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How to Cope with a Failed Resolution

It seems like almost everyone I know made a resolution this year.  To be honest, I did too.  It's the best way to start a new year, right?  And this is it.  This is the year you turn it around and make that change.  You will lose those 15 pounds (or more). You will quit smoking. You will finish your degree.  You will start that business and become your own boss.  You will become the best person you can be in any number of ways. Why the miraculous transformation? Because you made your New Year's resolution, of course. It's a new year, a fresh start. Right?  So now is the time.  Maybe you have a plan, all mapped out and ready to go.  Or maybe you just have the idea and you know that now is the time and you must do it.  You have the will power now, the commitment, because it is a new year.  There's just one nagging little problem - all those other new year's resolutions that failed.

Mine have failed. Many, many times.  It used to really get me down.  But then I started to wonder - why do they fail?  And what should I do about it? What should I make of it? Are these resolutions hopeless - just a comforting idea we have annually to create the illusion we can change, or that our lives can improve?  Is there anything we can do to find success in our resolutions?  


Though there are lots of generalizations about success and failure, each situation is different.  Studies and statistics can perhaps try to point to what type of person succeeds, or what types of resolutions succeed, or what thoughts, actions and characteristics lead to success or failure in making meaningful change in life.  But we are each an individual, and though such evidence may be interesting and even helpful, being truly honest with yourself is a good  place to start too. So if you've decided you want to change, start with a little soul searching - that's what I always do.

Think about your failed resolution.  I know it's not fun.  When we fail we want to move on, forget it, not linger in that feeling.  But think about the resolution and why you want it and why you are choosing now.  How much do you really want this change?  How committed are you? It's true that we can resolve to make life changes at any time, so why now?  Obviously, the new year is a motivation, it feels like a fresh start, a new beginning.  It is also a custom, a social convention we hear about every year from friends, family, and in the media.  The holidays have passed, the number by which we count the years has progressed. It feels like day one.  But if that is all, if that is the only reason you are choosing now, if your timing is that arbitrary, and you are making the resolution as part of the fun convention of a new year's resolution, you need to take a step back and be prepared for the reality that this may be yet another year where it just doesn't happen.  


That's because there's nothing magical about January 1st.  You are not going to wake up with amazing will power.  You won't suddenly have all the resources or time needed. You don't experience a major change of personality or mindset just because the year has changed. Think about all the people you may have known who made a major life change, who lost a large amount of weight, got past a serious addiction, changed careers later in life, etc.  When asked how they did it, have you ever heard one who said "Well, it was a new year and I made a resolution and that was that."  Of course not.  There's a lot more to it. Making a real change is a process, and your failure is part of that process.  

 The important thing here is that you are examining the failure.  Often the new year's resolution fails because it was just the new year's resolution, a tradition, not a real attempt.  So though the new year is a great time to make a change because of that fresh new start feeling, those issues are always there for you to tackle.  If you really wanted this change, and it isn't just a tradition, yet you have failed, then it is even more important you continue to examine the reasons why.

There are a lot of things your examination of the failure may show you. If you really want change, and the change you are hoping for is not small or trivial, is a major life change, you have to be prepared and motivated.  But in addition to that, many changes require planning.  You have picked January 1st as your start date.  But did you spend the needed days or weeks or months before January 1st preparing as appropriate to your goal?  Have you prepared or just resolved?  

If you have been drinking a bottle of wine every day for the last year, what makes you think that suddenly, just because you wish to stop and it is January 1st, the change will happen.  If you have had a serious weight problem your whole life, why do you think that suddenly on January 1st, all the emotions, behaviors and habits that lead to that weight problem will suddenly alter on January 1st.  If you want to change to an entirely different field of work that you've never done before, January 1st isn't suddenly going to get you that job or the required skills and abilities.   If it major change was that easy, you'd have done it by now.  Such changes require  a lot of work, plan, a change in thinking and often require information, guidance, and a support system. 

Small changes, obviously, may not require much preparation.  If you have decided you are going to dress a little better for work, or maybe spend a bit more time on a hobby or with friends or family, you may not need much time to build up to it.  But more significant changes, those so typical with a new year's resolution, such as losing weight, giving up smoking, returning to school, changing careers, etc, are major endeavors and just the fact it is a new year is not necessarily enough.

Changing our lives in meaningful ways can be so empowering, can lead to so much happiness.  But failure can often be the stumbling block that keeps us from ever trying.  Ill-prepared, false starts can leave a lingering mental hangover that makes future changes all the more difficult.  If you haven't prepared, and you already feel like maybe you have failed, there is another way to look at it, another way to consider your failure, and that is your big challenge and your means to really succeeding.  

It may sound like a cliché, but it is true that every day of your life is the start of the rest of your life.  Every day is a new beginning.  The feelings and motivations behind a new year's resolution are often incredibly noble and positive, focusing on our hope, our strength and courage to take control and to direct our lives.  But that feeling and those motivations can be with you at any time.  If this January 1st came and you found by the end of the day you'd already failed on your diet, already given up on your plan to quit smoking, already had skipped over the promised tasks you were to do to make a change, then stop.  Stop and reassess and remember that every day is a new chance for a new change.  

Rather than give up if you've failed, make your failed endeavor part of the path to the goal itself.  Understand why it didn't work. Learn from it.  How were you not prepared? Why did it fail? What needs to happen for it to succeed?  Is the goal actually attainable?  Are you really committed to this change right now?  If not, what do you need to do to be ready to commit? How much did failing disappoint you?  Not much? Maybe this change is not the real change you want?  Ask the questions and answer them.  Your failure was just the first step on the ladder. Examine that step and take the next. 

