Why goals and resolutions fail and what to do about it

It’s that time of year again. The dust has settled, the streamers and empty bottles have been recycled, and we’re all heading back to reality, taking our resolutions to make this year better and throwing them smack-bang into 2017 and all it’s got to see whether they’ll survive the impact.

Most won’t.

Despite the fact that most of us know New Year’s Resolutions (or resolutions undercover as goals for those who boycott the New Year tradition in name only) fail, we make them anyway. We’re sucked in by the promise of a fresh, new year every twelve months, and end up making another vow to get fit, keep the house clean, make new friends, or play that musical instrument that’s been gathering dust since we bought it five January firsts ago.

But why do our goals and resolutions so often fail? What is it about vowing to change our lives at the start of the year (or anytime, really) that seems so promising, yet brings with it more disappointment than lasting change?

The reasons for failure vary by goal and by person of course, but there are a few things goals and resolutions usually have in common that make them disappointment traps for anyone wanting more out of life.

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We choose unrealistic goals

Have you ever noticed how fitness programs, meal plans, and goal-setting apps tend to oversell the progress you’ll make if you buy their product? You never see a fitness program advertising that it’ll help you lose an inch of body fat if you stick with it for a full year. Or a meal plan that says six months is all you need to notice that you’re feeling better and starting to lose weight.

Products designed to help us reach our goals love to sell us on seeing huge results in a short period of time. And that’s why we buy them.

Unfortunately, this kind of attitude has led to something researchers Janet Polivy and C. Peter Herman call “false-hope syndrome.” The problem is that we start out with unreasonable goals (often helped along by whatever coaching program or plan we’ve signed up for), and when we don’t lose 10 pounds in the first month or we give up on our no-smoking resolution after just a week, we get so disappointed that we give up on trying to change at all.

Here’s how Polivy and Herman explain it:

When unreasonable expectations for self-change are not met, people are likely to feel frustrated and despondent, and to give up trying to change… This phenomenon of beginning self-change attempts with high hopes and expectations of successful outcomes is illustrative of a phenomenon we call the false-hope syndrome.

Egged on by apps and programs designed to help us reach our goals, we start off being over-confident about the results we’ll see (and how quickly we’ll see them), only to be left disappointed and fed-up with goals when our results don’t meet our expectations.

The answer: Do a premortem for each goal

Daniel Kahneman, a Nobel Prize–winning behavioral economist, offers us a solution in his book Thinking, Fast and Slow. Kahneman credits the idea of doing a premortem (as opposed to a postmortem) to his colleague, Gary Klein.

The idea is simply to imagine you’ve already tried achieving your goal and failed, then to examine what went wrong. Here’s Kahneman:

Imagine that you are [x amount of time] into the future. You implemented your plan as it now exists. The outcome was a disaster. Take five to ten minutes to write a brief history of that disaster.

While optimism and self-confidence are important for achieving our goals, doing a premortem can help ground us in reality. When we examine what could stop us from achieving our goals before we even get started, we can identify and avoid those pitfalls, rather than letting them surprise us and falling victim to the false-hope syndrome.

Author Brad Stulberg says when you force yourself to realise everything that could go wrong, “you become more likely to take the necessary steps to ensure that things go right.”

We don’t feel connected to our future selves

Unfortunately, achieving goals tends to mean taking a hit right now (being uncomfortable, denying ourselves our favourite foods, taking time away from watching TV to exercise, and so on) in order to create good results for our future selves. The problem with this is that we’re quite bad at identifying with our future selves and predicting how we’ll feel in the future.

Even after looking back on how much we’ve changed in the past ten years, for instance, people tend to predict that they’ll be mostly the same in the following ten years. Because we can’t predict how much we’ll change in the future, it’s hard to make decisions now that will benefit us long-term. Our present selves and short-term desires tend to clash with our future selves and longer-term wishes.

The answer: think in smaller time units

calendar

One method research shows can help us overcome this problem is to think about time in smaller units—such as days or weeks instead of months or years. This can make future events seem closer, which motivates us to act sooner.

