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Why New Year’s Resolutions Don’t Work and How to Better Ensure Success

It’s not unusual for many of us to find our work pants a little (or a lot!) tighter and wallets leaner come January. There’s a reason why it’s called the silly season!


It’s a tradition for many to throw caution to the wind annually and to abandon all restraint and overindulge. The momentary lapse in judgement can be attributed to wanting to reward ourselves after a long, hard year. We want instant gratification, and we want it NOW! Predictably though, remorse often follows.


While eating that last slice of pizza, sprawled on the couch after polishing off that tub of ice cream or in the aftermath of an impulse shopping spree, we conveniently resolve to go on a diet, get fitter or healthier or save more. It’s easy to have the steely determination and resolve while you’re still high from your drug of choice.


Why do we make these resolves? Because they permit us to continue doing the thing that is making us momentarily feel good. We rationalise that it’s okay for the behaviour to continue as we will reverse the consequences or make it right, thereby cancelling it out, almost as though it never happened. Hence the existence of New Year’s resolutions, a practice I would hazard a guess many of us do.


Ever tried to go to the gym, a Pilates or a yoga class or buy a diet book in January? Chances are, hordes of best-intentioned resolution-ers surrounded you, and that section of the bookshelf was rather bare. I would bet a few Rands on the fact that you were one of the resolution-ers yourself! Why else were you suddenly interested in buying ‘The Ultimate Book of Modern Juicing’ in January?!


Let’s look at it honestly; can you even remember the number of times you made a New Year’s resolution to hit the gym consistently or to lose weight, save money, wake up earlier, complete a project you’ve been avoiding or quit an unhealthy habit?


Now I’m going to ask you a hard-hitting question- how did all those resolutions pan out?


While cringing with remorse at the memory of your many abandoned good intentions, take heart in the fact that you’re not alone. According to U.S News, 80% of resolutions fail by February so while you may not have been successful in the past, at least you were in the majority!


So why is it that most New Year’s resolutions fail?


  1. The plan is flawed from the outset.

You’ve thought about the What, but not deeply enough about the How and Why, or if you did, the order was wrong. Most of us can think quite clearly about what we want to achieve when we’re deciding on our resolutions. But in the exuberance of the moment, we tend to set overarching, unrealistic goals that are hard or impossible to attain, thus dooming ourselves to failure. So even our what is flawed.


Maybe we’re so chuffed with our brilliance at coming up with such ingenious ideas that we fail to progress in planning the actionable steps we will need to take; how we are going achieve what we want.


We also fail to plot how we will realistically measure our progress or success so even if we did think about how in terms of steps, because we don’t know what the incremental measures of success are, the beacons along the way which point to evidence of being on track, we start with aplomb only to abandon efforts and fail.


The why is often a rather underdeveloped part of the equation. We often stop exploring at the first why we arrive at, failing to get to the core reason. Why we do something is of paramount importance. It is the purpose, the cause or belief that drives each of us.


Simon Sinek who wrote ‘Start with Why’ would argue that ‘people don’t buy WHAT you do, they buy WHY you do it, and this is as true in sales in a work context, as it is when you’re selling your own self on an idea. If you’re not clear on the why you’ll battle to have a big enough reason to stick to the plan.


As for the order of what, how and why, again Simon proposes that one starts with the why, the core reason behind the inspiration, then the how, and lastly what. The what can be done by many people, but how and why are very personal aspects and reasons to you. Being clear on what your own intrinsic reasons are behind how you would like to do it and why, bodes better for success.


  1. You’re ruled by emotion, and we want instant gratification

We all start with the best of intentions, only to witness them fade before our very eyes.

If you’ve been eating well, exercising and saving money for a couple of weeks and don’t see progress, the resolve that you had initially tends to wane. The problem with the resolution in the first place was that it was born out of a feeling and feelings come and go.

The 20% of people who succeed with New Year’s Resolutions, tend to forge on and stick to the plan despite not seeing external evidence of change initially, and they are also not ruled by emotions and feelings which can play havoc with progress.

But it’s been two weeks, why aren’t I thin yet?

We tend to forget how long it took us to get into the situation we resolved to reverse, and then we give up when we don’t see immediate results.

There are no quick fixes. Sustainable change comes about through painstakingly consistent Daily Deliberate Action and through making small, incremental changes which get you closer to your goal.

Look back at a goal you achieved in the past- did it happen instantly, or did it take a great deal of preparation, commitment and consistency over a period of time?

