Experts say this is why we fail to fulfil our New Year's resolutions

Cognitive science professor Jim Davies said many people set goals that are too far out of reach, especially when it comes to health-related resolutions such as losing weight or exercising.  (Gagan Nayar/AFP/Getty Images - image credit)
Cognitive science professor Jim Davies said many people set goals that are too far out of reach, especially when it comes to health-related resolutions such as losing weight or exercising. (Gagan Nayar/AFP/Getty Images - image credit)

As people ring in 2023, many are setting New Year's resolutions. But experts say some common myths around goal-setting could actually be making it more difficult to stick to those promises.

While it's common to encourage people to "shoot for the moon," picking lofty goals only increases the risk of failure, said Jim Davies, a cognitive science professor at Carleton University.

"I'm all for ambition, but you know, you can start with something that's smaller ... something that's really achievable and attainable," Davies said.

He said many people set goals that are too far out of reach, especially when it comes to health-related resolutions such as losing weight or exercising.

Davies said it's important to pick a goal that you actually feel committed to achieving and can break down into manageable steps.

Habit-forming misconceptions

While many believe that habits can be cemented by repeating a behaviour for a set amount of time such as 21 days or a month, Davies said this is a myth.

He said he's never seen any science to back up this theory, and knows bad habits can be picked up immediately.

Unfortunately, Davies said there is no standard amount of time after which a behaviour becomes an engrained habit. It all depends on the individual and the situation.

"If you want to install a good habit, you need to keep doing it until it feels habitual, which means that you're not making a decision to do it every time."

Davies said many struggle to drop bad habits, but replacing them with alternative behaviours is more effective. This is called "implementation intention."

For example, to break a habit of having a mid-afternoon cigarette, Davies suggests thinking about how these cravings are triggered, and responding with an alternative action such as drinking black coffee.

"Triggers can be a time of day, or a bodily state like hunger, or people you're around, a place," he said.

Finding your 'why' the key to success

Karen Strang Allen, a certified life coach in Kanata who assists clients in setting and achieving goals, said many people fail to achieve their New Year's resolutions because they don't have a good motivating factor.

"They don't have a strong 'why,'" Strang Allen said. "They're telling themselves they should do something, but they don't have a strong enough reason behind why they want to accomplish it."

For example, someone who seeks to quit smoking is more likely to succeed if they can connect their efforts to a greater motivation, such as a desire to live a longer life or climb stairs without being winded, said Strang Allen.

"It's connecting with the feelings. It's connecting with outcomes," she said. "What is the thing I will achieve if I do this? Why does it matter?"

Strang Allen said that attempting a resolution is meaningful even if you don't succeed.

"It's not just about achieving an end goal. It's looking at ... who you're becoming in the process."