For instance, one study asked participants how soon they would start saving for college if it started in either 18 years or in 6,570 days. Other participants were asked how soon they’d start saving for retirement that started in either 40 years or 14,600 days.

The participants who were asked about events starting in a number of days, rather than years, said they’d start saving four times sooner.

Another study found that events seemed an average of 29.7 days sooner—almost a whole month—when they were considered in days instead of months. And events considered in months rather than years seemed 8.7 months sooner—more than half a year.

So if you’re struggling to get started on a goal because you can’t identify with your future self, try considering future events in smaller units of time. Thinking about how many days or weeks it is until your next birthday, for instance, might motivate you to start exercising or eating right sooner than you would have done otherwise. Or thinking about how many months away your retirement is might help you take action on asking for a pay rise sooner.

We misunderstand the effects of our behavior

cake

While false-hope syndrome can kill our goals when we don’t reach our expectations, combined with the progress bias we barely have a chance. The progress bias, according to Margaret C. Campbell, professor of marketing at the University of Colorado at Boulder, refers to a common misunderstanding of how our behaviors affect our progress towards our goals.

Essentially, we overestimate the good effects of our behavior in support of our goals, and we underestimate the bad effects of cheating on our goals.

Here’s Campbell:

… we find that people tend to have a “progress bias” such that they perceive that goal-consistent behaviors (such as avoiding eating a piece of cake) help progress more than the equivalent goal-inconsistent behaviors (such as eating a piece of cake) hurt progress.

The progress bias is so dangerous, in fact, that in a study conducted by Campbell, participants who started out wanting to expend more calories than they consumed did the opposite.

The answer: focus on (keystone) habits instead

If we’re so terrible at measuring the effects of our behaviors, how can we ever hope to reach our goals? According to writer Mark Manson, the answer is to focus on small, regular habits.

Manson explains that focusing on daily habits is like cultivating an attitude of investing your money for high returns—a little at a time that builds up over a longer period. Focusing on goals, however, is like spending all your money to acquire one-off items.

Goals are one-time decisions, says Manson. You spend x amount of effort to receive y reward, and then you’re done. Since there’s no reason to keep spending effort once the goal is accomplished, you don’t bother—and that’s why we put back on the weight we lose, take up smoking again, or fall back into bad eating habits after being on a diet for months.

Habits, however, require spending smaller amounts of effort to achieve results that compound over time.

With goals, every day you go back to the gym feels harder. With habits, after a while it feels harder to not go to the gym than it does to go.

There are some habits, says Manson, that offer a better return for your investment of effort than others. Researchers call these keystone habits, since they tend to lead to other healthy habits naturally.

A common example is exercise. In The Power of Habit Charles Duhigg points out that research shows building a regular exercise habits often leads people to also tidy their house more regularly, make healthier eating decisions, and procrastinate less.

Here’s Manson:

I like to think of keystone habits as “compounding habits” because, much like compounding returns on an investment, over a long enough period of time, they can increase the richness of your life exponentially.

So if you struggle to reach your goals, try focusing on building a small, daily habit instead. If your goal this year is to lose weight, for instance, rather than trying to achieve that all at once try aiming for a habit of 30 minutes of exercise daily. It’s a lot easier to succeed at something small every day than it is to build up all the right behaviors and stick with them over a long period of time until you reach a big goal.

Contexts keep us doing the same old bad habits

So what if you’re having just as much trouble with building small habits as you had with goals? That may just come down to context, according to Rebekah Boynton and Anne Swinbourne from James Cook University.

It’s hard to break out of old behavior patterns, they say, because “habitual behaviour is automatic, easy and rewarding.”

Our existing behaviors are triggered by contextual cues, say Boynton and Swinbourne, such as time of day, location, or objects you see around you. It’s these things, therefore, that we need to change if we’re going to change our behaviors.

But we also need to pay attention to what happens after a particular behavior. If we feel rewarded after eating a donut, for instance, we’re probably going to want to do it again. But if we feel good right after exercising, we’ll want to do that again. It works the same way regardless of what the behavior itself is.

