We don't need to trot out the latest research on New Year's resolutions to know that most people who make them don't keep them. But that offers little comfort when you're the hopeful goal-setter starting to lose motivation before the calendar flips to February.
We all want to be the best versions of ourselves. We all want to believe we have the determination and willpower to make changes that stick. So what do you do when you realize you're becoming another sad statistic?
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Maybe just quit.
Seriously. The experts we spoke with — Pete McCall, CSCS, master trainer and host of the All About Fitness podcast, and Jonathan Fader, PhD, a clinical and performance psychologist — agree that often the problem with a resolution lies within the resolution itself, not the resolution maker. Most people aren't incapable of change or self-improvement. But they're pretty bad at formulating doable resolutions that align with their values.
So, if your original resolution feels impossible or makes you miserable, consider this a permission slip to let it go.
But that doesn't mean you should abandon your goals altogether. With some self-examination, critical thinking and effort (yes, it's still going to feel like work), it's entirely possible to harness that wild "new year, new you" energy and channel it into sustainable practices and habits that enrich (not ruin) your life.
Where Resolutions Go Wrong
Before you figure out how to repair a faulty resolution, it's important to understand where it went wrong. According to the experts, people who make resolutions they don't keep generally fall into a few common traps.
Unrealistic expectations are the downfall of most fitness-related New Year's resolutions, McCall says. The most familiar example is the new gym member who wants to drop a significant amount of weight in the shortest amount of time possible.
"People will come up with this arbitrary number without understanding the physiology involved, without understanding the process," he tells LIVESTRONG.com. And when they hit roadblocks or don't see the results they'd hoped for, they get discouraged and return to old, unproductive habits.
"When you're examining your progress through an all-or-nothing lens, anything but perfection looks like failure."
"A lot of times, people make New Year's resolutions the way they do impulse shopping," Fader tells LIVESTRONG.com. Just like how you grab a discounted item on your way to the register because it's accessible and you're in a rush, people hastily pick New Year's resolutions they don't particularly want because the year is ending and they feel pressure to make a decision.
As a result, they end up with a resolution they're not personally connected to. Or they have no strategy or plan in place to carry it out.
The concept of resolving to do or not do something primes your brain for absolutism. "People set an unrealistic goal, and then when they break it the first time, rather than adjusting and adapting and moving on, they throw in the towel," McCall says.
When you're examining your progress through an all-or-nothing lens, anything but perfection looks like failure.
Focusing on the Outcome, Not the Process
We may not want to admit it, but there are certain outcomes we simply can't control, even when they're related to our own bodies. For example, fixed variables like genetics, biological sex and age can influence weight loss and body composition just as much as diet and exercise.
So, when people hone in on a specific outcome (e.g., a number on the scale or six-pack abs) versus a process they can control (e.g., exercising three times a week or eating a salad for lunch every day), they may find themselves chasing an impossible goal.
How to Quit Your Resolution and Still Achieve Your Goals
Chances are, even if a resolution doesn't work for you, there's something behind it, like a desire to enhance your life or a need to prioritize your health, that's worth holding onto. So, rather than ghosting the January 1st version of yourself, it's more productive to confront a resolution that isn't working and make a clean break. Doing so will free up precious energy and headspace, which you'll need to create new, more meaningful goals.
So, quit your resolution… to make another New Year's resolution, you ask?
Not exactly. First of all, there's the word resolution. To be resolute is to be unyielding and relentless, which, frankly, is exhausting and unsustainable.
"There's no malleability there," McCall says. He prefers to see people set intentions, which are driven by an individual's purpose and choices. The difference is subtle, but for some people, it can be easier to connect to an intention than a resolution. Plus, there's a built-in sense of flexibility. If you intend to go to the gym four times a week but go three times, your actions still align with your intentions.
Just tweaking your language can help, but you'll also want to rethink every aspect of your goal-setting process. As you craft your new intentions, keep the following advice from the experts in mind.
Define Your ‘Why’
"We know we're most likely to complete behaviors that are really tied to intrinsic values or goals that we have," Fader explains. He recommends taking some time to journal and think through what's truly important to you before committing to a goal.
For example, if you have a weekly exercise goal, identify why working out is important to you. Is it because you want to be in good enough shape to play with your kids? Because being fit gives you confidence? When you understand the motivation behind your goal, you're more likely to pursue it long-term.
Don’t Pick a Goal that Scares You
Despite what those motivational memes tell you, it's actually not a great idea to shoot for the moon with the hope of landing among the stars. Fader points out that we're more likely to avoid tasks that feel daunting.
"If you're scared of your resolution, it's probably not a great resolution," he says. "We have a huge boost in confidence and self-efficacy when we start to have a little bit of success. I encourage people to do things that generally feel exciting to them or they feel they could have success at."
Once you have a few wins under your belt, you can always adjust your goal to make it more challenging. So, for example, if hour-long workouts feel overwhelming, start with 20 or 30 minutes. Once you've established some consistency, try increasing the duration by 5 to 10 minutes.
Focus on the Process, Not the Outcome
We typically have less control over specific outcomes than we think we do. But when you center your goal around the process — the actions you'll take to live according to your intention — the goal becomes more attainable.
For example, you may never win your local 5K, but there's nothing stopping you from following a training plan, eating a nourishing diet, sleeping eight hours a night and showing up on race day fully prepared to run as fast as you can.
We often think of resolutions as solo endeavors that we must quietly plug away at, but Fader advises enlisting others to support you as you pursue your goals.
"I recommend people tell as many people as they can about their plan," he says. This introduces accountability and can also make the process less lonely and more enjoyable. Put a regular check-in or weekly call with a friend on your calendar. And if your goal is fitness-focused, try scheduling a recurring gym date with an exercise buddy or a session with a personal trainer.
Expect Lapses and Prepare for Them
What will you do when you miss a day (or a week or two)? What happens when you fall short or lose your focus?
It may seem counterintuitive or even detrimental to think about these scenarios when you're doing everything you can to build momentum, but anticipating and preparing for hiccups is one of the best things you can do to protect your goals, Fader says. That way, when a lapse occurs, it doesn't feel like you've failed. It's part of your plan, and you already know how to get right back on track