01 Jan

Mind the Gap: Why it’s so hard to keep resolutions and how to up your odds

“I know I shouldn’t yell so much, but I just can’t seem to stop!”

“I know I shouldn’t eat this entire pint of ice cream, but here I go anyway . . .”

“I know I should stop reading Facebook, but the other things I have to do are far less interesting!”

Does any of this sound familiar?

Even when we know what to do, and why it’s important, many of us struggle with translating what we know into what we do.

Marshall Goldsmith, my favorite Executive Coach, explains it this way:

“If the understanding equals doing equation were accurate, everyone who understood that they should go on a healthy diet and work out would be in great shape. Why is it, then, that Americans weigh more than we have ever weighed in our history? We all know what it takes to get in shape, we just don’t do it.”

This gap between knowing and doing may explain why only 8% of New Year’s Resolution-makers are successful in achieving their resolutions (The Scranton Journal of Psychology, December 2015)

But it’s certainly possible to achieve our goals, right? We old dogs can learn new tricks.

We now have overwhelming evidence that the brain is plastic – it can literally create new neural pathways where none existed before, even in old age. (The Brain That Changes Itself by Norman Doidge.)

The problem is that behavior change takes a lot more time, practice, and focused attention than we think it will. Life gets in the way.

And we tend to give up before the new neural pathways are strong enough to stay.

Based on my own research and training, here are some of the most widely agreed-upon methods to close that gap between what we know we should do, and what we actually do:

1. Write down your resolutions or goals. It’s such a small thing that can make a big difference. According to many behavioral economists including Dan Ariely of Duke University, writing things down significantly increases your odds of following through. Other research demonstrates that “you are 10 times more likely to attain your goals if you explicitly make them.” (The Scranton Journal of Psychology, December 2015) Not surprising, right?

In my family, we have a one-page form we use to capture resolutions and intentions each year. It is fun to look back at the old ones and notice what was important and how we’ve all grown! This example is from my then 5YO:MESB 2012 Resolution


2.  Be inspired. If your resolution feels like an exciting opportunity rather than an obligation, you’re much more likely to take it to the finish line. For example, “Carefree in a bikini!” is more inspiring than “Lose 15 pounds!” – even with the exclamation point. If you still can’t get excited, consider a different goal! You will be much more likely to reach it if you are emotionally driven toward it. (David Rock, Results Coaching curriculum)

3. Focus on behaviors, not just the result. For example, “lose weight” is a result while “swim 3 times / week, 30 minutes each time” is a tangible behavior. You’ll also want to consider what needs to be in place for “swim 3 times / week” to happen. You may need to find a pool that accommodates your schedule, purchase a new swimsuit, and schedule the time into your calendar. Thinking through the “how” will dramatically increase your odds of success (Christine Carter, The Sweet Spot.)

4. Set up your environment to support you. Put a recovered drug addict back into his old environment and chances are very good that he will use again. The environment we are in is a powerful force. Consider this experiment from Google:

“The M&Ms in their New York office used to be in baskets. So instead they put them in bowls with lids. The lid doesn’t require a lot of effort to lift but it reduced the number of M&Ms consumed in their New York office by 3 million a month.”

“Your surroundings should make the things you need to do easy
and the things you shouldn’t do hard.”
(The Observer, 2015)

Environmental supports could be anything: a lid, items in your home, a post-it note, a repeating calendar entry, an alarm, a piece of clothing, a sign, or really anything that reduces the need for “will power.”

My own example: I yelled much less often after posting “PAUSE” signs around the house that reminded me to take a breath before reacting in anger to my kids.

5. Go public. Tell someone about your resolution, and enlist their support. “It takes courage – and humility – to publicly admit that you need to do better. But once you do, having that band of supporters will help you stay disciplined to reach your goal.” (Marshall and Kelly Goldsmith, Moneywatch, March 8, 2011)

After posting the “PAUSE” signs, I asked my kids to remind me to hit the pause button when they started to notice that I was “losing it.” My kids are wonderful at holding me accountable!

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