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The Psychology Behind New Year's Resolutions: How to Stick to Your Goals Without Beating Yourself Up


January 06, 2016 Posted in: Personal Health , Article

As the calendar turns over, we all celebrate the time gone by while once again looking toward an opportunity to start fresh. It's easy to feel like you can accomplish anything when you see the blank slate of 2016, filled with endless possibilities. Indeed, about 40 percent of Americans will embrace this new year with the age-old tradition of making New Year's resolutions to better themselves in some way or other, whether that's losing weight, giving up smoking, or trying to save money. Sadly, only 8 percent of those who make resolutions will actually meet them, according to data from the Journal of Clinical Psychology.

In the face of such likely failure, it's easy to let anxiety and disappointment overwhelm you before you even start. How can you push past these feelings and attack resolutions with resolve and vigor? It's worth digging into the psychology behind resolutions: why people make them and how they approach them.

Why Do New Year's Resolutions Often Fail?

It's not because you're weak or lazy, although some people may feel that way when they can't seem to reach a goal. There are many psychological reasons people fail to stick to resolutions:

  • Setting unreasonable goals and expectations.
  • Neglecting to approach goals with a specific task or thought-out plan in mind.
  • Not being ready to make a certain change just yet.
  • Taking too long to see the resolution's benefits.
  • Feeling defeated or incompetent when the resolution starts to slip, leading to a negative spiral that makes the task seem harder than it actually is.

The Trouble With Resolutions

Part of the problem, according to social psychologist Amy Cuddy, is that people view resolutions as rigid absolutes, which leads to the aforementioned feelings of defeat and worthlessness when they can't follow through. Life gets in the way, and before we know it, anxiety grows, self-worth declines, and we miserably accept defeat.

Another issue is we approach goals such as losing weight or quitting a bad habit by trying to cut something out of our lives, which can be extremely difficult given how our brains are wired. Habitual behavior is created by thoughts and memories, which generate neural pathways in our brains. Think of these pathways as information superhighways that generate our urges and behavior, which in turn affect our decisions. Trying to shut them off -- rather than finding a new way to think about a habit -- can be grounds for failure, especially when a weak moment arrives. It's hard to unravel a habit that's been years in the making!

Changing Your Thought Patterns

A way to get around this cyclical problem of trying, failing, and feeling defeated is to change how you think about New Year's resolutions. Simply understanding that goals can be made and reached outside of early January offers more room for trial and error.

Having a structured or big goal is not necessarily the problem; it's how you approach reaching that goal and how you see yourself if you go through a lapse in vigilance. Being mindful of your limits, breaking your goal up into manageable pieces, celebrating your smaller successes, and forgiving yourself when things go awry can make resolutions must less daunting -- and easier to reach.

If you continue to have difficulties with an important goal, consider professional help. Therapists will offer strategies and support designed to work with your specific needs and behaviors, which can help rewire your brain and give you a greater chance of sticking with your resolutions all year long.

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