Will Ruth

The New Years Resolution is a mainstay of holiday culture. It seems like such a great idea. As the calendar turns to a new chapter, so do you. A whole year just stretches out in front of you with endless possibilities. This could be the year for the beach bod, the six-pack, the new diet, the better you. Full of motivation, you come up with a plan, spread the word of your lofty goals to friends and family, and wait for the following Monday (because everyone knows diets start on Mondays). And it never works.

See, always on Monday. [Photo: health.com]
New Years Resolutions (NYR) are notoriously “should” goals, not “I want” goals. The social pressure on the back of all the holiday emotions and often-stressful family situations primes the NYR to be a decision made out of guilt, not intrinsic personal motivation. The timing makes little sense from a goal-setting perspective—still recovering from holiday travel season, mid-flu season, and deep in the winter months. None of these are factors that are inherently motivating for change, nor do they make it easy to stick to something even if you are motivated. This sets the first stage for false hope syndrome [1].


False hope syndrome is a recurring problem for on-again-off-again self-improvers. It’s important to note that there are valid reasons for why the false hope syndrome happens—none of it is the “fault” of the individual. Advertising, vast influence by supplement and diet companies, and basically the entire fitness and modeling industry pushes these unrealistic images, practices, and programs, and people simply don’t know or don’t understand why their goals are unrealistic or why their processes are failing. Falling victim to this is almost unavoidable, and holding on to personal feelings or beating yourself up about previous failures is a hurdle, not a solution. Let’s start clean with more information and a solution-based approach to achieving your goals.

The process starts with making an unrealistic and extrinsically oriented “should” goal, often due to real or perceived peer pressure. “I should lose weight,” or “I should kick junk food.” While these may be fine goals, if you don’t honestly care about achieving them and aren’t intrinsically motivated to do so, you’ll find a way to fail.

Conventional wisdom then says you should announce your new goal to the world, whether it’s to family, friends, social media, or your blog. However, once you start announcing your goals, you’re taking steps back. Research has shown that announcing your goals actually makes it LESS likely that you’ll actually achieve them [2]. When you announce your goals, or post them online, you start receiving feedback from people. This feedback, usually positive in the form of “likes” from social media friends or congratulations at home or around the office, becomes more motivating than pursuing the actual goal itself. Why actually accomplish something when it’s so easy to get the same approval from your peers just by stating your intentions?

Then, after setting out on the unrealistic goal, you’ll experience some initial success. Not enough to satisfy your goal, but enough to make you think, “hey, this could work this time.” Maybe a few more brag posts on social media. But then, the initial success peters out or the initial motivation wanes, and next thing you know, setback strikes. A “cheat meal” on the diet turns into a day, something comes up and you don’t get to the gym so you take the rest of the week off, or your new plan is so intense that you overtrain and hurt yourself or get sick.

Now all the feelings of failure and guilt come flooding in, because at no point did you plan for failure. Never considered in the sweeping motivation of personal improvement and declaration of goals was there a thought that everything might not work out perfectly the first time around.

Many people just quit at this point and forget about the whole experience just in time for the next New Year. After all, most resolutions are based off previous failures. Others, however, do the only thing they know how to do. Double down and work harder! The problem wasn’t that your plan was unrealistic and based off an unrealistic goal, the problem was that you just didn’t work hard enough or weren’t strict enough. YOU failed again.

You know what happens from here. With no plan for setbacks, you redouble your efforts and then yet another setback hits. While some people will re-redouble their efforts, nearly everyone quits after two setbacks and this becomes another anecdote in the narrative of failure that so many people have with fitness, nutrition, and self-improvement. The next time you start thinking about making a lifestyle change, you remember the failures, the frustration, the setbacks, and don’t consider that it might be the fault of the process rather than an unavoidable personality flaw.

62% of Americans made resolutions. 75% maintained their resolution through the first week. 46% by six months. 8% were ultimately successful by the definition of their goal, with the other 92% either failing or being “infrequently successful” [3]. And yet, we keep making resolutions and new goals and most people never think to examine the process that brings failure year after year.

The good news is that the false hope syndrome can be beaten. Go to Part Two and learn how to replace false hope with real action.


[1] Polivy and Herman, “False Hopes of Self-Change.” University of Toronto, 2002. http://isites.harvard.edu/fs/docs/icb.topic1063339.files/falsehopesofselfchange%20copy.pdf

[2] Derek Sivers, “Keep Your Goals to Yourself.” TEDGlobal, 2010. https://www.ted.com/talks/derek_sivers_keep_your_goals_to_yourself?language=en

[3] Statistic Brain, New Years Resolution Statistics, 2015. http://www.statisticbrain.com/new-years-resolution-statistics/

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