Delaying gratification requires impulse control, maturity, being in touch with your feelings, digging deep and questioning where the feeling of wanting to give up really comes from.


How can we ensure better success?


  1. Set SMAC Goals

Once you’re clear on why, how and what you would like to do, each goal can be broken down into effective goals and objectives using the SMAC test.

For each thing you would like to achieve, make sure your plan is;


  • Specific

You must have a very clear and specific end to your goal. You can’t just say ‘I want to save money’ Why do you want to save it? How much do you want to save and how will you save it? And by when?


  • Measurable

Having a goal of ‘getting in shape’ is also too vague. Unpack what ‘getting in shape’ means? Make it quantifiable in terms of inches or kilograms.

How will you keep track? How will you know that you’re on course? Establish what the markers of success are along the way.


  • Achievable

Ensure that your goal is attainable to who you are and what is within your means to achieve otherwise you are setting yourself up for failure.

While commitment and consistency are called for, so is a healthy dose of realism.


  • Challenging

While you need to be realistic, your goal also must stretch you. Change happens outside of your comfort zone. Anything worthwhile is never easily won.


  1. Why5

To successfully reach your goals, your WHY needs to be clear enough and clarity can only be gained by interrogating what really lies beneath your surface reasons.


There is an interrogative technique called the 5 WHYS which helps a person to identify the root cause of the issue.


Here’s an example;

I feel I am not progressing in my career (the problem).


Now, most people would set a New Year’s Resolution saying ‘Make career progress’ but the statement is too vague and open to interpretation. Asking a series of ‘why’ questions can uncover the root cause.


I feel I am not progressing in my career.

Why- I didn’t get the promotion that was on offer last year

Why- They chose Susan instead

Why- I didn’t have the required skills

Why- I hadn’t continued investing in my own professional development

Why- I hadn’t realised the importance of continuous learning and upskilling in today’s changing world of work.


The root cause of the problem, lack of career progression can be rectified. Clearly, if this person wants a promotion, they need to upskill themselves and the same 5 Why process can be used to decide upon which particular skill set they most need to build.


  1. Follow the process, not the outcome

Society is geared up to teach us to expect instant results. Gone are the days when we were taught to work hard, stay consistent and be patient. These days many a young University leaver, when asked what job they want, expresses the desire to be the CEO and they get frustrated when they don’t progress fast enough when entering the workplace.

We tend to give up on a goal when we’re unable to see results. If we take our focus off results, and focus on the process instead, letting ourselves evolve into the new way of being and appreciating the techniques and lessons learned along the way, that is often rewarding enough in itself. This is what will sustain you on the journey.

Individuals who focus on the process, rather than the outcome, accept that there is no way to fast track mastery and that mistakes are part of the journey. A mistake, to a person who is purely focused on the outcome, means failure. But making a mistake doesn’t mean you have to abandon your goal completely. Mistakes can be an invaluable part of the learning and the journey.

Success is a journey, not a destination. Being focused on the process allows for a more mindful way of approaching it.

Gaining mastery also takes time. It isn’t something which suddenly appears overnight.


  1. Focus on the Big Picture

So many of us fail as we get so caught up in the mundane micro steps that are required, that we lose sight of the bigger picture and everything we have to gain- the identified goal as well as all the little spin-off benefits that no doubt come along with it.


Striving towards the goal requires us to sacrifice something and sometimes we get so caught up in the minutiae of every little thing we’re giving up that we begin to resent the sacrifices without the benefits- we develop a glass half empty mindset.


Focusing on the big picture changes the way a person looks at problems, opportunities and situations. Those who can see the big picture tend to brainstorm and find innovative ways to come up with ideas and solutions.


To zoom out, sometimes a change in perspective is needed- look at the many levels, the many Why’s which are all valid, while focusing on the core reason.


See how your life will generally improve and the ripple effects that will occur when you achieve a particular goal.

There are many other behaviours which hamper success. One needs to be aware of the self-saboteur within always waiting to derail efforts, the addict who is battling to give up the habit or the perfectionist who gives up and stops trying when they feel they’re not getting it perfectly right.


Likewise, there are many other attributes or practices which bode well for the success of resolutions. One needs to feel passionate about what it is that you want, foster a stronger sense of self-discipline, visualise results, celebrate mini-successes and use them as fuel for the next phase, surround yourself with like-minded people who will support you and encourage you and more.


But if you can set SMAC goals, become clear on the core reason by practising the 5 WHYS, follow the process, not the outcome and focus on the big picture, you will already be ahead of the 80%ers.








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