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The Science Behind Why We Break New Year’s Resolutions

December 23, 2015

Lose weight. Quit Smoking. Eat Healthier. Be Less Stressed.

What do all these things have in common? They’re among the most commonly broken New Year’s resolutions.

More than 40 percent of Americans make New Year’s resolutions every year, but only 8 percent of us keep them.

What’s driving this? My guess is how we set and structure our goals. There’s a science behind goal setting, and many well-known psychologists and respected experts in the field have written about it.

Research has shown that stretch goals in particular don’t set us up for achievement. One study indicated that when people didn’t reach stretch goals, their performance declined. Another study showed that people often make stretch goals out of desperation.

If you’re planning to make another New Year’s resolution this year, do everything possible to set yourself up for success.

Why Goals Fail

The majority of New Year’s resolutions fail. Other goals we set for ourselves aren’t immune to failure, either.

Why? Because we don’t start out with realistic or attainable goals. Either we want to achieve something too quickly without the necessary effort or we set a goal that we know we aren’t committed to reaching. One example of this is the most popular New Year’s resolution: losing weight.

You may have a goal of losing 30 pounds in two months, but you don’t make the effort to exercise or completely change your diet. You may be filled with enthusiasm the first week, but then abandon the effort once you face a minor setback. Same thing goes for quitting smoking. There’s a reason why 85 percent of smokers said they have tried to quit — and why 45 percent have made the effort at least three times and failed.

According to Psychology Today, how the brain works may impact our ability to achieve goals. Recent neuroscience research indicates that our brains hate change. We are creatures of habit and are “wired to seek rewards and avoid pain or discomfort, including fear.” When we get scared after setting a goal, this often makes it more difficult to achieve. We then go back to what makes us comfortable.

This makes perfect sense. If goals were easy to attain, then everyone who said they wanted to be a size 4, open their own business or become a millionaire would do so. But goals are difficult, and they come with many roadblocks along the way that cause some of us to stumble.

How to Set Yourself Up for Success

The key with achieving any goal is to put yourself in the right mindframe from the outset and to make the goal a realistic one. Set yourself up for success this New Year’s and beyond by following these tips:

Write down your goals

People who write down their goals are 42 percent more likely to achieve them, according to a study at Dominican University of California.

Writing down your goals is important because it forces you to clarify what you’re trying to achieve — and why. It also gives you a living, breathing visual about what’s important to you. Keeping goals to yourself and repeating them over and over again in your head doesn’t make them real, but writing down and putting them somewhere front and center will both remind and motivate you.

Be specific

Sometimes goals can be too broad. Saying you want to eat healthier is way more general than saying you’ll cut back your alcohol intake to one drink a week, eat more whole grains for breakfast and bake or roast your meats instead of frying them.

See the difference?

Be specific about your goals so you know what step-by-step actions to take to achieve them.

Make Them Personal

Connecting your goals to something that’s meaningful to you is a good way to strengthen your commitment. Losing weight for the sole purpose of looking good may not give you the same motivation as lowering your cholesterol or risk of diabetes, if you have a family history of these chronic conditions.

Don’t just pursue a goal for the sake of doing so. Commit to a goal by connecting it to something that will lead to a strong sense of personal fulfillment.

Set Smaller Goals Along the Way

It oftens helps to break down a big goal into smaller chunks. For example, if your goal is to lose 30 pounds in six months, break down the goal month-by-month and week-by-week. That timeframe equals an average weight loss of 5 pounds a month or 1.25 pounds a week. Break it down even further and that means cutting 3,750 calories from your diet every week. Looking at it from this perspective may help you pinpoint specific things you can do — like replacing high-calorie drinks with water or eating four small, low-carb meals a day — to achieve your goal.

And when you hit these weekly goals, celebrate them. Acknowledging smaller achievements will motivate you to reach your larger goal.

Be Accountable

In the same Dominican University of California study, researchers found that more than 70 percent of participants who sent weekly progress updates to friends achieved their goals.

This speaks to the importance of accountability. When we keep goals to ourselves, there’s not much consequence when we break them. But when we tell other people about our plans, our pride is at stake. Friends and family often remind us about the promises we’ve made to ourselves and put us back on track when we’ve strayed from our goals. So, tell someone about your goal and rely on their support to accomplish it.

Make 2016 the year you finally stick to your New Year’s resolutions. Write down your specific goals, rely on a support system to keep you accountable, and most importantly, stay committed even when things get tough. If you accomplish what you set out to do this year, you can avoid the endless cycle of making and breaking your New Year’s resolutions.

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