Why people abandon their resolutions and how get back on track today

Why people abandon their resolutions and how get back on track today

“People who succeed have momentum. The more they succeed, the more they want to succeed and the more they find a way to succeed.” – Tony Robbins

Apparently January 10th is the day by which most people have given up on their New Year’s resolutions. While I couldn’t find any statistical evidence for this outside of newspaper reports, I’m willing to bet that if you compare how busy the gym is this week compared to ten days ago, you’re going to see a significant difference. It seems to be a widely accepted fact of resolution-making that most people who make resolutions will give up on them but why exactly is that and, more importantly, what can we do to avoid becoming part of that statistic?

Whenever people are surveyed about which areas they are resolving to improve, finance tends to feature close to the top of the list. If making financial changes and improvements is on your list this year, here are three reasons why I believe people abandon their new year’s resolutions and some suggestions to help you maximize your chances of achieving yours:

Resolution vs. Commitment

A critical component of setting a goal is the plan that you formulate to get you from where you are now to where you want to be. Resolving to do something is important but without a clear plan as to how you’re going to accomplish what you’ve resolved to do, it will be tough to get there. A plan is what takes a resolution from a “wanna do” to a “gonna do”. It lays out the step by step process that lets you see clearly not only how you’re going to achieve your goal but also how far you’ve progressed on your journey and how close you are to succeed.

The process of creating the plan also allows you to anticipate challenges that you might encounter along the way and lets you figure out how you can overcome them. Without a plan, you make the journey infinitely more difficult: the plan is your roadmap to success.

Should vs. Want

Too often we make resolutions because we think we “should” make a change. We see high credit card bills and know we should reduce our debts. We get on the scale and see a number that’s higher than we would like it to be and we know that we should get more exercise and eat better. However, if we’re not truly committed to the idea; if we don’t actually want to do the work necessary to make the change then we’re just setting ourselves up for failure.

If you make a resolution, then you have to make sure that you’re resolving to do something you truly want to do because without a “why” your resolution is likely to be abandoned at the first hurdle. Every goal needs a motivator; a reason that drives you to start and a reason that inspires you to keep going when the path gets tough. Emotion tends to drive us further than logic so find a motivator that really resonates with you and let it inspire you to work your way to your goal.

Obstacles vs. Challenges

When you make a resolution, you’re making a decision to change something. Logic says that, when you’re trying something new, you’re likely to run into challenges but how we interpret and react to those challenges can vary dramatically from person to person. In last week’s post, I explored the idea of a fixed vs a growth mindset and how people view challenges differ depending on the mindset they have. Whenever you make a change, no matter whether it’s positive or negative, it takes you out of your comfort zone and makes them part of your brain that protects you from pain very anxious. This anxiety is why far too many of us choose to remain “comfortably uncomfortable” rather than risk greater discomfort by making a change; it’s just easier to stick with what we know, even if what we know is large amounts of debt or something else that is holding us back.

Sometimes, when people are unsure about their goal or their abilities, a challenge can be seen as evidence that they were crazy to start on the journey in the first place or evidence that they’re just not up to the task. Sometimes a challenge can be a great excuse to bail on a goal that we’re no longer committed to or that’s not supported by the people around us. These all show a fixed mindset at work. The truth is that nothing worth having comes easy and making a change means growing into someone a little different than the person we are when we start the journey. People with a growth mindset understand that obstacles aren’t there to block the path permanently but instead are there to present a challenge that we can learn from and that will help us grow as we figure out how to overcome them. Suggesting that you try seeing those obstacles as learning opportunities might sound silly, but there’s plenty of research to support the idea that those with a growth mindset set and achieve more goals than those with a fixed mindset, simply because they see challenges as an opportunity to learn rather than a reason to stay put.

So whether your goal is to learn more, save more, vanquish your debt or a combination of all three, taking the time to formulate a plan, identify your “why” and choosing to look at obstacles with anticipation rather than dread will help you take that new year’s resolution from thought to reality.

