There are certain times in our lives when we reflect on our behaviors and decide things we want to change about ourselves, our lifestyles, relationships, or our careers. This is necessary if we want to grow and become better people. Most of us look to the start of the new year as a clean slate to implement change. But as we all know, change is HARD to sustain. While researching New Year's resolutions, I found that somewhere between 80-90% fail. Why is it so hard for humans to make behavior changes? My aim in this article is to explore why most of our resolutions don't succeed and the keys to successful New Year's resolutions and behavior changes.
Why is it so hard to make New Year's resolutions stick?
People aren't ready for change
According to the transtheoretical model of change, there are five basic stages you'll pass through before creating a change in your life (like eating healthy or starting to exercise):
Precontemplation: You deny having a problem, but other people may be concerned.
Contemplation: You think about the pros and cons of change.
Preparation: You take steps to get ready to make a change.
Action: You change your behavior.
Maintenance: You figure out how to stick to your change over the long term.
I find January 1st to be an obscure date to start making changes. Change is made when you are ready to commit to the new behavior, and it doesn't have to be the start of the new year. Sure, wanting to start exercising is excellent. That is the contemplation stage of change. However, if you haven't figured out why you want to make the change (i.e., exercise makes me feel good) and how to implement the new behavior (i.e., brisk walk for 10 mins the first week three times a week), you will be frustrated that the behavior doesn't last very long. Change requires a thoughtful, actionable plan that needs to be reevaluated frequently.
Identify and acknowledge your barriers to change
Since our environments are constantly changing, there are endless disturbances in maintaining equilibrium in our bodies, minds, and relationships. Our brains are always trying to keep us safe from death and injury by identifying patterns of potential danger. A structure in the brain called the habenula is designed to help us remember our failures so we don't repeat them. The brain struggles to hold dynamic systems, mindsets, and beliefs in place that might have helped us survive in childhood but, as adults, are no longer serving us and holding us back from living the life we truly desire. If you tried starting to eat healthy and failed multiple times, your brain is trying to protect you from failing again by telling you that you can't do it.
Don't fret; all hope is not lost because the brain can change! It's called neuroplasticity. We can reprogram our brains to create new neural pathways to strengthen a new story we want to tell ourselves. The first step is to spend some time thinking about and writing down all the stories in your brain about why you think you can’t do the thing. These barriers could be the thing that is holding you back from making the changes that you want. If figuring this out is hard, I recommend hiring a mindset coach or therapist.
Wanting to change everything at once
We are complex individuals with many dimensions that could need a tune-up, such as self, career, relationships, spirituality, and health. If we try to change all these areas at once, we are doomed for failure. Remember, our brains can only simultaneously handle so much disruption to our equilibrium. I recommend starting with ONE area you would like to focus on and then picking ONE thing you want to change.
Goals are too lofty
Our culture is very achievement focused, so it makes sense that we want to reach for the stars with our goals and behavior changes. But if we want sustainable change, we must set goals based on reality. Let's look at some examples:
I haven't worked out in over a year. Goal: I will do a HIIT workout seven days a week for 30 minutes. Reality check: How about starting with a brisk walk for 15 minutes 3 times a week and increasing the intensity and time as you move forward?
I've never meditated before. Goal: I'm going to meditate for 20 minutes a day. Reality check: How about trying to meditate for 1 minute a day and then increasing the time in small increments each week you continue to do it?
Get my point? Start with one SMALL thing. Check-in with yourself each week as you implement the new thing. If you achieve your small goal each week for a month, you can slowly increase it toward your main goal.
Focusing on results instead of creating routines
Most of our conversations about goals and resolutions focus on some result. What do you want to achieve? How much weight do you want to lose? How much money do you want to save? We are outcome focused because we want our new behaviors to produce good results.
James Clear, the author of Atomic Habits, writes, "New goals don't deliver new results. New lifestyles do. And a lifestyle is not an outcome; it is a process. For this reason, your energy should go into building better rituals, not chasing better results. These rituals are what turn behaviors into habits."
Therefore, you need to fall in love with the routine you are creating for yourself, so over time, this no longer requires much conscious intention or energy.
Not focusing on your environment.