The trick is to learn and not give up.  Some of the biggest and most important changes in our lives don't happen like flicking on a light switch, and the road to success can take many twists and turns.  Surprisingly though, success can be made more likely when we don't view the failure as a failure.  Those failures can be the diversion to the real path to success, can show the way, can teach you what you need to be doing differently or how you should be thinking differently.   The key is not to give up and to take from the experience every little bit that is useful, that can help you, and leave the rest.  People succeed when they keep trying.  People fail when the give up.  

It's easier said than done, I know.  Anyone who has ever gone on a series of job interviews only to be rejected in the end, or written a book only to have it rejected, or started a company that never took off, or started a diet only to give up within a few days, etc, knows the pain of failure.  The same is true with a failed personal resolution.   Failure, in any form, can be dispiriting.  But the fact is that many people who have success had to struggle, and failed many times before they reached their goal.  The failure is only truly a failure if you take nothing from it, or if you let it defeat you and define you and stop you.  Pick up the pieces and examine them, then make a plan and try again.  

In her book, The Up Side of Down, Why Failing is the Key to Success, Megan McArdle discusses the unemployed and those who manage to find work.  She describes unemployment as being thrust into a dark room.  The people who stay in the dark room are the people who sit down, and wait for something to change, wait for the right moment where somehow they can escape.  The people who get out are the ones who start to feel around, poking in the dark, looking for an exit, trying anything and everything to find a door, a window, an escape.  This is how we learn from failure and this is how we must achieve our resolutions.  The key is not to let the failure defeat you, to keep searching in that dark room till you find your path to what you want. 

That is what a resolution really means.  It isn't magic.  Making a resolution means doing the work, means accepting the failures and not giving up because you are resolved, determined, committed.  You have made a decision.  Therefore, whether new year's day or any other day, you keep at it till you get where you wish to be.  Every set back is a tool, has something to show you, something you can learn, or at the very least can be just more fuel in your fire to succeed.  It takes a lot to keep going and that is something you can be proud of and take strength from - that you won't give up. 

 By Louise at Grace 


By: Anna
On: 01/10/2015 09:51:21
I gotta say, I needed to hear this. Not just about new year resolutions but in general about trying to make changes. I don't want to get to personal but recently I have been having a rough time, trying to get a few things under control. I feel rotten sometimes that it is so hard. I feel like I won't get there. But the reality is that change is hard, and I must keep at it. I know I will do it because I have done harder in my life, but remembering that the people who make big changes struggle, have to keep trying is a comfort and good reminder. Thanks
By: Alex
On: 01/10/2015 09:55:24
The worst time for a resolution is new years in my opinion. For the reasons the article mentions. Everyone makes them all willy nilly, just because it is a new year but they don't really mean it. Then you feel like a loser when it fails. The media loves it because it keeps people feeling bad and they buy more when they feel like losers. Fact. Yeah, you can take a different view of failure like this article advises, but so few do, that is why so few people are super successful. Good advice but I think most people give up when stuff isn't easy and just feel bad- the people who bounce back are rare.
By: John
On: 01/10/2015 10:11:39
I have to disagree with you Alex. I think that is a dismal attitude and a little misathropic to be honest. Ordinary people improve their lives in big and small ways all the time. People lose jobs and bounce back, people pick up the pieces from disaster, people cope with hardships, people do great things every day, even if it is only great for themselves. Your attitude is what the article warns about, and not a good way to think. You might be right about the new year timing, but claiming everyone should give up because we are all "losers" is really unfair and so pessimistic it isn't helpful. Youre entitled to your opinion of course, but I think it says more about you than anyone else and I think you should rethink that since it has to be a pretty unhappy way to think of life.
By: Jimmy
On: 01/10/2015 20:54:05
No need to argue everyone - look some people are naturally pessimistic, some are optimistic, to each his own, ya' know. I think though that unless you view failure like this post suggests, you are in for an unhappy life - we fail more than we don't fail. Learn to deal and you will be ok.
By: Jenny
On: 01/10/2015 21:00:07
OMG I am so glad you mentioned that book in an article on failure and resolutions! I actually just read it a few weeks ago and really thought it was great - a real eye opener. I think its so true with resolutions and am glad to see someone talk about it rather than all the dumb advice out there.
By: Marcus
On: 01/12/2015 01:48:52
Resolution smezolition... I think making some weird promise to yourself is a bad way to think. Just make a change one day. And then change it the next day, and the next. I think it's when people get all psyched up like that is when it feels terrible if they slip up. Like when people cheat on a diet and feel like they blew it. Don't think that way. Just take a day at a time.
By: Catherine Jenkins
On: 01/12/2015 02:33:34
My resolution this year was to make a point of sleeping in on the weekends and eat more chocolate ice cream. Aim low and aim easy and you can't miss! Just kidding. Good advice here. It seems obvious but no one really thinks that way most of the time when they should I think. I think I don't try a lot of changes anymore because it always seems pretty doomed when I try and its a crappy feeling to fail. Will try to think of it differently. Maybe I should read the book mentioned.
By: Cynthia Blake
On: 01/20/2015 20:19:11
The two points made here I like best are that change is what makes life feel hopeful and that it isn't just something we say to delude ourselves that we can have a better life. it's important not to give up on what matters to you. thank you for the reminder of that

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