When New Year Resolutions Break Down

I have reflected before on the strange phenomenon of new year resolutions. The majority of people never use goal setting for most of the year. But come 1st January they set themselves unrealistic goals, masquerading as resolutions. Sometime later in January they absentmindedly eat a cake or smoke a cigarette and find they’ve broken their resolution – and return to their pre January habits.

The statistic about resolutions are pretty bleak, quoted in The Happiness Project:-

According to one survey, the top three resolutions made by Americans in 2009 are:
1. Losing weight — 20%
2. Quitting smoking — 16%
3. Spending less — 12%
—About 80% of people who make resolutions stop keeping them by mid-February.
—Two-thirds of dieters gain back any lost weight within a year.
—Many people make and break the same resolution year after year.

Part of me feels I should be encouraging new year’s resolutions – after all I’ve created this blog and written thousands of words on making positive changes. A resolution is a statement of intent to make change. The explosion of “goal setting” around January should be welcomed as a sign that people want to make changes in their life, they’re perhaps just going about it the wrong way. So why does it go wrong – and why is a well intentioned, goal setting activity, seen as a bit of a joke?

Paul Farmer, Chief Executive of UK mental health charity MIND recently argued that resolutions which focus on physical imperfections – such as bids to lose weight – create a negative self image and lead to feelings of hopelessness, low self-esteem and even mild depression. And when those optimistic resolutions fail they can trigger feelings of failure and inadequacy:-

“New year’s resolutions can sometimes focus on our problems or insecurities, such as being overweight, feeling unhappy in our jobs or feeling guilty about not devoting enough time to friends and family. We chastise ourselves for our perceived shortcomings and set unrealistic goals to change our behaviour. It’s not surprising when we fail to keep resolutions, we end up feeling worse than when we started.” (Sunday Times 4.1.09)

The motivation behind the resolution may be a realization that being overweight, unfit, drinking too much alcohol, being frustrated at work, or whatever problem you have, is perpetuating unhappiness. But failing a new year resolution only makes things worse. And the problem remains.

Low self esteem can be the motivation behind many resolutions, such as to lose weight. Whilst wanting to lose weight can be a positive goal for most of us, if driven by low self esteem issues it can be difficult and hard to sustain. As I said in  Does it matter what you look like:-

The essence of healthy self esteem is learning to like yourself “warts and all”. Why should excess body fat be an impediment to liking yourself anymore than a speech impediment, or a lack of hair.

People indulge in a once the year goal setting bonanza, but go about it badly, usually in an all or nothing, very unrealistic way. In the UK January is one of our coldest months, and combined with the post Christmas comedown (and credit card bills), isn’t the most inspiring of months. Consequently its probably the worst time of year to start any self improvement. If you want to start losing weight, for example, it would be more logical to start in spring or summer when its easier to adjust to salads and less “comfort foods” – or when its light enough in evening to go outside for exercise.

So here are some things to reflect on:-

  • Review your own experiences, not just this year. What resolutions have you set and why? Do you take it seriously? Do you set goals in other ways?
  • Have you been addressing the correct problem? Did you problem solve first? Did you really need to lose weight or should you have been looking at issues to do with self esteem?
  • Was the solution you attempted the correct one? if you were smoking 20 a day, was stopping completely on January 1st the best way to change?
  • How successful have your attempts at change been in all aspects of your life? Does an all or nothing strategy work, or do you respond to small steps?
  • How prepared were you? Was your house still full of Christmas chocolate when you started that diet?
  • What support did you have? Support can be vital, but others may have their own reasons for you failing. Your drinking buddies may not be too enamored by you quiting alcohol (whatever they say to your face)
  • Is this the right time to make changes? If you are not careful, there will never be a right time. If you want to give up smoking there will always be some stressful event on the horizon. Use common sense.

Change is difficult. Our lives are governed (and made easier) by deeply ingrained habits. But even if you don’t succeed first time around, change is possible. But don’t rely on strategies that haven’t worked in the past.

And remember, change doesn’t have to only start on January 1st!

