Why Your New Year’s Resolutions Suck

by Mark on December 31, 2016

I have probably set thousands of resolutions and goals over the course of my lifetime. My guess is that I have achieved about 0.1% of them. I really don’t know what my success rate is, but it is extremely small. I know that I’m not alone. Sometimes it seems like we should start our resolutions on Ground Hog Day, because like the movie, most of us repeat the same patterns over and over again.

I still have a lot to learn about achieving goals, but I think I’m beginning to understand the root of the problem. Most of us try to psyche ourselves up and use willpower to achieve our goals, only to suffer another failure. Then we beat ourselves up over it. It’s such a waste!

Why do we fail to achieve our goals so often?

The biggest driver behind our insanely low success rate is that it is easy to SET goals, but ACHIEVING goals is extremely challenging. The main reason is that we don’t know HOW to achieve them. It reminds me of the plan by the “Underwear Gnomes” from South Park.

The biggest challenge is that achieving goals invariably requires a change in our behavior, and behavior changes are very difficult to sustain. Without thinking carefully about how we can make our behavior changes sustainable, our resolutions and goals are doomed to failure. It’s as simple as that.

Are you clear about what you’re trying to achieve?

Before we look at HOW to achieve your resolution or goal, let’s take a step back and look at WHAT you are trying to achieve. Is your resolution something like “Eat healthy food” or “Get in shape”? Such vague resolutions don’t provide the clarity that your brain needs to fight old habits. At any point in time, it’s not clear how well you are doing in achieving your resolution. What we want to do is to make our progress (or lack thereof) more obvious.

Is it an outcome goal or a process goal?

As I described in my blog post Outcome Goals vs. Process Goals, “There are two basic types of goals:

  • Outcome goals – the outcome is known, but the process is unknown, and
  • Process goals – the process is known, but the outcome is unknown.”

My thoughts on outcome goals vs. process goals have continued to evolve since I wrote that post two years ago. I think that we should mainly focus on outcome goals because these define the precise results that we are looking for. While focusing on the process is clearly important, we should be aware of the exact results that we are looking for so that we can judge whether the process is working effectively or not.

Compare the outcome goal “Reduce my weight to 165 pounds by 12/31/17” to the process goal “Exercise at least 3 times a week for 30 minutes or longer.” Both goals are pretty specific, which is great, but with the process goal, it’s not clear what specific results you are trying to accomplish. If the actual result you want is weight loss, then you have committed yourself to one specific process for achieving your desired result regardless of whether the process is effective or not. It is a good idea to allow yourself greater flexibility in the methods you use to achieve the results you desire.

My recommendation is to set your resolution or goal as a very specific RESULT that you want to achieve (preferably by a specific date). Process goals can still be helpful in achieving your outcome goals, but allow some flexibility with your process goals. You don’t want to make the mistake of forgetting what you really want to achieve.

Do you have a system for achieving your goal?

Often we fail to achieve our goals because we are only vaguely aware of how we are going to achieve them. One of the best strategies for achieving a goal is by developing a system. The system gives us clarity about the actions that we plan to take to achieve our goal, such as:

  • What we are going to do
  • When we are going to do it
  • Where we are going to do it
  • How we are going to do it
  • With whom we are going to do it
  • Why we are going to do it

The more clarity that we have about these details of the system, the more likely we are going to take consistent action.

Let’s say that my New Year’s Resolution is “Reduce my weight to 165 pounds by 12/31/17.” I decide that What I am going to do is exercise. When I’m going to do it is every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday from 8 PM to 9 PM. Where I’m going to do it is at the nearest fitness center. How I’m going to do it is with weight training. With whom I am going to do it is with a trainer at the fitness center. Why I’m going to do it is to burn calories so that I will lose weight.

With a clear system in place, we now know exactly what we need to do, so we are far more likely to do it. When we don’t have clarity, life intervenes, and then we don’t take action.

We can also decide on other details, such as: what happens if something interrupts one of my scheduled workouts? Do I schedule the workout for the next day? Is there a specific weight training program that I want to follow? Use your judgment on how detailed you want to get, but it is probably better to start out simple and then refine your system as you go along.

Is your system predictive of success?

Having a system is a great start, but for our system to help us achieve our goals, our actions need to cause the results that we desire. In my weight loss example, I intentionally chose exercise as the action, because exercise is NOT very effective when it comes to weight loss. It is obviously possible to lose weight through exercise, but it takes an extraordinary amount of effort to achieve your desired result this way. Exercise simply doesn’t burn that many calories. As Dr. Jason Fung argues in his book The Obesity Code: Unlocking the Secrets of Weight Loss, the main driver of weight gain (or more specifically, fat gain) is insulin. A more effective system for weight loss would be one that helps us reduce our insulin levels, maybe through a Low Carb High Fat (LCHF) diet or intermittent fasting. (Note: Exercise is still extremely important for good health in other ways, and it is effective in achieving other goals, such as sports goals. It just isn’t a very “high leverage” activity when it comes to losing fat).

Whether you agree with this or not, the point is that you should continually improve your understanding of what actions are the most effective for achieving a particular result.

Your system should evolve over time.

There is a good chance that the initial system that you decide on will not work, or at least it won’t work as well as it could. Think of your system as an hypothesis to be tested. One thing that you obviously will be testing is whether it is predictive of success. If you are being diligent about working your system and you still aren’t seeing much in the way of results, perhaps you need to rethink your hypothesis of cause and effect. Do some research. Challenge your beliefs.

Another thing that you will test is whether you are able to consistently work your system. If not, you might have to tweak it. For example, you might have to change the schedule to better fit your life. Or maybe you will need to change your environment, such as remove all junk food from your home.


One of the most powerful ways to take consistent action is to develop rituals. Perform the exact same actions in the same way at the same time (or in the same situation) over and over again. If you have to decide to take action on a case-by-case basis, you will be much less likely to take action. It’s too easy to talk yourself out of it.

I will give two examples of rituals that I have. One ritual is running up the stairs to the 10th floor at work and back down again right after lunch (which I currently finish at 12:45 PM). Another is doing 7 sets of push-ups at 6:30 AM every Monday and Thursday (I completed 7 sets of 18, but I’m still working on 7 sets of 19). I set up my calendar to remind me. I don’t spend much time thinking about it. It’s now just what I do.

Measure your results.

Seeing progress is very motivating. It’s one of the reasons that games are so addicting. We tend to be much more motivated when progress is very visible and apparent. This is why I have recorded my weight on an almost daily basis since February 7, 2011. I keep a notepad in my bathroom near the bathroom scale, and I note my weight every day. Then I enter it in a spreadsheet, which also calculates the 7-day average of my weight, which I think is more representative of where I really stand (weight fluctuates a lot on a daily basis). I also have a graph of my 7-day-average weight over time. When I see the graph moving upwards, this motivates me to be better about my eating habits, and when I then see my weight moving down, it strengthens my resolve.

Some results are harder to measure than others, but it is possible to find workarounds. For example, if you had a goal to publish a book by 12/31/17, then it’s kind of hard to know what kind of progress you are making, but you could track the number of words you write each day. Many professional writers do exactly that.

Of course, it’s also important to measure your results in order to know if your system is working or not!

My system for executing on my goals will continue to evolve, but these ideas have been very helpful to me.

Good luck on your New Year’s Resolutions, and have a Happy New Year!

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