The Real Reason Why New Year’s Resolutions Fail

It’s January, and you know what that means—it’s time for about 40% of Americans to make a New Year’s Resolution. I get why it’s so appealing: there’s something nice about having a reset button. When that clock hits midnight (or perhaps once your hangover has subsided the evening of January 1st), it suddenly feels as though you’re no longer burned out, and you are ready to take on the world.

But one statistic I recently read stated that only 8% of people actually achieve their resolution. So why the heck are the other 92% of us failing to achieve our goals?

There are dozens of articles that describe how most people set unrealistic goals and ultimately set themselves up to fail. They talk about creating a “SMART” goal instead—specific, measurable, achievable, relevant and timely. While creating a “SMART” plan might help in the initial phases, I find there’s a more pressing barrier that is often overlooked: anxiety.

The Trap so Many of us Fall Into

Here’s an example similar to what I hear time and time again: “Sarah” makes a goal to lose 10 pounds this year. She signed up for the gym and plans to go at least 4 days a week. On top of that, she went to the grocery store and bought a bunch of healthy food (who doesn’t love dark leafy greens?) and is cutting back on drinking, limiting herself to 2 drinks a week.

She starts off the first two weeks strong, but then a snow storm hits, and she can’t get to the gym one day. “Ok,” she thinks to herself, “I’ll just go tomorrow.” But now she feels like her motivation is slipping through her hands like sand. The next day after work, Sarah is tired and decides she deserves another rest day, so she doesn’t exercise for the second day in-a-row. Now it’s the weekend, and the thought of going grocery shopping sounds exhausting, especially after a hectic week. “Perhaps one night of take-out won’t hurt,” she convinces herself. And everything goes downhill from there ...

If something like this hasn’t happened to you before, then clearly you’re one of the 8%—good for you! For the rest of the 92% of us, I think it’s so important we reflect a bit about why this keeps happening to us like a broken record.

Identifying Automatic Thoughts

As a therapist, one of the models I often utilize is Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT). CBT believes that your thoughts, feelings, and behaviors are all interconnected. In this particular situation, Sarah wasn’t able to go to the gym because of a snow storm (not that anyone living in Chicago would understand what that’s like!) What she may not have realized was that when she wasn’t able to go to the gym, she had a subconscious thought: “it’s only been 2 weeks, and already I’ve missed a day. I’m never going to be able to do this, what’s the point?” As a result, she felt like a failure and was disappointed, and let’s be real, nobody likes feeling that way, it totally sucks.

The next day she was already feeling defeated. Eventually, in order to avoid those feelings of failure and disappointment, she avoided the situation altogether: if she didn’t expect herself to exercise, then she wouldn’t have to be disappointed if she failed.  

All of this often takes place without even realizing it. In CBT, we call this an automatic thought.

If I’ve scared you, and you’re now thinking “well maybe I shouldn’t set myself a goal in the first place,” rest assured, there are ways to overcome this cycle! First, we have to practice identifying our automatic thoughts, so that we can then challenge, and reframe them. When we become aware of our automatic thoughts, we can take charge of them, and ultimately face the situation in a more realistic manner. Sarah could have reframed her thought to say “Damn, I already missed a day! But you know what, I kicked-ass the last two weeks; I can jump back in tomorrow.

I don’t believe we set unrealistic goals—I think our fear of failure gets in the way. I have seen people achieve enormous feats when they challenge their thoughts and learn how to manage their anxiety. This can be the year you finally reach that goal you’ve always wanted to achieve.

Learning how to identify automatic thoughts isn’t easy, and sometimes it’s helpful to have a therapist to help guide you. In therapy, it can be helpful to have an objective, outside opinion who may notice patterns that you’ve missed. In addition we work on things like Mindfulness to practice becoming more comfortable sitting with crappy feelings, and work on finding the strength to power through those uncomfortable emotions instead of avoiding them.

Contact me today for a free consultation—if I’m not the right fit for you, I have a whole network of therapists who might be better suited for you.

Let this be your healthiest year yet—mind, body and soul.


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