What financial goals are you setting this year? What have you accomplished in the past? Do you have tips and strategies to share? As always, I’d love to hear your insights.

3 steps to resetting your resolutions

However, the reality is that we’re less than 60 days into 2018. This means we have more than 300 days left in the year. That’s plenty of time to accomplish all kinds of positive, significant and potentially life-changing things so why are we so willing to write off the resolutions that had us so fired up less than two months ago just because we didn’t make the initial progress that we thought we would?

There’s plenty of research that suggests it takes at least 28 days to make a habit. There’s plenty of evidence to support the fact that very few people accomplish what they set out to on the first try. Fables and proverbs are packed with stories and sayings that encourage us to “try, try, try again”; that reminds us of the importance of learning from our experiences and reassure us that, even though it’s unlikely, the slow and steady tortoise can outrun the hare. When you look at all the evidence, it almost seems laughable that we seriously think we can make a lifelong change without any hiccups, stalls or do-overs.

Like many others, I started out the year full of enthusiasm and good intentions. I set some goals and made some changes. Some of them have stuck; others have been seriously derailed. So now, I’m faced with a choice… abandon the goals that didn’t stick, or go back and attack them a little differently? Let me off the hook; or re-commit to making a change? If you find yourself in the same boat, then here are some tips for ‘resetting’ your resolutions and getting your 2018 back on track:

1. Define Your Motivator

We need something bigger than the goal itself to keep us going when things get tough and all we want to do is quit. One of the key reasons that people abandon their resolutions is that they’re not actually driven to achieve the end result. If you’re resolving to exercise more because you “should” and not because you seriously want to drop weight and get in shape, then you’re destined to fail.

You have to seriously want what you’re working for because that’s the only way you’ll motivate yourself to keep making all the tiny changes you need to, in order to cement the habits that will carry you to the end zone. Working towards something you’re not actually committed to achieving is an exercise in frustration and a waste of your time and energy.

If you’re planning on re-setting your resolutions, your first question should be ‘why do I want this?’. Find a reason that motivates you; something that resonates deep inside. If you can’t, then focus your attention on a different goal; one that does fire you up and gets you excited to make a change.

2. Make a Plan

Don’t be fooled by the fact this one is second on the list. It is by far the most important. The key difference between a resolution and a goal is that resolving to do something isn’t enough; you have to take action. Your best chance of taking the right action is to have a plan that clearly defines how you will get from where you are to where you want to be and how long it will take to get there.

It’s no different than a GPS: If you’re sitting in Halifax, NS and you type “Vancouver” into Google Maps, it will show you Vancouver on a map of Canada. Depending on your perception of distance, you might be able to estimate how long it will take to drive there, you might even be able to figure out which would be the fastest route. However, your best bet for actually getting there in the shortest time via the best route is to hit the ‘directions’ icon and take a look at your options.

Hitting that button takes your intention (to drive from Halifax to Vancouver), shows you what actions you need to take in order to achieve it and also gives you a realistic time frame for achieving it. You can modify the goal (adjust the route, add stops, etc.) and the GPS will adjust the time frame so that it’s still realistic. Without that clearly defined plan, your chances of getting to your destination are much smaller and the chances that you’ll get off track (or never set out in the first place) are much, much greater.

3. Anticipate Sabotage

After years of goal setting, the one thing I know for sure is that the person most likely to get between me and my goals is myself. While it would be easy to blame outside forces such as people or circumstances, the truth is that any of those obstacles could have been overcome if I’d just taken a step back and got out of my own way.

The human brain likes safety and its definition of ‘safe’ usually means ‘familiar and known’. When you make a change, you’re taking yourself away from where you were and into unfamiliar territory and, even though the change you’re making might be incredibly positive, that unfamiliarity translates as “danger” to your brain.

