I’ve been going to the gym 4-5 times/week for most of the past 25 years. Every year about this time, for a couple of months, the gym starts getting more crowded. Machines that have no wait for most of the year may start to have a queue. Gyms that have no time limit policy sometimes introduce 30-minute limits on cardio machines. But, by April or so, everything is usually back to normal. Why? New Year’s resolutions, of course.
While January isn’t actually the busiest month for most US gyms1, it is typically the month with the most new signups. Online statistics vary, but the consensus seems to be that around 35-40% of US adults set at least one New Year’s resolution. And, losing weight or getting more exercise usually average around 50% of all resolutions, year after year.
If about half of the resolutions are fitness-related, every year, year after year, that doesn’t bode well for the success of those resolutions. And statistics seem to confirm that as well (as well as the success rate of resolutions in general). Again, online statistics vary, but the most optimistic ones I could find suggest that 55-60% of New Year’s resolutions fail within six months. The less optimistic ones suggest that more than half of people will give up in less than three weeks, and that less than 10% of them will be successful. And, most of these statistics are about resolutions in general, not just fitness-related ones.
So. If you’ve got New Year’s resolutions, and you want to be one of the ones who succeeds, what can you do to increase your odds?
What’s Prevented You From Changing Up to Now?
The first problem that prevents resolutions from succeeding is the fact that the resolution itself doesn’t address the core issues behind whatever behavior you want to change. What benefits are you getting out of your current behavior? How else could you get those same benefits? What barriers (internal or external) stand in the way of changing your behavior? How could you overcome those barriers? Without addressing those kind of questions, it’s unlikely that the resolution will be successful.
Sometimes these barriers are logistical or practical, but often times they can be self-image related. When I quit smoking many years ago, the hardest part for me wasn’t the physical withdrawals from nicotine. It wasn’t the habit of bringing something to my mouth multiple times a day. It was the fact that somehow I had decided that I was the cool guy standing alone with a cigarette in his mouth. Before I could quit for good, I had to revise that self-image. I mean, it seems stupid writing it out here, especially so many years later, but it was my truth at the time.
What’s Your Motivation to Change Now?
A related issue is the question of motivation. What makes this an important change for you to make now? Almost every successful program or system for personal change, whether it’s 12-step or Weight Watchers or CBT or Motivational Interviewing or anything else, has as a fundamental premise that the person who is to change must bring their own motivation. And, many successful motivations involve aspiration. If you make the change you’re thinking about making, who will you become? What will your life be like? What new opportunities will open for you?
On the other hand, sometimes successful motivations involve fear of the consequences of not changing. For example, most 12-step programs start from the assumption that the person who wants to quit has already experienced unpleasant consequences of their behavior, and can see more on the horizon. In these cases, it can be helpful to be really clear about what are those consequences that you’re avoiding. What would the consequences be of continuing without changing? How would those consequences affect you and the people around you?
How Will You Know When You’ve Succeeded?
I talk in my coaching system about being a fan of SMART goals2 for a bunch of reasons, and most New Year’s resolutions are not SMART. “I want to lose weight” isn’t a SMART goal, but “I want to lose 15 pounds by June 1st” could be. Similarly, “I want to save money” isn’t a SMART goal, but “I want to save $1000 by June 1st” could be, depending on your situation. Goals that are not SMART are harder to achieve, harder to evaluate progress towards, and harder to celebrate.
How Will You Get Support Through the Change?
The last major problem with New Year’s resolutions is that people are often trying to make the change on their own. What support do you have in the change you’re trying to make? Further, all of the questions I posed above about underlying issues and motivation are difficult to answer on your own; what support do you have to help you discover the answers to those questions, and to formulate strategies to overcome the barriers you find?
Change is difficult. The kind of change that inspires New Year’s resolutions is generally more difficult than most. They usually require you to do something that you’ve never successfully done before. That’s hard. Having support through the process of change can make it easier to change. Maybe more importantly, it can also make it easier to have compassion for yourself as you go through the process of change.
Finally, I want to talk a bit more about my own experience. I don’t personally believe in making New Year’s resolutions. This belief comes from having asked myself one simple question: If the change I want to make in my life is so important, why the hell am I waiting until New Year’s to think about it and take action? There’s no reason for me to postpone things that are important to me until New Year’s Day. Further, there’s no reason to only think about those kinds of change once a year. If I’m thinking to myself something like “I can start making this change next week,” chances are extremely high that I’m not actually ready to change.
If you want your New Year’s resolutions (or your decisions to change that don’t happen to come at New Year’s) to succeed, here’s a good template to follow:
- Understand your barriers to this particular change and how you’re going to overcome them;
- Understand what makes this change important now;
- Remind yourself of your motivation to make the change when you hit the inevitable difficult patch(es);
- Establish support and accountability, both to help you get the above understanding and to support you in your change;
- Practice self-compassion as you embark on the journey to become a new you.
If you’ve read this far, you probably have a New Year’s resolution or three that you’d like to work on. I wish you all the success in the world!
- References for the statistics in this article include:
- Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant, and Time-bound. ↩