It’s the season for New Year’s resolutions. Wharton School researchers say we’re inclined to look forward to new and important goals around significant points on the calendar, such as the start of a new year. They call it the “fresh-start effect.” The bad news is that the effect doesn’t last very long.
According to one poll, four in ten Americans usually set resolutions at the start of the year. Another two in ten do it at least some years. But fewer than ten percent actually succeed. Most of us can keep our resolutions a few weeks, but not even half are still going by midyear.
There are a lot of reasons for the drop-off. For one, resolutions are usually vague. Goals like get healthy, lose weight, and save more money are too abstract to mean very much. Absent the saliency of the “fresh start effect,” it’s tough staying emotionally connected to these goals.
Another reason is that sometimes our resolutions are oughts, not wants. They’re things we’re supposed to do, but really don’t desire. We want other things more, so our resolutions fall by the wayside.
Resolutions fail because we don’t really believe we can succeed.
There are a half dozen other reasons just like these, and they all have an effect on our ability to stick to goals. But one reason that often gets overlooked is this: We don’t really believe we can succeed.
Beware the goal toxin
According to the poll I mentioned above, vastly more people in their twenties achieve their resolutions compared to those over fifty. And a Harris Poll discovered that people are far more likely to consider resolutions a “waste of time” the older they are; more than two-thirds of people over 65 think they’re pointless.
Why? One of the ways we brace ourselves against disappointment is to stop getting our hopes up. And after decades of setbacks and failures, many people doubt a better future is possible. (For younger people, the relative lack of experience is actually a benefit!) But if you believe your dream is impossible—or even just improbable—you won’t take the necessary action to bring your dream to life. Why bother? Either you won’t even start, or you won’t give it your all.
Resolutions fail because we don’t believe we can succeed. As I detail in my new book, Your Best Year Ever, doubt is a goal toxin. You already know all the signs. Here are a few examples:
- The job market is terrible. I’ll never land something better.
- I’ll never lose this weight. I’ve had it for years.
- My marriage is stuck, and my spouse doesn’t even care.
- I can’t shake this addiction. Life is just too stressful.
- I’ve never been good with money. I can barely stay ahead of my bills.
Hope for something better might dawn with the new year, but then we settle down into disbelief soon thereafter. All those thoughts add up to disengagement, failure, and more disappointment. No surprise at the end of the year people are still stuck in jobs they hate, feeling unhealthy, unhappy, and broke. It’s predictable.
You get what you expect
I know some people believe in the Law of Attraction. But there’s a much simpler explanation for how our beliefs affect our experience of the future: We tend to experience what we expect.
Our expectations shape what we believe is possible.
In 1928, sociologist William Thomas said, “If men define situations as real, they are real in their consequences.” 20 years later, another sociologist, Robert Merton, reflected on the Thomas Theorem and coined the term “self-fulfilling prophecy.” Karl Popper, the philosopher of science, called this the “Oedipus Effect,” after the mythic Greek hero whose life fulfilled a tragic prophecy.
Our expectations shape what we believe is possible. In turn, these expectations and beliefs shape our perceptions and actions. That means they also shape the outcomes. And that means they shape our reality.
A simple exercise to change direction
We have a whole range of beliefs about the world, others, and ourselves that limit us. Real change starts with upgrading these beliefs. I detail a process in Your Best Year Ever, but the basics are as simple as this. (By the way, you can do this exercise with a sheet of paper or open up a new note in Evernote. Draw a line down the page to create two columns or start a table in a note.)
Think about something you want for the new year—something for you, for your family; something material, emotional, spiritual, whatever. Ask: What prevents you from getting it? Write down your answers in the left column. Now challenge them. Are they accurate? Are they overblown? Are they helpful? What would you do differently if those answers were false? Reject what answers you can and try to reframe the rest so there’s room for possibility.
In the right column, write down new or revised beliefs that are more accurate and more helpful. Working with the examples above:
|Limiting beliefs||Liberating truths|
|The job market is terrible. I’ll never land something better.||I’ve got the right skills for the job I need. I just need to get creative in selling myself.|
|I’ll never lose this weight. I’ve had it for years.||I’ve been carrying this weight too long. Someone can help me lose it.|
|My marriage is stuck, and my spouse doesn’t even care.||My marriage will only be as good as my attitude. I can be responsible for myself, and I can change.|
|I can’t shake this addiction. Life is just too stressful.||I hate feeling this way. There are better ways of dealing with stress.|
|I’ve never been good with money. I can barely stay ahead of my bills.||I’ve got all the money I need for the basics, and I can build on that.|
Whatever you write in your right-hand column, consider these new liberating truths your personal manifesto for achieving your goals.
A resolution is only as good as the belief behind it. Adopting a new sense of what’s possible is the first step in experiencing your best year ever. And the good news is whatever setbacks or disappointment you might have suffered to date, they don’t define your future. Only you can do that.