Why your New Year’s Resolutions will fail (and what to do about it…)

Almost everyone has had the experience of setting a goal (or a resolution) for themselves, sticking with it for a few days but eventually falling back into old habits and failing to make a change.

The good news is that it’s not your particular lack of willpower that’s caused you to fail to stick to your shiny new plan.  Science has done a pretty thorough job of proving that relying on willpower alone is, at best, a short term option that just doesn’t work in the long run.

The bigger problem, according to author James Clear from his book Atomic Habits, with setting personal goals and New Year’s Resolutions is that you’re trying to change the wrong things.  We tend to focus on the outcomes – but that’s not how long-term change happens.


Focusing on Outcomes

Typically when we’re looking to make a change, we focus on the outcomes that we want:

  • I will lose 20 pounds
  • I will stop smoking / drinking / etc.
  • I will start going to the gym
  • I will make more money

As a thought process goes, it’s intuitive – I’m not happy about something and I want to change so I figure out what change needs to happen (the outcome).  And if I’m really serious about it I might recognize that I need to be specific and even identify how I’m going to achieve that change.

  • I am going to lose 20 pounds in the next 6 months by eating 2000 calories / day and going to the gym 5 times a week for at least an hour per visit.

That sounds like a great plan – it’s focused, it’s measurable, probably challenging but at least it seems possible.  But… it’s not a recipe for long term behavior change – and it’s really unlikely that most people could stick to that kind of plan for the duration because it doesn’t address your identity.

And ultimately your identity – what you believe and how you see yourself – has to change if  you really want those outcomes listed above. 

Think about it this way – it’s the difference between someone who’s offered a cigarette and says; “No thanks, I’m trying to quit.”  and another person who says; “No thanks – I’m not a smoker.”.   The person who’s trying to quit, but still sees themselves as a smoker is very likely to have a weak moment at some point and go back to smoking.


3 Layers of Behavior Change

According to Clear (and the research he’s done), there are 3 levels where change can occur.  

“Outcomes are about what you get. Processes are about what you do. Identity is about what you believe.”

James Clear – Atomic Habits

Any of the 3 levels can be changed, but typical goal-setting exercises start from the outside in and generally don’t address identity change.  The problem with that is that I might want to lose 20 pounds, and I might even have a process for how to go about doing that, but if I ultimately don’t have the identity that fits with that outcome, I’m going to fall back into old behaviors – and gain the weight back.


Start with Identity First

Conversely, what if I were to start the change process by figuring out who I want to become.  Continuing with the example above – I decide I want to be a healthy person, the kind that eats well and exercises.

If I can truly start seeing myself that way, if I start taking pride in being a healthy person, then the changes become a lot easier.  I will start doing the things a healthy person does (eating better, going to the gym) and that will result in the outcomes I want (losing 20 pounds).

And more importantly, because my identity has changed, those behavior changes aren’t temporary.  I’m not doing those ‘healthy’ things because I have to, I’m doing them because I want to and it’s part of who I am.  Which means that it’s not a short-term fix, it’s a long term fundamental change.


Obviously it’s not that easy to just change your identity and your beliefs.  But it can be done – and it’s easy to see how that would have a huge impact on your lifestyle and outcomes over time.  The key is to be aware that you have a choice and to start small and make incremental progress over time.

If you’re a couch potato, you can’t just decide to go out and run a marathon tomorrow (at least not without injuring yourself). But you can decide to walk a mile a day for the next week… and then 2 miles… etc. until you work up to running that kind of distance.  It won’t happen quickly, but it can and has been done by all sorts of people.  It’s not the outcome of running a marathon that’s important, it’s building the belief and identity that you are the kind of person who can (and will) run a marathon that makes all the difference. Want to learn more about marathons and how to learn to run one? Check out this interesting post from Runners Blueprint on Marathons.

What changes do you want to make?  How do those changes fit with your current identity?  What changes do you need to make to your identity to get to where you want to be?  What’s a great small step that can help you start to take on that new identity?

What do you think?  Does this make sense? We’d love to hear  your thoughts.

Shawn Kinkade   Kansas City Business Coach