver of disappointment is simply habit and routine. As cognitive behavioural scientists have shown, one of the main reasons we do things is simply because we’ve done them so many times before. The neurocircuitry has hardened into ingrained patterns. Anyone who’s tried walking around the block in the opposite direction to normal knows it can take a surprising amount of mental effort to do a small thing differently.
To prevent yourself from breaking your worthy new year’s aspirations on auto-pilot, you have to make it easy for yourself to act differently. This means raising the cost of the old behaviour. For example, throw out all of the junk food in the house so you have to walk to the shop if you want some. Next, make the new behaviour easier, such as filling the house with healthy alternative snacks that you actually like. Give yourself a reward after you’ve made the right choice five times to embed the new habit.
If you’re serious about meaningful change in 2022, here are some of the questions you might want to reflect on:
- What is it about me that that has contributed to a particular situation I want to change? Why have I created this pattern?
- What change in self do I need to take into a new situation or the new year?
- How can I make it practically harder to engage in the behaviour I want to change?
- What can I put in place of this behaviour that will make the change stick and keep me honest and motivated?
None of this is easy. But the good news: If you’re serious about change, it can be done. It just takes hard work to get there. As humans, we often have reasons for our behaviour, and those reasons are likely to be more deeply buried if that behaviour is damaging us. Taking a bit of time and compassion to understand yourself is a worthwhile resolution in itself, and it might just make your other aspirations a bit more likely to stick. Good luck.