James Clear also talks about how our environment affects our daily lives more than we realize. If you are trying to quit drinking, but everyone you hang out with drinks, it might be harder to achieve your goal than if you had friends who didn't drink or friends that didn't peer pressure you to drink.
Let's take a real-life example. A new habit I want to start is not checking my phone before I eat breakfast in the morning. I don't want to start my day with stress and anxiety from emails, texts, social media, or news from my phone. I've been trying to make this happen since last year. I bought an actual alarm clock. I tried placing my phone away from my nightstand to charge, but I would get out of bed, grab my phone, and go back into bed to check it. Epic fail.
So I'm changing my environment by having my phone charge in a different room than my bedroom. I also changed my environment digitally by moving the apps that give me notifications off the home screen and not having notifications on the lock screen. Fingers crossed, this works!
Not seeing small changes as successes.
We evolved to pay great attention to unpleasant experiences. This negativity bias overlooks good news, highlights bad news, and creates anxiety and pessimism. For example, let's say your goal is to lose weight, but you don't see results. However, you worked out three times a week for the past month and are feeling great. What do you think our brain focuses on? The fact that you haven't lost any weight. I encourage you to shift your thoughts and focus on what your body can do instead of what it is not doing for you. Any habit you already have occurs because of small behaviors repeated over time that lead to significant results. Congratulate yourself on the small achievements, and worry about the results later.
The key to successful New Year's resolutions and behavior changes
When you are ready to commit to changing your behavior by taking action, here are a few ways to implement change successfully. In his book Atomic Habits, James Clear has outlined four laws of change to achieve goals. I will use an example to illustrate the steps. Let's say the goal is to start meditating.
First Law: "Make the change obvious."
This relates to potential cues such as objects, time, and place that signal a particular habit by deciding what, when, and where your habit can be integrated into your daily routine. For example, I will meditate 5 minutes daily after my morning shower in my living room chair. Eventually, the end of your morning shower will cue you to start meditating.
The goal should be specific, and make sure to take into account your environment. In this example, say your living room is noisy because you have kids or a partner watching the morning news. You would want to change your environment to a quieter place with fewer distractions for meditation. This could be doing meditation outside on a walk or in your bedroom.
Second Law: "Make the change easy."
Human brains are wired to take the path of least resistance, a University of London study published. Could this mean we are inherently lazy? Perhaps. I like to reframe this and say that our brains will only allow us to do what is deemed safe based on our familial upbringing, past trauma, and societal programming. In other words, our brains prefer to resist change because that is how they protect us.
To accommodate our brains, make the change easy. Back to our example, instead of aiming to meditate for 20 minutes every day, make it your goal to close your eyes and count the inhales and exhales for one minute a day. This smaller habit is less intimidating and, if consistent, will compound over time until you can meditate every day for 20 minutes.
Third Law: "Make the change attractive."
This law involves our brains needing some reward while doing the new behavior. We can trick our brains into craving habits through "temptation bundling." This strategy involves combining pleasurable activities with unpleasurable ones. In our example, you can trick your brain into craving your new habit of meditation, but lighting your favorite incense or candle or playing calming music in the background.
Another way to make the change attractive is to find a sense of community in the new behavior. You can find an accountability partner to make you meditate for five minutes daily. The free app, Insight Timer, has a community setting where you can connect with people or groups local to your area.
Fourth Law: "Make the change satisfying."
Finally, making the change satisfying means making your new behavior rewarding. One way to do this is to track your progress with a weekly and monthly checklist. In the meditation example, you can start by closing your eyes for one minute every day for three weeks. If you can do that, increase it to 5 minutes daily for another three weeks, and so on. Once you start to see progress, you can assess your goals and change them to fit where you are. Remember, don't be focused on the results, but instead, focus on creating the lifestyle you want to achieve the results.
I also want to acknowledge that change might not be for you this year. That is ok! Use these ideas to learn to love and accept yourself as you are. Change can happen later when you are ready. All of the changes, new habits, and behaviors aren't going to stick if you approach them from a need for external validation or if you don't believe you can change. Change can only occur if it comes from a place of self-love and acceptance. Start there, and the rest will follow.