Here’s Why You Failed Your New Year’s Resolutions (And How to Succeed Next Time)

new years resolutions 2016 notebook

The New Year has barely started and people everywhere are starry eyed and ready to begin anew. We have our grocery-shopping lists done and new gym clothes hung and ready for wear. We hit the ground running, quite literally, for about a month. We begin to see some progress and are excited by the possibilities.

Then, out of nowhere, our grand plans come screeching to a halt. In an exhausted and disappointed haze we declare, “Maybe next year” as we fall into the same old routines.

“I have really been screwing up. I don’t understand why this always happens,” my Talkspace client, Emily, texts me around dinner time on a Sunday.

Note: Out therapists obtain permission from clients before featuring them in stories and change their names to protect privacy. 

“I was doing so well with my resolution. I’ve lost 7lbs! I was working out at least 6 times a week for the last month and a half. I don’t know what has been going on with me, but I’ve completely stalled out, and I’m feeling like a total failure, yet again. I haven’t been back to the gym once, and ever since I went out to dinner with my two best friends a couple of weeks ago, I just can’t seem to get back into my routine.”

I ask her if there was anything that stood out for her about that dinner in particular.

“Well, before I went, I had told myself I was going to be ‘good’ and stick to a healthy meal, no matter what. When we sat down and conversation got going, we were all having a lot of fun and the girls decided to order a bunch of appetizers. Even at this point, I was still ready to resist. The server set them down and everyone dug in. After a few minutes of trying to steer clear, I just threw caution to the wind and decided that I just wanted to have fun, relax, and enjoy myself without worrying about my meal. I ate anything I wanted, ordered an unhealthy entrée, and then we split dessert. All in all it was a great night. The next day, I was feeling really guilty. I didn’t make it to the gym in the morning, then I felt even worse. When it came time to make my food choices for the day, I decided a few more ‘cheats’ wouldn’t matter at this point, since I already ruined things. Since then, everything has kind of been off.”

Emily’s struggle is one many people experience after the New Year. I feel a sense of hopelessness coming from Emily during our interaction and know this won’t be the last time a client with a weight loss goal comes to me with a deep sense of disappointment and failure. Like so many others, she needed support and help to untwist some of her thoughts.

Meeting a Goal; What is Keeping you Stuck?

The Transtheoretical Model [Stages of Change] model, developed by James O. Prochaska and colleagues in 1977, tells us people attempting to make a change go through six distinct stages:

  1. Pre-contemplation
  2. Contemplation
  3. Preparation
  4. Action
  5. Maintenance
  6. Relapse

The stages before “Action” are decision-making and preparative stages. You are in the “Action” stage and beyond once you are engaging in, and then maintaining your desired change, until you reach “Relapse.”

The most important thing to remember about these stages is they are not necessarily linear. Sometimes people can get stuck in a contemplative or pre-contemplative stage for years. You can even visit all of the stages in one day!

This doesn’t mean you won’t make a change. For the vast majority of people, it takes several rounds through all of the stages before making a long lasting change. i.e., if at first you don’t succeed, it is totally normal to try, try again!

Our pre-conceived ideas about making a change can hold us back from reaching our goal. If you feel this goal should come easily and painlessly, setbacks can destroy progress. Many of my clients are not used to having to engage in the art of delayed gratification.

Often, if we have one deviation from the actions that will help us meet our goal, we go into full-blown relapse and never look back. This leaves us no room for error, and is a cognitive distortion called “All-or-Nothing” thinking. When we get on the scale in the morning and see it hasn’t moved, we can instantly lose a bit of motivation to continue.

It is crucial to identify this thinking early on and eradicate it. The opposite of this is also true; the more small successes we experience during the change process, the more likely we are to continue to develop grit, an important character trait in success. It is important to use this to your advantage when chasing your goals.
Exceedingly high expectations can also be goal killers. Most of us, when creating a resolution, create a very large goal. We also want our very large goal to happen FAST. Clients will often say to me, “I want to lose 40, 80, 100 lbs,” etc. “I’m hoping to do this within six months.”

When they aren’t able to fulfill this impossibly difficult goal, they slip back to their old routines. It is a disheartening cycle.

Another possibility is undetected pathology. If you find yourself consistently struggling to make positive changes in your life, there could be an untreated mental health issue such as depression, anxiety or food addiction Reach out to a mental health professional such as a Talkspace therapist to help you navigate these issues.

Ways to Increase your Success

1) Evaluate your motivation

Without motivation, meeting any goal is impossible. When embarking on a journey of change, it is important to examine and evaluate your level of motivation and how you can continue to feel motivated, even when you hit some bumps in the road.

Ask yourself; Is my motivation intrinsic or extrinsic? i.e. Do I want to make this change because of my internal drives, or do I want to make this change so others will accept, love or think highly of me? Fostering your intrinsic motivation might keep you working toward your goal more consistently.

2) Change your state of mind, foster your motivation.

a. Expect that big goals are going to take time and there will be setbacks along the way.
b. Expect reward to begin [very] small.
c. Expect that you might need to modify what isn’t working.
d. Know that just because things aren’t working right now, does not mean they will not ever work.
e. Avoid “All-or-Nothing thinking”; one slip does not have to mean failure and moving all the way back to pre-contemplation. You can hop right back to the “Action” stage.
f. Leave room for error. Build it into your plan so you expect when it occurs and does not result in a hit to motivation. i.e. one day a week to where you’re allowed to miss your workout if you need to or one day a week with no goal work.

3) Manage Your Goals

Take advantage of the Cue, Routine, Reward cycle and our need for instant gratification by creating smaller and more attainable goals. This way, you are rewarded more often with completion gratification. This causes continuous motivation over time.

a. Identify umbrella goal (The very large goal.) I.e., losing 100 lbs.
b. Create a list. Break that goal down into 5-25 subgoals in a linear fashion
c. Break down your subgoals AGAIN into weekly goals (at the beginning of each week, no earlier).
d. Finally, create a daily list of things that will help you progress toward that weekly goal. If you haven’t completed the previous day’s work, add it to the next day. Do not beat yourself up! Give it no more thought than that.

This system allows you to go back and review, looking at the bigger picture to see where you’re at and the progress you have made.

Cross out goals as they are completed

This gives you a sense of accomplishment or “reward” to continue on. Modifying as you go allows for much needed flexibility, because life happens and it’s about progress, not perfection. Progress and moving forward will actually help us achieve goals concretely. Doing the process perfectly will not.

Build some “reflection time” into your weekly schedule

That’s right, about an hour of nothing but sitting and non-judgmentally reflecting on all you have achieved thus far, as well as considering what you could do differently the following week. A good day for this is Sunday, before you determine your weekly goal.

Work on eliminating as many distractions as you can.

Many people say time is a factor in not achieving goals. How much time do you spend daily and weekly engaged in time-wasting activities such as watching TV, surfing the web, chatting with co-workers or texting?

Time goes by without realizing it, and suddenly it’s too late to go to the gym or goal set, and you’re tired. Make it a point to figure out how long you’re spending (You will be surprised), and try to cut that time in half.

While working on goals, lock your phone up in a file cabinet, close your door while focused on working to avoid chit chat, remove social media apps from devices you use for work, silence your phone or other pings, set alarms that tell you when your time for goal work has begun. Then, recognize you have done something most people cannot and will not do to reach their goals, and feel proud! (reward and reinforcement!)

It doesn’t have to the New Year for you to begin your journey to change today, and it’s never too late to hop back on the wagon toward achieving your goal! Utilize some of these tips to get you started.

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