Why Resolutions Fail

“My New Year’s resolution is going to be the same one I made a year ago: find a new job. This time I’m serious. Plus, the economy is good and employers are looking for workers; it’s a workers’ market. Wages are up so I can expect more pay in a new job. What do I need to do to be successful?”

These words, written to a newspaper columnist who advises job seekers, illustrate how not to cope with a challenge. Note the excuse for last year’s failure: He wasn’t serious last year, but “This time I’m serious.” This excuse suggests he has not truly accepted the reality of his situation. If he did, he would not need to say he’s serious.

Also, note how the writer focuses on external factors like the economy and having no advisor to explain his earlier failure, rather than focus on what he may have done wrong. In other words, he has not taken accountability for his actions. We’ll never know, of course, but like last year he is unlikely to be successful this year. He’s got a lousy strategy based on chance external factors, and he believes a columnist can take care of him. In other words, he has not worked on a plan of action that corrects previous mistakes.

When failure occurs, effective coping requires taking action to correct errors, not focusing on external factors. The former is under your control; the latter is not. After a loss, coaches say, “We’ve got to correct our mistakes, and that’s what we’ll be concentrating on in practice. We can execute better if we work hard.” Coaches do not say, “We need to petition the league for better refs, and make sure we don’t get that crew again. They screwed us!”

New Year’s Resolutions generally don’t last. Why not? First, the very fact that you pick a specific date to begin your transformation into a better person shows that you are procrastinating, and are really not motivated. Picking a date is artificial and means you are just kicking the can down the road.

Second, many folks use overly general resolutions to motivate themselves. “I’m joining a gym on January 2nd and that will help me lose weight.” You’re putting the cart before the horse. Resolutions must be the result of motivation to do something, not the catalyst for generating motivation.

Third, resolutions are usually unrealistic. You make grandiose, unattainable resolutions (“Be able to run a marathon by Spring”; “Lose 30 lbs. by February.”) and you also believe that you’re reinventing yourself, creating a new you. That’s unrealistic thinking.

To have any chance of success, a resolution must involve specific actions and specific goals: “I will eat a piece of fruit, an apple or a pear, for lunch instead of a sandwich”; “I will do a 30-minute workout at the gym 3 days a week”; “I will walk my neighborhood (or my treadmill) for 30 minutes every day.”

It also helps to connect your resolution to a specific motivator: “Warm weather will be here soon and I want to look decent at the pool”; “That wedding I’m in is only a few weeks away and I want to look sharp”; “The boss invited me to join in a jog last week and I nearly died of exhaustion. That’s no way to get a promotion. I have to be able to keep up.”

Your resolution must also involve your values as well as your actions. Specifically, you must engage in values-oriented thinking and make your actions consistent with that thinking.

Consider these disconnects: you say, “I care about my health” (your value), but you put off investigating diets (an action); you say, “I want to get in shape” (your value) but you put off joining a gym (an action); you say, “I love being with my family” (your value), but you put off spending more time with your kids and spouse (an action). If you truly value those things, then you must admit to yourself that your actions are inconsistent with those values, and you must work to correct that problem. Connecting actions to values requires a much deeper commitment than does making a simple resolution. To cope with everyday life more effectively, identify your values, the things that are important to you. Then devise a plan that will help you coordinate your values with specific actions that are compatible with those values.

To summarize: (1) Accept your current situation and be accountable for it; (2) make a plan of action that results from your motivation to change, not a plan designed to motivate you; (3) include realistic, attainable, and specific actions and goals in your plan; (4) connect your plan to your values; (5) begin now, not at some future date.

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