Why New Year’s resolutions never stick

Change isn't difficult. What is difficult is doing things when you don't really want to

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Rebecca SchalmSo it’s a new year. The pressure to look optimistically and confidently ahead, to resolve to change old ways and embrace the new, is palpable. The media, with tiresome predictability, are chock-full of advice from the experts on how to make and stick to your resolutions.

Forget it. Most people really don’t want to change, and some shouldn’t even try.

My gym, typical for this time of year, is bursting at the seams. I can guarantee that by mid-February it will be completely back to its normal state and I will not have to fight anyone for an elliptical machine. Why do we continue to cling to the belief that, somehow, “this year will be different?”

While I hate to be the Scrooge of New Year Present, I guarantee that human nature won’t radically change in the coming year.  I have spent the last 15 years working with people seeking behavioural change and it has taught me a lot about a paradox of human behaviour. On the one hand, why it can be so difficult to change and, on the other, why it can happen as quickly as a bolt of lightning.

Here are a few of my clients’ hard-earned lessons as to why change just doesn’t happen like magic on New Year’s Eve.

Pick wrong goals

Most of the things we pick to change we really don’t want to change. We may think we want the end result: to be thinner, healthier, more organized, or less stressed for example, but in reality we don’t want to engage in the behaviour it will take to achieve those goals. We fail to appreciate that to accomplish a meaningful result will require us to do something different forever – not just until the goal is achieved.

It is important to recognize that we engage in an activity because we enjoy it at some level. Eating well is a pleasure, finishing things at the last minute gives us a buzz, experiencing stress makes us feel alive. The only time you can change yourself is when you feel ‘”unbalanced” – when you recognize that your day-to-day behaviour is creating more stress than you can manage and it is that daily activity you need to change. If something isn’t going to make your life better, easier, more enjoyable, why bother?  If you are in a tolerable state of equilibrium, resist the urge to start something you know you won’t finish.

Assumption change takes time

The experts tell us that change takes time. The consensus is that you should expect to work at forming a new habit for at least 30 days to six months. That is a lie. I have witnessed remarkable change in people when they come to the realization that something isn’t working for them. In those cases, it does not take them days or months to make a change; the shift is virtually instantaneous and it is wondrous to observe. Gaining insight into what, exactly, it is in our beliefs or behaviour that is creating difficulties for us is often the most difficult aspect of change.

When that light goes on, watch out. Once we understand what is not working, we can instantly make the changes we need to make a correction. We are remarkably adaptable creatures when our survival is threatened.

Magical formulas are a myth

Insecurity, or lack of self-confidence, has made the self-help business a lucrative one. Books and multi-step programs have made millionaires of people feeding on normal human traits. While they can be useful and have their place (you might pick up some good tips on how to make the changes you are striving for), I bet that if you sat down and thought introspectively for a few minutes, you would recognize exactly what you need to do differently to meet your goals. Spending time and experiencing false hopes by reading a shelf of books or attending meetings is avoidance – nothing less.

Go back and re-think whether you have picked the right goal. Then write down three things you want to do to change your behaviour. Only three, any more is unmanageable and unrealistic.

Maybe change isn’t worth the effort

If you really want that New Year’s resolution to work, don’t get hung up on how difficult change is. Change isn’t difficult. What is difficult is doing things when you don’t really want to. People and organizations struggle with change when they don’t see any really good reason to change. So, if you are happy with where you are at the moment, relax. And if you’re not, remember that, every morning you wake up to a new day, it is in your power to decide what you are going to do with it.

Troy Media columnist Rebecca Schalm, PhD, is founder and CEO of Strategic Talent Advisors Inc., a consultancy that provides organizations with advice and talent management solutions.


resolutions, new year

The views, opinions and positions expressed by columnists and contributors are the author’s alone. They do not inherently or expressly reflect the views, opinions and/or positions of our publication.

One Response to "Why New Year’s resolutions never stick"

  1. Anne   January 6, 2010 at 9:02 am

    Rebecca, I think these are honest assessments of why people fail to achieve their goals and gives us all a lot to think about! This month on my blog, I am exploring the concept of goal-setting. Today I posted a worksheet on achieving difficult goals you may be interested in reading. I agree that often a reason people fail to achieve their goals is that they haven't thought through all the details required to achieve a goal.
    http://www.beruly.com/?p=547

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