Your New Year Resolutions will probably Fail - Here’s why

David Olsen, Ph.D, LCSW

The holidays have come and gone: all the anticipation, anxiety, planning, shopping and time with family is over for another year. We’ve officially rung in 2019 and, for many, New Year's resolutions have been declared and penned. “This will be the year I lose weight… spend more time with friends... work on my relationships... read more... meditate more…” You get the idea.

If you want to see some of those New Year’s resolutions in action, just pop into any gym in the first week of January - lines for cardio machines, crowded weight rooms, and circle swimming in all the pool lanes. By mid February, though, that commitment to lose weight or get in shape has frequently dwindled the same way it did last year… and the year before. When asked why these commitments break down, many blame their weak will power or lack of motivation. They assume that if only they were more disciplined, they would have had more success. For many of us, however, we can be extremely disciplined in some areas, only to fail miserably in others. So what is the problem then?

We know experientially that change is hard, but often can’t articulate why it is so difficult. Our resolutions seem so easy to formulate, and so practical and doable... but then they come apart so quickly, leading to more disappointment and discouragement.

Keegan and Lahey, in their book Immunity to Change, have a different perspective. They suggest that discipline isn’t the problem at all, but instead there is a “competing interest” that works against the change you desire and breaks down the plan to make the change. Basically, this means that for every change we want to make, there is a loss that occurs on the other side, and it’s this loss that threatens the change.

Let’s play with some examples:

  1. An executive in a small company wants to be a better listener and has tried several ways to listen more carefully, but consistently fails. His competing interest here is control. In order for this executive to listen and be open to others, he must give up some control, which frightens him and is therefore a competes against his desired change.
  2. In the same way, John says that he wants to spend more time with his children, really understand them, and be the kind of father that they can approach with anything. When his children talk to him about their lives, however, he becomes anxious and wants to “fix them”, which pushes them away. His competing interest, then, is the anxiety that comes up when he hears distress or difficulty, and the desire he has to fix versus listen.
  3. Finally, Jim wants to lose weight. He has tried multiple diets, and nothing has worked. As he explores this, he realizes that food has always been something that calms him when he is anxious. The thought of neglecting food that provides soothing nurture creates more anxiety. In the end, the function that food has played in his life competes against the very change he desires.

In all of these examples, a competing interest blocks change. The competing interest is connected to the loss, or what we have to give up when we make a change. Thus, it is not so much that we lack will power to create change, but that we fail to adequately address the competing interests and losses that these changes will cause. No change is simple!

If you have set, or are thinking about setting, goals for the new year consider several steps that will help you successfully achieve your goals:

  1. Make your goal specific and measurable. We often get too big and too broad in our goal setting and then get lost when it comes to achieving our goals because we are unsure of what it will take to make them work. If your goal is to begin a meditation or centering prayer practice, it will be difficult to know what may get in the way if you don’t know the specifics of what this goal requires. For example, you might say that you will set aside 10 minutes, at first, for 3 days a week to engage in your practice. Identifying where those 10 minutes 3 times a week will come from allows you to understand what is being lost, or what might get in the way. It’s important that you also give yourself time to reassess (many times over) so that you can continually understand what is working and not working, and what the competing interests are.
  2. Think about the implications of meeting the goal. What is your competing interest? What might you have to give up in order to meet the goal? And what might happen if you achieve your goal? If you are going to the gym, that may mean less time to sleep in the morning, or less time out with friends, or it may impact the time you have with the kids. In the end, if you achieve your goal for lifestyle changes that allow you to lose weight and get in shape, you may have less in common with your partner. Make a plan for how you are going to manage these losses and talk about them.
  3. Think about any internal conflicts that meeting a goal might stir up and process them carefully. Does meeting goals conflict with your view of yourself? If you work to become more social and active in your community, you may find it difficult to reconcile the old view you have of yourself as introspective, quiet, and intellectual.
  4. Consider any potential loyalty conflicts that can block change. For example, if you achieve increased career success and pass your parents, will you feel some level of guilt? If you begin accomplishing goals, but your partner struggles to accomplish their goals, do you feel guilty, or does it cause instability in your relationship? Loyalty issues are complicated.
  5. Understand all change involves loss. The accomplishment of any goal means losing something else, and sometimes it is not a loss you anticipated or would have chosen. Losing weight and getting in shape may result in the loss of the soothing effect of certain foods, causing you to struggle with managing anxiety or boredom. Learning to listen more carefully may result in the loss of perceived control. Spending more time with your children, may result in not getting a promotion at work. Slowing down and meditating or practicing centering prayer might put you in touch with unresolved loss, or issues in your life that you may have blocked.

All change, and the accomplishment of any goals, means that something somewhere has to give: the “competing interest” must be addressed in order to successfully grow. So, take those New Year’s resolutions you’ve already made, and rethink them through the lens of the 5 steps above. If you successfully address the potential blocks to change covered here, you’re already ahead of the game when it comes to successfully keeping your resolutions for change and growth.