Are you New Year’s resolutions doomed to fail? It’s a tradition as tired and ancient as “Auld Lang Syne.” Every January, swarms of well-intentioned resolution-ers make vows to improve their lives. Fast forward to February, and most have already retreated to their old ways — perhaps up to 80 percent, estimates a 2015 U.S. News article.
That’s not to say that some resolutions don’t succeed. One 2002 study published in the Journal of Clinical Psychology found that 46 percent of resolution makers stuck to their guns for at least six months. So, what’s the difference between resolutions that go the distance and all the other false starts?
The key is readiness. Behavioral science research says that people change in stages. Hence, you don’t suddenly wake up mentally and physically prepared to spring into action on January 1st. Real, long-lasting change — and the decision to embark on a journey of transformation — is a process.
That said, how do you when you’re ready to commit? Here are a few telltale signs you’re not quite prepared to tackle your New Year’s resolution, plus ways to increase your odds of succeeding.
1. You’re in Denial
Denial is a powerful force that protects you from facing harsh realities, especially about yourself. It’s nearly impossible to make positive life changes (and stick to your New Year’s resolution) if you’re denying a problem exists in the first place.
But since denial keeps you from seeing and accepting hard truths, how do you know when you’re in its grip? For one, people in denial tend to blame others for their issues rather than take personal responsibility. ("I wouldn’t have binged a dozen cookies if you hadn’t have baked them!") Plus, they’re likely to rationalize unhealthy behaviors. ("Letting food spoil is wasteful. I had to eat all the leftovers in a single sitting.")
Being too busy is another red flag. “People in denial focus on other things, distracting themselves from the aspect of their life that needs to change,” says Christine Hassler, master life coach and author of Expectation Hangover: Free Yourself from Your Past, Change Your Present and Get What You Really Want.
What to Do About It: Unfortunately, you can’t leapfrog past denial — you must work through it in order to forge ahead. The good news? Denial is usually temporary. Sometimes, it’s just the first step in preparing you for a major change. With enough space, most people will absorb and process an issue in their own time and move beyond denial.
For some, though, coming to terms with a problem is a painstakingly slow process, which can reach an impasse. “Often, people in denial will dig their heels deeper until life throws them a curve ball,” says NYC-based life coach Annie Lin. Sometimes it takes a personal tragedy or crisis to snap people into reality.
2. You Feel Obligated to Set a Resolution
Come January, practically everyone you know is committing to self-improvement. It’s easy to get caught up in the New Year’s fever and feel forced to pledge your own grandiose goals. “There are so many pressures to ‘be’ a certain way,” says NYC-based psychotherapist Andrew Blatter. “We take cues from society, friends, romantic partners and even Instagram influencers.”
Trying to impress or please others may be a powerful drive to change initially but relying on outside motivation isn’t likely to take you far. That’s because the choices people make under external pressure don’t always align with what they really want for themselves. If you try to change for someone else, your mind, body and heart will eventually resist, says Lin.
What to Do About It: Rather than focus on what others may expect of you, concentrate on what truly matters to you. Sustainable behavioral change comes from the inside out, says Hassler, who encourages her clients to dig deep to discover their “why.”
“People are more likely to stick to new behaviors when they have a clear set of values,” she says. Identify five core values that are most important to you and envision how your resolution will fulfill them.
Another approach is connecting to what inspires you. Reflect on what compels, excites and moves you, and then build your resolutions around these positive feelings, which are better fuel sources for long-lasting change.
3. You Have Major Doubts
A “one foot in, one foot out” attitude is why so many New Year’s resolutions fail. Once you’ve pinpointed something you want to improve, stressing over how the proposed change will disrupt your life and debating whether it’s worth the fuss is not a good sign.
For most, it’s much easier to stick to what you know. Old behaviors feel safe and familiar while new ones feel unnatural and uncomfortable, says Lin. That’s why many people prefer comfort over uncertainty even when they know their current situation isn’t a good one.
“A lot of people say they want to change, but often there’s still a payoff to the ‘bad behavior,’” says Hassler. Frequently, this payoff results in inner conflict about making the change. It’s difficult to modify a behavior that benefits you in some way.
Take the example of overeating. You know it’s not healthy for your body, but it soothes you emotionally. If you resolve to change your eating habits, how will you handle stress? Just thinking about it can provoke anxiety and prevent you from sticking to your resolution.