“Quite simply,” say Boynton and Swinbourne, “if a pleasant outcome follows a new behavior, you’re more likely to repeat it.”

So there’s a two-pronged approach here: the contexts around us that trigger our behaviors and the way we feel after a behavior. Feeling bored, for instance, might lead us to eat a donut. And after eating the donut we feel good, so we’ll want to do it again. Our existing behaviors are resistant to change because they’re held in place at both ends.

The answer: Change your context to make new behaviours easier

guitar

The answer in this case is fairly obvious (though not necessarily easy): we need to adjust the cues that encourage us to do our old behaviors, and the rewards we get from those behaviors, while also adding cues and rewards related to the new habits we want to develop.

“To form a new habit,” according to Boynton and Swinbourne, “you need to maximise the triggers and cues that lead to the desired behaviour and avoid triggers to the less desirable behaviour.”

Essentially this comes down to a very simple process: make it harder (and less rewarding) to do behaviors you want to stop, and easier (and more rewarding) to do habits you want to build.

Shawn Achor, author of The Happiness Advantage uses the term “activation energy” to refer to the amount of effort is takes to go from doing nothing to doing your goal behavior. He suggests focusing on minimising activation energy for habits you want to do often, to make it easier to get started.

For Achor, learning guitar was a habit he wanted to build but was struggling with. Improving his contexts helped him overcome the hurdle of getting started:

I had kept my guitar tucked away in the closet, out of sight and out of reach. It wasn’t far out of the way… but just those 20 seconds of extra effort it took to walk to the closet and pull out the guitar had proved to be a major deterrent…

I took the guitar out of the closet, bought a $2 guitar stand, and set it up in the middle of my living room… three weeks later, I looked up at a habit grid with 21 proud check marks.

Remember how Boynton and Swinbourne said the objects around you and your location are examples of context for behaviors? Achor moved his guitar so it would be visible when he was in the living room—a place he was likely to go to when he had spare time and wanted to relax. Seeing the guitar at a time when he was available to play it was a big enough change in context that he played it every day for three weeks.

Whether you’re trying to give up a bad habit or build a new, healthy one, think about the contexts that affect your behavior, and the rewards you get when you do certain things. Adjusting the before and after of a habit can make it stick more or less than it would otherwise.


Whether it’s our own psychology or a well-marketed fitness program, we’re often lulled into traps when setting goals. We have unrealistic expectations, we misunderstand the effects of our behavior, and we’re stuck in contexts that stop us making lasting changes.

Thankfully, psychologists have done the hard work for us to figure out how to overcome these barriers. They’re not going to the gym for us or cheering us on when we’re struggling to say no to another snack, but by helping us set better goals in the first place they’ve got us one step closer to success.

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Belle B. Cooper

Belle is an iOS developer, writer, and co-founder of Melbourne-based software company Hello Code. She writes about productivity, lifehacks, and finding ways to do more meaningful work.

2 comments

  1. Great post! As a perennial goal-abandoner, the concepts ‘false-hope syndrome’, ‘premortems’, and ‘keystone habits’ are useful to help make sense of what went wrong. 🙂

    Another thing that’s worked really well for me is setting goals relative to something I already have a bunch of data around. Instead of ‘walk 10,000 steps’ it’s ‘walk at least one more step today than I did yesterday’. The idea is that I will almost certainly never do just the minimum improvement (e.g. if I methodically walked just one extra step each day it would take forever to see progress), and as long as I’m going in the correct direction, the small gains quickly add up to a level I’m happy with. It’s not as exciting as a big audacious goal, but it’s easy, and it’s forgiving when I mess up (bad day today? easier to improve upon tomorrow then!). To smooth out spikes, I sometimes use the average of the last X days as the measure I’m trying to beat. That helps keep me from setting myself up for failure by having one day where I do 300% of the goal target. Of all the things I’ve tried to stay motivated, this one has been the most effective by far.

    1. I’m definitely a fan of goals calculated from your recent averages 🙂 I think more fitness trackers should come with this built-in, as so many come with a 10,000 steps-per-day goal out of the box, and it’s just to generic to suit everyone.

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