Feel your resolve getting weak? A behavioral psychologist explains the most common reasons resolutions fail—and how to make yours stick.
With each new year comes a new opportunity to better ourselves. We vow to kick our sugar addictions, call our parents more, and check Facebook less. Yet within weeks, most of us are back to snacking, screening parental calls, and mindlessly scrolling through our newsfeeds.
But before you become one more person observing Ditch Your New Year’s Resolutions Day (yep, it’s a real thing; January 17 is the day most people throw in the towel), know this: There’s still time to revamp a resolution that's losing steam and initiate the lasting change you aimed for back on January 1. “The most important thing is to first figure out the top reasons why resolutions fail, and then use that to get back on track,” says behavioral psychologist Art Markman, PhD.
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Markman, the author of Smart Change: Five Tools to Create New and Sustainable Habits in Yourself and Others explains the top five reasons New Year’s resolutions fail—and the small tweaks to make to fix each mistake.
Your resolution is framed in a negative way
We often make resolutions around what we want to stop doing instead of what we want to start doing, says Markman. “When you have a behavior you’re trying to change, whether it’s eating less or checking your email fewer times a day, you actually have to put another behavior in its place,” he explains. “The key is to focus on a positive action that you’re going to perform in the situation where you were doing the old behavior.”
So instead of vowing to give up a certain behavior or do without something, frame your resolution around the new positive action you will do in place of it. Let's say you want to quit mindlessly scrolling through your phone at night. Instead of pledging to turn off your device by 10 p.m., vow to start getting ready for bed at that time instead. This way, you unplug digitally while rewarding yourself with more sleep—a positive action that can motivate real change.
Your end goal is too vague
Resolving to exercise twice a week sounds like a solid plan, but it isn’t targeted enough, says Markman. “Your goal has to be so specific that the actions you’re going to take [to accomplish it] can make it onto your calendar,” he says. “‘Twice a week’ isn’t on your calendar, but ‘Mondays and Thursdays at 4 p.m.’ is.”
Getting specific doesn’t just help you realize what you need to do in order to see your resolution through; it also highlights the things that could get in the way of it (think: your weekly manicure also scheduled at 4 p.m. on Thursdays). Start accounting for all possible roadblocks, and add into your planner the steps you’re taking to get them out of the way so you can actually make it to the gym, rather than make excuses.
You don't address the root cause
In order to carry out a resolution, you need to know the who, what, when, where, and why of the behavior you’re trying to change. For example, if want to stop biting your nails, pay attention to the circumstances under which you engage in the habit.
“I encourage people failing at their resolution to keep a habit diary for a week or two,” says Markman. “Not so they can change their behavior, but just to watch it and see what they’re doing.” Once you realize that you always bite your nails while anxiously finishing a work project, you’ll be better equipped to take actions to stop it—like buying desk toys to busy your hands throughout the day or just being more mindful about keeping your fingers on your keyboard as the deadline ticks away.
You think it's all about willpower
Willpower is overrated. According to Markman, people often believe their commitment is enough to prevent them from falling back into their bad habits. Sadly, a pantry full of cheese popcorn isn’t going to magically become less tempting just because you’ve told yourself you’ll stop gobbling it down while you watch Netflix.
“At this point you’re riding the brakes,” says Markman. “Your motivational system is reminding you of the snack in the kitchen and you have to rely on your willpower to keep you from eating it. But just like in a car, if you ride the brakes long enough, they’re going to fail.”
The solution? Rather than relying on willpower, structure your environment so the thing you want or habit you're trying to break is so difficult to get or do that won’t bother attempting it. Because you can’t eat a pint of ice cream you never bought, right?
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You’re going at it alone
News flash: If you succeed in carrying out your resolution, no one’s going to say Congratulations, but it's not that big a deal because you had a support system. “If you find yourself ditching your resolution, phone a friend,” suggests Markman. “Find somebody who’s willing to serve as your backup so that when you’re about to slip, you can call or text them for support instead.” Crushing your goals doesn’t count any less if you do it with a little help from your friends.