What to Do About It: In order to move toward your goal, you must first address your anxiety, fear and doubt — the deeper, unresolved issues acting as roadblocks to your success. Changing a lifelong negative behavior is a tall order, which is why you shouldn’t do it alone.
Seek guidance and encouragement from a therapist, coach, partner, friend or a likeminded group of people. Support from others is fundamental to long-term transformation, says Hassler.
4. You Don't Have a Plan
It’s never been easier to research and plan for your New Year’s resolution. Search for “how to start a meditation practice,” and you’ll be bombarded with a seemingly endless list of articles chock-full of helpful pointers.
“The challenge is not in the lack of knowing, but in the lack of taking action that produces results,” says Lin. “Many people confuse the consumption of information with ‘taking action’ — the former is passive; the latter is active.”
Think of it like this: You can spend countless hours in a deep dive reading about meditation and yet never spend one second actually meditating. Again, the tendency for people to hem and haw about making a change relates to anxiety — it’s scary to disrupt the comfortable status quo.
What to Do About It: Blatter recommends looking to your past wins for inspiration. “Take an inventory of other successes in your life — at work, in school, in your relationships — and use that data to help you come up with a personalized plan for success.” By reflecting on the obstacles you’ve already faced and overcome, you gain confidence, reminding yourself of which personal strengths and resources helped you succeed before.
And remember, take baby steps. As cliché as it sounds, it’s helpful to picture your goal like a steep flight of stairs. “You don’t jump to the second floor and try to skip all the steps. You go one at a time,” says Hassler. Assess your overall goal and break it into smaller resolutions that are more manageable.
It’s also key to put an accountability system in place, says Lin. Work with a personal trainer, hire a language tutor, link up with a writing partner. No matter what you’re hoping to achieve, having someone to support you and keep you honest will improve your chances of sticking to your goal.
5. You're Haunted by Past Failures
Everybody knows the maxim, "If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again_."_ What it neglects to say, though, is how terrified people feel at the prospect of flunking once more. If you made the same resolution twice before with no success, odds are you’ll be anxious and daunted by the prospect of attempting it again this year.
“Self-judgement against past failures is one of the biggest roadblocks to making change,” says Hassler. “Usually when people fail, they beat themselves up so badly, they become paralyzed to take any future action.”
What to Do About It: First, forgive yourself for past failures, says Hassler. Turn your inner critic into a coach. Instead of saying, "I'll never succeed," use kind, supportive language like, "I believe in myself_._" “This kind of positive, encouraging internal dialogue not only leads to more lasting change but also makes for a much mentally healthier human being,” she says.
“And don’t let perfection be your enemy,” says Blatter. “Setbacks are incredibly useful tools in re-establishing your plan, so don’t allow them derail you.” Reframe the failure as a lesson and write down everything you learned. By turning stumbling blocks into learning opportunities, you’ll be less scared to try again and begin to see flops as useful, necessary stops along the path of your change journey.
6. Your Goal Is Unrealistic
If you can’t swim a lap without getting winded, don’t vow to do an Ironman triathlon in six months. It’s good to reach for the stars, but you should be realistic, too. Overambitious, impractical goals will only frustrate and overwhelm you, not to mention set you up for failure.
“A good goal to aim for is one that stretches you a little but still makes you feel excited,” says Lin. Sounds easy enough, but how can you tell when you’ve found that sweet spot?
You might think spotting an unrealistic goal would be a piece of cake, but sometimes people become too blinded by emotion to see clearly. Don’t try to fill a deep inner void by achieving an external result, says Hassler. In other words, starting a new exercise program might increase your muscle mass, but don’t expect it to attract the perfect romantic partner or solve all your problems.
What to Do About It: To discern whether a goal is sensible and manageable, Hassler encourages you to ask yourself, “What are the next five actions I can take to move the needle closer to my goal?” If you can’t generate realistic answers, you should reevaluate and modify your overall objective into something that’s more attainable.
Lin also cautions against putting too much stock on the end result. “What matters most is paying attention to who we become and how we grow in the process,” she says. “The work that we’re willing to do will challenge our beliefs about what is possible for ourselves. This is the most gratifying aspect of goal-setting.” Moral of the story: relish the journey and take pride in your personal evolution.