New Years Resolution – Why We Fail

Ah, the holidays. They’re such a great time to get together with family and friends, eat (lots) of great food, and make a few less trips to the gym. It’s no wonder that New Years Resolutions come on the tail-end of the shortest, most food-filled days. The majority of resolutions involve some type of healthy habit or self improvement and over 90% of them fail.

I’m guilty too. I’ve made proclamations that I’ll read more, spend less time working, and start a new hobby only to find the resolution fall by the wayside come February. A lot has been said (and I’ve written plenty on the subject) about why so many people fail. Yet… the same thing happens every. single. year. Gearing up for the holidays this year has me thinking about some type of rubric to check our resolutions against likelihood of success or failure. At a recent conference I was introduced to Ken Wilber’s Integral Theory. Albeit a very simplified version of his theory, I believe I finally found something that sheds some light on resolution failure.

Wilber’s theory outlines four quadrants – like foursquare – that make up one’s personal development. Again, I’m dumbing this way down, but here’s the broad strokes:

1. Interior-Individual

“How I feel about myself”

2. Exterior-Individual

“How I act”

3. Interior-Collective

“How others feel about me.”

4. Exterior-Collective

“The systems I’m in”

The theory suggests that you can make a behavior change when at least 3 of the 4 quadrants are accounted for. This makes a ton of sense to me. It explains why it is so difficult for a 28 year-old who is kinda out of shape to make a lifestyle change whereas someone around middle age who has a major cardiac event due to lifestyle diseases will create habits that stick the very next day. Consequences of poor health are a slow-moving glacier. There’s no urgency to change… until there is. Let’s dissect each of these quadrants as it relates to this year’s resolution:

1. How I feel about myself

Due in large part to gluttonous holidays and this finally being the year that… it is very easy to feel motivation on January 1st. You feel motivated and energized. You sign up for a gym membership. You’re going to do this thing! But then motivation is lost. It’s important to come to the realization that motivation is a made-up construct. A momentary electromagnetic pulse in your brain caused by temporary events. It will run out. Go into the New Year knowing that this quadrant will only last you 6 weeks. You’re going to need to make sure the other 3 are squared (pun intended) away or you’ll be one of the 92% come February.

2. How I act

This quote isn’t mine, but I can’t remember where I heard it. I say it to myself daily. “Feeling like doing the thing has nothing to do with the thing.” YOU DON’T HAVE TO FEEL LIKE BEING A BETTER VERSION OF YOURSELF TO TAKE ACTION. In fact, it is important to accept the realization that a lot of life is doing the right thing absent your feelings about it. This is a quadrant neglected by most somewhat healthy middle class people. Once motivation or the slightest hint of difficulty comes along, they no longer feel like doing the right thing. Your feelings have nothing to do with your actions. Imagine if you used going to the gym as your “practice” for life. Whether you feel like it or not, you go. By practicing delayed gratification despite your feelings, you’re becoming a better employee, significant other, and citizen.

3. How others feel about me

When resolution time comes around, the five closest people to you will likely be on board with this new change. Your spouse may help you clean out the cabinet and even join the gym. Your co-workers may bring donuts into the office a little less. There are certainly no more holiday cookies floating around. Your business associates will totally get it when you opt for a walking meeting instead of BBQ. But they, too, will lose motivation. You’ll someone consistent in your corner. Find a gym buddy. Commit to a schedule (whether you feel like it or not), and do not let each other slip. Find a coach that will hold you accountable.

4. My community (systems)

I don’t recommend you buy a new house this New Year. I don’t recommend you move to a more “green” city. But, I want you to recognize ways you can create systems in your own community to impact change in your own life. If you manage people, institute a culture of walking and standing. Eliminate lunch meetings and happy hours for more active team building opportunities. Volunteer. Give back. I can guarantee with almost 100% certainty that a focus on giving back and serving others will result in you sticking to your own resolution. Join a gym that wants you to go, not sell you a contract and hope you won’t show up. Start a club. Whatever it takes, identify the systems that will lead to maintaining your new habit.

Take a moment to recognize that you’ll be firing on all cylinders going into 2018. You may even be able to check the box in all four quadrants. But please recognize that, inevitably, these squares will begin to fall off. The first to go will be #1. You won’t be motivated. Then goes square #2 – you won’t act like a motivated person acts. From there, it all comes tumbling down. Prior to February, take a moment to identify the ways that you’ll recognize and intercept the challenges as they come along.