Why Do My New Year's Resolutions Always Fail By Mid-May?

I stole this image from a friend's Facebook page:

Hilarious. Seriously, who hasn't done this with their New Year's resolutions?

Then again, maybe this photo hits a little too close to home, especially if your resolutions for this year are already beginning to slip away. So let's set aside the humor for a moment and ask a serious question: What is it about the goals in the photo above that caused repeated failure, and how can we avoid failure like this? What can we do to ensure we select effective goals we will actually achieve?

I'd love to hear you share below what types of goals work for you. Here are a few of my thoughts:

Be specific.
An effective goal is specific. To see what not to do, look at the first two resolutions above. "Lose (more) weight" and "get fit" aren't goals--they are shapeless generalizations.

If you're setting a goal, and if you actually want to achieve that goal, it must be clear, defined and precise. So how can we change vague, failure-bound resolutions like "lose weight" and "get fit" into something that has a snowball's chance of working?

With body weight, start by defining a specific goal weight or a specific weight loss target: Lose 20 pounds, or Get my body weight to X. [Special note: read this post on the dangers of depending too much on body weight as a health indicator]. With fitness, use a specific and sensible parameter that's a meaningful measure of fitness to you:

Run two miles without having to stop.
Do forty pushups in under two minutes.
Exercise twice a week for a minimum of 30 minutes.

However, being specific isn't enough. You need one more element to make an effective goal.

Include a specific time horizon.
Effective goals have end dates. A goal with a proper time horizon and proper specificity would be something like:

By December 31, 2013, I will weigh X, 25 pounds less than my current weight.
By December 31, 2013, I'll be able to run 3 miles in under 36 minutes.
By December 31, 2013, I will have saved $5,000 in an emergency fund.

Even better, consider mapping out intermediary steps on the way to your end goal:

By June 30, I will have lost 15 pounds on my way to losing 25 pounds by Dec 31.
By June 30, I will run 2m in 30 minutes; by September 30, I will run 3m in 40 minutes.
By March 30, I will save $1,250 in an emergency fund (1/4 of my goal). By June 30 I will save $2,500. By September 30 I will save $3,750.

And so on. Divide up the goal so it makes sense to you, either by breaking up both the year and goal into exactly equal parts, or by front-loading the goal (if you front-load a goal--in other words, if you do more than half of it in the first half of the year--things get easier as the year goes on). A front-loaded version of the Save $5,000 in an emergency fund goal might look like this:

By March 30, I will save $2,000 in an emergency fund (40% of my goal). By June 30 I will save $3,500 (70%). By September 30 I will save $4,500 (90%!).

By June, you can already look back proudly on what you've done. By September you can coast! Revel in your goal-conquering awesomeness.

Remember: by the time March or April rolls around, most people have already given up on their New Year's resolutions. You, on the other hand, have set up a process and a roadmap--and you're systematically and relentlessly accomplishing steps towards your goals.

Fewer = better.
With all due respect, the poor person who wrote the list of goals above needs to know a central truth about goal setting: Six goals is too many. Three would be better. Maybe four. And keep in mind: there's absolutely nothing wrong with setting just one goal--especially if it's an important and meaningful goal.

It's easy for modern humans to fall in love with lists. It feels good to put down, in writing, lots of things that you'd like to do. It shows how serious you are about self-improvement.

That's all fine and good, but we're not making lists. We're accomplishing goals. There's a gigantic difference.

The more you focus your attention and your will on a small number of extremely well-defined goals, the more likely you'll achieve them. It's okay if you save back a few goals for next year, or even the year after that. It's far better to achieve two or three of your most important goals now than it is to write down six or seven goals and achieve none.

We're almost done. There's just one more step to take. A critical step. And it will guarantee that you accomplish your goal.

The most important element of effective goal-setting is this: set a specific consequence if you fail. All the better if you set up a consequence that you'll do anything to avoid. (Protip: make the goal--and the consequences--public.)

Here's an example that resonates with me in a way that I'd... well, in a way that I'd rather not explain:

I will save $5,000 in an emergency fund by December 31, or I will sing the theme song to "Titanic" in a Karaoke bar, and then post the video on Facebook for all my friends to see.

Congratulations. You've mindfully and consciously set up conditions that are utterly congruent with your success. You will not fail.

Here's the tl;dr version of today's post: Good goals...
...Are specific
...Have a time horizon
...Are focused and few in number
...Have clear consequences for failure

One last thought. Reading a post on how to set goals is not the same as achieving goals. Time to get to work.

Readers, what additional thoughts would you add?

Related Posts:
Ask CK: The Two-A-Day Workout
Eat Less, Exercise More Doesn't Work. Wait, What?
Becoming a Knowledgeable and Sophisticated Investor: Six Tips
Two People, Fifteen Days, Thirty Meals. Thirty-Five Bucks!

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chacha1 said...

I went with an over-arching "theme" this year instead of a goal or resolution.

My theme for 2013 is MORE.

More time outside, more days doing stuff with the DH, more dancing, more organization.

I realized late last year that I had been thinking in terms of *restricting* certain things in order to make time for other things, but it's not very satisfying or motivating to do it that way.

So I thought, let's focus on MORE of the stuff I really want to do, and if that means less time for all the other crap ... well, you know, GOOD.

chacha1 said...


does "tl;dr" mean "too long; didn't read"?

if so ... there are a lot of passive-aggressive lazy-ass people in the world, aren't there? Too lazy to read an article, but snotty enough to leave a comment that they didn't read it.

Daniel said...

Yep: too long, didn't read. I've been occasionally including this in some posts, partly as a convenience to readers, but also partly out of irony. Most of the posts here at CK require a decent attention span. :)


Daniel said...

Also, Chacha, you have an interesting perspective in your thinking about goals. Let the good displace the unimportant. I like it!


Jennifer said...

We as human beings, are creatures of habits. It takes some time to learn some new habit and keep it as a part of your daily routine. It's good idea to have somebody who can cheer you up when you don't want to continue anymore.