Photos by nasrulekram and malias on Flickr

Raymond Chua January 8, 2009 at 1:51 am

Seems like the weight loss industry will boom this year. 🙂

tom January 8, 2009 at 4:43 am

Great article, this reinforces the law of attraction.
Meaning if you focus on losing weight or getting out of debt then you will attract more of it.
People should use the law of polarity (i think thats the name) let me give an example
You want to: loose weight, instead your goal should be to have a tonned body with ripped abs….just think about how that will change your attitude?

Each morning you wake up thinking about ripped abs as opposed to losing weight.

toms last blog post..What does being “rich” really mean?

David January 8, 2009 at 9:08 am

Raymond – I think the weigh loss industry will forever boom!
Tom – As someone who thinks the Law of attraction is twaddle this is an interesting perspective!! I disagree with the argument that that you “attract” more debt or weight by focusing your thoughts on the problem rather than how you want to be. My argument is more that people with weight or money problems can adopt poor strategies to resolve those problems (and identifying the real problem in the first place). A “resolution” is a sign someone is unhappy with the current situation.
Visualization and affirmations can help in making change. But again, they work internally and don’t “attract” through magnetic vibrations as LoA advocates seem to argue.

Maria | Never the Same River Twice January 8, 2009 at 4:19 pm

This is an interesting perspective, David. I never really thought about the way that many resolutions are made out of a place of low self esteem. Regrets and hangovers, yes, but not low self esteem.

I think most people fail to change because they try to do too much too quickly, get overwhelmed and end up hating themselves and their goals (I guess that could lower the self esteem a bit?!). And you’re right that in the Northern Hemisphere January is about the hardest time to change. Our batteries are running low and it’s too damn cold to care!

Maria | Never the Same River Twices last blog post..Traveling By Your Inner Compass: Plotting Out The First Week

tom January 9, 2009 at 12:56 am

Hmm I guess we can’t really make generalizations and I think its all in the mind and your actions.

personally i still got debt but I have shifted my focus on paying that off aggressively while at the same time attempting to start a coaching business, home based through my website. So i still work a job and keep it to pay off the debt each month, even if its a bit but better then nothing.

Sure I don’t have the courage to just grab more debt and risk it to run a business or something. I chose the bootstrapping method instead and that is what I feel comfortable.

toms last blog post..Your passion is the only way to success

Maudrey January 9, 2009 at 11:24 am

I totally agree that you don’t have to make resolutions to change only at the start of the year. I, for one, try to change things about myself and my life as I see them and feel them necessary, regardless of the time of the year.

The view you shared here that resolutions may be coming from a place of low self-esteem is something I’m reading about for the first time. But it makes perfect sense. Because, really, if that’s the case then it’s all bound to fail.

I also think it’s very difficult to try to make 10 resolutions all at the same time. This isn’t only difficult during New Year but any other time. I think it’s better to just focus on 1-2 things at a time. That seems more realistic to me.

Maudreys last blog post..The Bridal Veil: A Very Important Part of a Chinese Wedding

David January 9, 2009 at 9:16 pm

Maria, reflecting on my own attempts at changing over the years, its easy to forget how difficult it can be and that we don’t get taught how to change at school. Some may think all or nothing resolutions the only way to change.
You could argue that I attribute low self esteem to any problem! However, I think its fair to say most resolutions are unhappiness driven.
And its still blimming cold here!

David January 9, 2009 at 9:30 pm

Our thinking has a huge impact on our behaviour, as I said above I believe strongly this is an internal interaction and our thinking cannot directly affect the behaviour of others. If people use the LoA and it helps improve their thinking habits and good use of affirmations or visualisation, great! If it gets results, whatever the flawed logic in using it, so be it. Many people use alternative therapies (like homeopathy) which make as much sense as the LoA – if their belief and the “attention” they get from the therapist improves their condition, again great. But I do have a problem when people spend money they cannot afford, give up prescribed medications or take other damaging actions whether its LoA or alternative therapies.

David January 9, 2009 at 9:32 pm

My new year resolution is to ensure I respond to comments! Thanks for your continues intelligent comments and support of this blog. I agree, focus on a few things and make them work, not several.

Mercola February 18, 2009 at 10:07 am


Me as well had a new year resolutions before and it was also to quite smoking because i know it has no good benefits on my body. and currently i am so happy without consuming 1 pack of cigarette or even an stick of cigarette. Other may also do this what they need is self discipline and willingness.

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