Dr Maike Neuhaus
New year’s resolutions: 10 Reasons we fail
300g Milka Choco & Biscuit.
That was my go-to lunch more often than I like to admit. Even though it seems like a lifetime ago, I remember it like it was yesterday: coming home from a long day, tired, exhausted and hungry. And 300g Choco & Biscuit was a reliable messenger of heaven on earth. At least for the 20 minutes or so it took my hypothalamus to stop ringing the hunger bells. What I felt then was not so heavenly.
I had entertained this bad habit for far too long and was determined to break with it. The new year was the perfect time! It was the beginning of a new millennium and with that came a new me. Although 2001 was not too bad for a new start, either. And then 2002. My new year’s resolutions were a disaster. And I have no problems admitting that, because so are yours.
According to a study from YouGov®, nearly 80% of respondents who made some new year’s resolutions for 2020 failed to achieve at least some of them.
Sure, if there’s any excuse for failure, it’s 2020. All of it. But stats from other years tell a very similar story. And usually, our resolutions centre around our own behaviour. Last year, the top three resolutions were exercising more, losing weight and eating more healthily – outcomes which are largely in our own control.
It seems that when it comes to new year’s resolutions, we get things terribly wrong. As we approach the end of this year, I’ve given this some thought. Turns out Choco & Biscuit had some merit after all, because is didn’t take me long to think of a myriad of reasons why. Here are my top ten.
1) We don’t give behaviour change enough credit
Changing our own behaviour and building new habits is incredibly hard. It involves alignment of a lot of different elements and effort as well as thorough planning. Behaviour change poses a challenge to most, even with professional support. Yet, when it comes to new year’s resolutions, we’re quick to just pick a goal, rock up to the new year and expect it all to work out.
2) We’re making them in the first place
If you want to change something, but you postpone doing it to sometime in the future, it means you don’t actually want to change anything after all. You want the outcome, sure, but you don’t want to do anything for it. The thing is, the moment we realise that our behaviour isn’t in line with how we would like to be, we feel uncomfortable. It’s a phenomenon called cognitive dissonance and more often than not gets in the way of constructive thought. You can read more about it here. The solution? Telling yourself that you will do better in the new year, relieves the discomfort immediately. Say g’day to the instant gratification monkey. And give him some chocolate – he seems to love that stuff.
3) We don’t really care
We often set goals that would be ‘nice to have’, but that we don’t really desire as such. Do you want to quit smoking because you’d love to live smoke free, or because it bothers the people around you? Do you want to exercise more to gain health and fitness or to get a socially desirable beach body? If we aim for goals that are not based on our core values, our motivation will be on a low and goal attainment will be a hard slog. To top things off, if you are lucky enough to succeed anyway, your excitement and satisfaction will be limited.
4) Our other needs aren’t met
You’ve probably heard of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. The general idea is that your basic needs usually need to be met before we strive for higher needs. (I say ‘usually’, because there are exceptions - think about Viktor Frankl finding meaning in life despite being incarcerated in a concentration camp).
I often hear people getting frustrated with themselves because they don’t manage to exercise as much as they would like to. Like my friend who works in a high-profile role, puts in long days at work, has kids to care for and a dog, runs a households and spends her spare time driving the kids to football matches and what-have-you. Lack of sleep is the rule rather than exception; meals are skipped, taken on the run, or replaced by coffee. What would you tell my friend if she asked you what’s wrong with her willpower?
5) We don’t identify (nor celebrate) success milestones
This is a big one, especially for those wanting to shed a few pounds or eat better. What exactly does that mean? How much do you expect to lose per week or month? And does eating better include a bikkie every now and then? Not mapping out your new behavioural do’s and don’t’s is like attempting to find a new location without google maps.
On top of that, if you’re anything like me in my 20’s, you feel all the rage when you don’t comply with your plans. And instead of patting yourself on the back when you do succeed, you don’t flinch because, well - it’s just what you were supposed to do.
6) We’re too ambitious
Speaking of succeeding, we have to ensure that our goals are small enough for us to have those moments of success in the first place. This is important if we want to build our self-efficacy or confidence. There are basically two ways things can go when it comes to self-efficacy:
1) You don’t have enough, which will make you more likely to fail, which will make you less confident yet again – and so forth; or,
2) You have lots of it, which will make you more likely to succeed, which will make you more confident.
In other words, if you’re on a chocolate diet and eat one piece of chocolate, you’ll probably eat another one.
7) We over-rely on willpower
Willpower is in a way like your mobile battery – nicely charged in the morning and pretty low by the evening. But that also depends on how much you’ve used it throughout the day, of course. That means you have to be careful not to overly rely on your willpower, especially when you’ve had a rough night, tough day and/ or one that has been full of temptations to deviate you into your old behaviour again. You can read more about willpower here.
8) We try to do it all alone
When it came to my new year’s resolution to quit my little chocolate addiction, you can rest assured that no-one ever found out about it. I made sure I’d keep that a secret. I just wasn’t keen on any conversation beginning with ‘You ate HOW much chocolate?’. Keeping your new year’s resolution a secret is also a great way to spare yourself embarrassment in case you don’t succeed. I certainly didn’t fancy any attention every time I ate Choco & Biscuit in the future. If no-one knows about it, it practically doesn’t exist, right?
9) We focus on what not to do
Trying hard not to eat chocolate when coming home after a long day is like trying not to think of yellow elephants. See what I mean?
10) We give up too soon
The all-or-nothing trap is one of our many cognitive shortcomings. A tiny relapse into our old behaviour often causes a chain reaction of complete goal abandonment. May as well eat the rest of the block. Come to think of it, the whole week is a ride-off. Bloody lockdown. 2022 will be the better year.
I'll admit that it's easy to criticise and point out what's going wrong. So please rest assured that I'll write about my top ten ideas for making your new year's resolutions more fruitful in the next post - right on time for 2021.