New Year, New You: Why Our New Year’s Goals Fail And What We Can Do About It

5 Minute Read

As we enter a new year most of us think about the last year; the good, the bad, and the ugly. And then we stop, take a deep breath, and begin to think about what the new year has in store. We make big, lofty goals and talk about how we are not going to repeat the mistakes we made last year and say “I will definitely stick to my goals this year.” Then dreary January and February drag on, followed by false hope that March and April are going to be amazing, and before we know it those well-intentioned goals we set have fallen by the wayside. 

Why is it so hard to stick to new year’s resolutions? The reality is we often set ourselves up for failure from the start.

Here are 3 quick reasons why we often fail to keep and reach our goals for the upcoming year that continually come up in my work doing mental health and substance use counseling at Supporting Act Counseling.


1. We often make goals that are too big and not realistic in the first place. Then, because we cannot reach them, we feel depressed, defeated, and begin to criticize ourselves for not being able to achieve those goals. An example of this would be saying I want to work out every day of the week for 3 hours. Although that is a great goal, for me, it’s just not realistic. Someone might say “I want to pay off my student loans this year.” Again, this is a great goal. But if you have six figures of student loan debt, and you make a five figure salary, the chances of paying the loans off this year is not realistic. 


2. Because we like to set big goals we also have a propensity to make them too nebulous, or ambiguous. We say things like, “I want to drink more water” or “I want to be healthy” without actually outlining what it means to do those things. Then when we do not live up to some imaginary standard we set we feel discouraged and give up. 


3. Our goals are often shame based. Instead of finding what motivates us we shame ourselves for our flaws and then try to set goals around them. For example, instead of setting goals around being healthier for various reasons like having more energy to play with kids, live longer, spend less money on health care, we often say we want to lose weight, get skinnier, bulk up, etc. 


One way that I like to think of goals is imagining that your goal is the roof of a house. In order to get to the top you need a ladder. Imagine each rung in the ladder is an objective to help you reach the bigger goal. So, for example, if my goal is to get healthier (the roof of the house), I will create objectives like buy exercise shoes, research three gyms, visit two gyms, sign up for one gym, create a schedule of days I could go to the gym, etc. (rungs in the ladder). 

This fits nicely with the SMART goals method (Specific, Measureable, Attainable, Realistic, Time Bound) used by many people and organizations now to make goals and visions for themselves. 

As you enter the new year, or any season in life in which you want to make change, keep these 5 strategies in mind in order to create goals that will be more likely to have a lasting impact on your life. 


1. Start small. Make small objectives that are easy to attain. Cross them off your list when you do them to make yourself feel even more positive and that you have gotten something done. Sometimes I will even add items to my list I have already completed and cross them off. If you want to drink more water, make it specific by saying, “Drink 64 ounces of water per day.” Start small and work your way to bigger objectives as you progress. 


2. Be realistic about the goals you are setting. Do not set yourself up for failure by having very lofty goals. I’m not saying it’s wrong to push yourself or set your sights high. But what is the point if it is a goal that is almost impossible to reach?


3. Start to change your thoughts. Our thoughts affect us much more than we give them credit for. For example, it is not happy people who are thankful, thankful people are happy. Thankfulness is a choice that we make when we decide to bring our attention to the positive aspects of our lives and not dwell on the negative. Utilize positive self-talk to help yourself stay motivated, optimistic, and hopeful. Do not guilt or shame yourself for not reaching all of your goals or objectives in the way or the speed you wanted to. Stay focused, get back up on the horse, and keep going. 


4. Find what motivates and energizes you and base your goals off of that. Try to avoid shame based goals as they do not often excite us and increases the likelihood that you’ll lose steam and not complete your goal. By focusing on a goal that energizes us, we think more positively about the goal, which causes us to feel more positive, and ultimately leads to greater, long lasting change. 


5. Reward yourself for reaching your objectives and goals. Research shows that we are quick to punish for undesirable behavior when positively reinforcing for good behavior is actually more impactful in creating lasting change. When you find yourself sticking with your goals and accomplishing tasks, it is okay to reward yourself. The key is not to reward too early or too much. Before you even start working towards your goals, think about ways you can celebrate reaching them. 


Remember, be kind to yourself. The world is not black and white, there is a ton of grey. Maybe you need to take a day off from working towards your goals because you just cannot make it happen that day. Don’t beat yourself up. It just didn’t happen today. Tomorrow is a new day. You can still do it and you did not fail because you simply missed a day. Stick with it, reward yourself, be proud, and know that the ability to make great change in your life lives inside of you. 


Edited by Jeannie Regan.

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