Sometimes it’s easy to recognize when our brain is uncomfortable: ‘butterflies’ in the stomach, lack of appetite, a racing pulse, sweaty palms or just a general feeling of unease are all common symptoms that most of us have experienced in a variety of situations. However, there are more subtle, subconscious ‘tricks’ that the brain uses to bring us back into the safe zone such as tempting us to abandon new habits (eat the bag of chips; stay in bed instead of going to the gym; just one beer/candy/cigarette won’t hurt, etc.) or helping us talk ourselves out of them (it’s too hard; I’m not good enough; the timing’s not right; I need more training; I need to do more planning; today’s not a good day, etc.).

If you know that achieving your goals will take you to a better place in life than you are right now then you owe it to yourself to dig deep and push through your brain’s initial resistance to the plan. Knowing what your brain is doing reduces the risk that you’ll interpret all those reasons “why not” as justification for stopping and increases the chances that you’ll see them as a sign that you’re making progress towards your goal.

When you get nervous about moving into a new place, try challenging your brain to consider “what if I don’t?” instead of just “what if?”. If you can make your brain uncomfortable with your current situation, it’s more likely to work with you instead of against you when it comes to moving forward. For example: instead of entertaining your brain’s ‘what if I go for this promotion and I don’t get it?’ perspective, try countering with ‘what if I don’t go for this promotion and 5 years from now I’m still stuck in the same role I am now?’. Or, instead of ‘I can’t take on an extra part-time job so I can get my debt paid off faster because I’d have no time for my friends/family/hobbies’ try countering with ‘what if I keep carrying this debt and this time next year I’m worse off than I am now”.

Highlight the negatives, not so that you’re overwhelmed by despair, but in order to spark your brain into action. As Anais Nin said, change comes when the “risk to remain tight in a bud was more painful than the risk it took to blossom”. Being able to overcome your brain’s resistance to growth (and anticipating how that might show up) is critical to achieving your intended goal.

So, here we are. Less than 60 days into 2018. With more than 300 days left in the year. If you started out the year with a resolution that somehow got lost over the past few weeks then you still have plenty of time to reset and restart. Figure out your motivator, set out a plan and anticipate how you might sabotage yourself. Then get out of your own way and start moving… and if you fall, just get up and keep going!


  1. John

    People lack the commitment and mental capacity to commit to such things. It’s easy to make crazy goals for yourself going into the year but most unfortunately never happen.

  2. Kevin

    People need to have a multi year plan,self improvement is a journey not the end result.I run on a twenty year plan for goal setting and it’s broken down to 15,10,5-1year goals that are started every Jan 1st.Each previous years success drives the next one,momentum never stops.

  3. Catwoman73

    I think a lack of realism contributes significantly to people’s failure to stick to New Years resolutions as well. It’s easy to say that you are going to save X% of your salary, but if you haven’t thought through whether or not that is even possible in your given situation, it’s pretty easy to fall of the wagon pretty quickly. And I think most people tend to just give up, rather than revising those resolutions- which really goes back to your point about resolution vs. commitment.

  4. Investment Hunting

    Nice article. So many people fail because they say what the want, but take no action to ensure success. Your point #2 is right on, should vs want. How bad do you want it.

  5. Endre Fredriksen

    New year resolution is biggest stupidity I’ve heard in last decade. First time I heard it, it was from person who never does anything right and he is committing himself to do something totally opposite from previous behavior. I never heard this commitment from people who are managing their life’s reasonably. That is reason why New Year commitment never success.

    • Shelley Edvards

      Enre, you hit right on spot!
      This is best explanation of New year resolution I ever heard. Thanks for sharing.

  6. Bruce

    Interesting. More of a life-coaching vs financial management but can be extrapolated like it could be to any element of life.

  7. John Willems

    I used your three steps and lost 150lbs. Easy. Funny thing is it applied to my retirement needs equally well. Easy. Debt free retired and in Great physical shape.
    Thanks Sarah

  8. Donna Dixon

    Excellent way to change perspective on all aspects of life. Particularly helpful in dealing with the many facets, fears and uncertainties that come with retirement planning and the upcoming major life changes.

  9. Bob

    Practical, sesnsible, organized and achievable…I like it 🙂

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