A Solution to Failed New Year’s Resolutions


I love New Year’s!  It’s a new beginning; a fresh start filled with optimism and hope. It’s like hitting the reset button on life.

I particularly love New Year’s resolutions.  My whole life, I’ve been a goal setter, which probably harkens back to my days as an athlete where each day was met with new goals.  And, success was clearly measured: If you achieved your goal, you succeeded.  If you didn’t, you failed.  Hence, New Year’s resolutions are like finding a pot of gold for goal-setters like me!  Each New Year’s bring a new opportunity to set new goals. Here are a two of my favorite resolutions from over the years:

  1. “This year I will go to the gym twice a week.”
  2. “I’ll lose 5 pounds by the summer so I feel comfortable wearing my bathing suit.”

The problem is: The New Year comes and goes and my New Year’s resolutions inevitably fall to the wayside. I start the year extremely motivated and then, life gets in the way.  I get busy, and I push the New Year’s goal off to the next month, and then the next month, and the next.  Until, before I know it, it’s time to make New Year’s resolutions all over again:

  1. “This year I will definitely go to the gym twice a week. This year I’ll make it a priority.”
  2. “I’ll lose 5 pounds by the summer so I’ll finally feel comfortable wearing a bathing suit. This time I’m serious.  This time, I’m going to do it. I’m tired of feeling fat.”

Does that sound familiar?

Why do we do that to ourselves?  It’s great to have goals. But, if setting goals isn’t working for you, why not try something different?

I recently read a book by Scott Adams titled How to Fail at Almost Everything and Still Win Big.  Scott Adams is the creator of Dilbert, the comic strip.  His book changed my life.

I no longer set goals.  Instead, I create systems.  

According to Adams, setting goals and assigning deadlines can set you up for failure. For example, if your goal is to lose 5 pounds, you may fixate on that number:

  • Even if you lose 4 pounds, it won’t be “good enough” because you didn’t reach your goal.
  • In addition, until you lose those 5 pounds, you may “exist in a state of continuous presuccess failure,” according to Adams.  In other words, you feeling successful hinges on that specific goal.   Consequently, you may not feel like you are “good enough” until that goal is achieved.

Alternatively, Adams proposes a system-oriented model, with no deadlines and no specific goals. Instead, you implement a system where you do something “on a regular basis with a reasonable expectation that doing so will get you to a better place in your life.” Using this approach, you succeed every time you apply your system because you did what you intended to do. This approach promotes lasting change.

I think of the system-oriented model as focusing on the “how” and not the “what.” For instance, Instead of setting a goal of going to the gym twice a week (the “what”), I choose to create a system of being more active (the “how”). But, there are no specific goals or timelines attached to the “how:”

  • I create a system by making a list of what it looks like to be more active. For instance, I can choose to get up from my chair at work and walk a lap around the office, I can park further away from the grocery store, and if I walk down the stairs I can walk back up and down an extra time.
  • But, I don’t set myself up for failure by attaching a timeline, such as walking up and down the stairs every day.
  • That way, each time I choose to be more active, I have succeeded. And, if I’m not active on any given day, I haven’t failed because my activity level is not attached to a specific goal.

Instead of setting a goal to lose 5 pounds (the “what”), I choose to create a system of eating healthy (the “how”). But, there are no specific goals or timelines attached to the “how:”

  • I don’t set myself up for failure by attaching a timeline, such as promising to eat healthier every morning, or on the weekdays.
  • Instead, I create a system by making a list of what it looks like to eat healthier. For instance, I can choose to eat nuts instead of potato chips or a salad instead of fried chicken.
  • Consequently, each time I choose to eat healthy, I have succeeded. But, if I don’t eat healthy on any given day, I don’t beat myself up about it. I simply keep moving forward.

This year, instead of setting specific goals with specific timelines attached, I am implementing systems (Technically, you could say I just set a goal!). Instead of setting myself up for failure, I am setting myself up for success. By creating systems, I am filling my year with hope:

  • I hope to stop beating myself up for not achieving a “goal” in a specific amount of time that I arbitrarily establish.
  • I hope to encourage myself to implement change when I can, instead of scolding myself for missing a self-imposed deadline.
  • I hope to practice kindness by allowing myself the time it takes to create a new, healthy habit instead of expecting myself to change in an instant.
  • I hope to give myself the gift of grace, instead of harboring the feeling that I’m still not “good enough.”

This year, I hope to end the failure that’s all too often attached to New Year’s resolutions, and goal-setting in general. This year, I hope to find a system that works for me.

I’d love to hear from you!

Have you implemented a system-oriented model? If so, has it worked for you?

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Dr. Sina McCullough
Dr. Sina McCullough is the author of "Beyond Labels: A Doctor and a Farmer Conquer Food Confusion One Bite at a Time" and "Hands Off My Food!: How Government and Industry Have Corrupted Our Food and Easy Ways to Fight Back." You can connect with her at www.handsoffmyfood.com. Sina holds a Ph.D. in Nutritional Science and a B.S. in Neurobiology, Physiology, and Behavior, both from the University of California at Davis. She taught Biochemistry and Bioenergetics at UC Davis before becoming the Director of Research and Development for a supplement company. Dr. McCullough homeschools her two children and offers a limited number of consultations for both individuals and companies.