Why New Year Resolutions Fail
A number of internal and external factors are at play that can sabotage our best intentions. Cognitive dissonance is a theory that describes the psychological discomfort that arises from an inconsistency between our values or aspirations, and our actions. Simply put, this means that if we choose to set a goal or make a change, and then don’t achieve it, we create an internal dialogue that justifies not implementing the steps or changes we promised ourselves, in order to reduce those uncomfortable feelings.
This is otherwise known as ‘making excuses’.
Sometimes, these excuses downplay the importance of the goal and one deviation is enough to fall back into old habits.
Often, this seems preferable to the merciless self criticism that ensues from failing. The time of deviation from the path is time to reflect on the importance of the goal or resolution, examine what circumstances or emotions triggered the lapse into the previous behaviour and consider strategies to put into place when confronted with similar situations in the future. In other words, it’s an exercise in becoming more self aware, in observing our own behaviours, and understanding that there will be setbacks and challenges along the way requiring innovation and resilience.
Another important factor is the notion of willpower, described by social psychologist Roy Baumeister, as being like a muscle which tires after time, leaving us vulnerable to succumbing to the desire to continue with the habit we vowed to change, whether it be smoking, drinking, other health and fitness related goals, or taking steps to manage finances better, be more organised, more assertive etc. etc.
The neural patterns we have established have usually been reinforced over many years, and whilst is it very encouraging to know that we can change these patterns, via neuroplasticity, it is not as simple as just making a decision. The new pathway also has to be repeated and reinforced for a significant amount of time. Until we create a new pathway and habit, willpower and determination is required. Competing demands, general fatigue, extended period of stress, will all weaken our capacity for self control. Equally, prolonged exercise of the ‘willpower’ muscle will deplete blood sugar levels, compounding willpower exhaustion.
- Ensure you are well nourished and replenished by good sleep and nutrition. Neuroplasticity (the ability to change neural pathways) requires sufficient good quality sleep and nutrients. For example, a substance called ‘brain derived neurotropic factor’ (BDNF) is reliant on a good supply of both macro nutrients (protein, fats and carbohydrates) and micro nutrients (vitamins and minerals). Critical in this, therefore, is good digestion and therefore absorption.
- Maintain good blood sugar regulation which is not only helpful in the prevention of diabetes and other diseases, but also in mitigating blood sugar depletion which occurs through prolonged mental exertion/willpower.
- Reconsider your goals, in terms of the SMART acronym, that is Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Realistic and Timeframed. The reflection on this criteria will assist in helping you achieve your goals. (For those who do not like the word goals, choose a word that resonates more, such as aspirations, resolutions, objectives or intentions). To assist with this, apply these questions to your objectives….
- Have you written your goals down? (this often increases commitment as well as serving as a reminder)
- How will your life be different when you have achieved your goals?
- Do you find time to revisit your goals on at least a monthly basis?
- Do you give yourself credit for what you have achieved, as well as steps (no matter how small) you have taken towards achieving those goals?
- If goal now seems too unattainable, is the gap between where you are now and where you want to be too big …. are there smaller steps that can help you move closer to your objectives?
- What emotions or circumstances led to lapse in motivation or determination?
- Are you supported in your goals?
Depending on the answers to these questions, think about what strategies can be put in place to keep your objectives on track. Doing so will give you the best possible chance of achieving your goals and putting those new years resolutions into action.