Why it’s great to fail your new year’s resolutions

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Getting comfortable with failure leads to better goals, helps you learn what works and moves away from a fixed mindset.

I love new year’s. At a pinch I might even choose New Year over Christmas and all its forced consumerism. New Year is a chance to reset, refresh, reflect – looking both backwards and forwards. It’s a blank slate. A whole new 365 days full of opportunity that you can shape anyway you want. Proper reflection and proper looking forward and thinking about what we really want in life is hard, let’s be honest. It could be the best thing we do, but it also requires potentially facing up to our mistakes, our lapses in judgement and discipline and the darker sides of our personality. So our mind plays tricks on us and works incredibly hard to stop us reflecting or looking forward properly. But New Year’s is a golden opportunity to push past the difficulties and do exactly that – so take it.

I’m a big believer than in modern life we need a bit of shape to it – we need beginnings, endings, high points and low points. Sometimes, much of the time it’s worth spending a litte bit of effort to create and recognise these. we are crying out for some structure, things to shake us out of the day to day, give us closure, a chance to start again, a trigger to make changes, big or small. New Year’s gives us some structure, closure and a blank slate.

I love goals, but I’m ambivalent about the phrase “new year’s resolutions”. At this point it’s loaded to say the least, at worst it’s a tired cliche of vague aspirations that we can safely joke and snigger about, safe in the knowledge that we won’t have to wrestle with the difficult work of actually doing anything different. I’ve been there, we all have, haven’t we?

But I’ve also travelled to new places, met new people, started hobbies, re-connected with old friends, deepened connection to family, discovered new places and ideas that changed my life all because of a few thoughts set out at the turn of the year. It’s not just about the big stuff, small changes can be just as impactful, even fresh socks and homemade cookies.

But here’s why the key is actually failing at new year’s resolutions. two reasons:

  1. If we’re meeting all our goals, we aren’t setting them high enough

There, I said it. I think this is true in any environment, work or personal life. Side note – radical idea but more workplaces should set up reward in such a way that meeting 75% of goals is rewarded more than 100%. There’s an optimum here obviously, I reckon achieving somewhere like 50-75% should be considered the optimum. But far too often when setting goals we’re guilty of sandbagging: setting goals that are too easy, already in process, partly achieved or would have been achieved anyway. don’t get me wrong, it’s right to have a few quick hits that help you get runs on the board early for a sense of progress, this is a key behavioral hack I’ve learnt. you want to have a few of these, but not too many (more complicated than it first seems. this goalsetting stuff!).

It’s taken me most of my adult life probably to realise this, most of the time, I probably still struggle to embrace failure consistently.

There’s a subtle but important link here to mindset. Many parenting books make the point that high-achieving kids can easily get trapped into an unhelpful fixed mindset by the wrong feedback. Tell them “you’re so clever” enough times and they will believe those high scores are a fixed part of their identity, and over time this can morph into a fear of undertaking anything that might offer even a chance of failure, or a lower score lest that become catastrophic to the identity. So the paradox is ( and I have seen this so many times in practice) that very smart people can get trapped in fixed mindsets and become unable to push themselves.

Embracing failure is actually better for the long run, so you don’t get stuck in an all-or-nothing mindset, or get overly emotional or negative about setbacks.

2. By failing, you get a much better idea of what works

By setting and monitoring new year’s goals for the last few years, and achieving many, but failing many others it’s given me a much richer idea of my own behavioral nuances and what works. for example:

Consistently I succeed at one-off, big projects. especially if connected to travelling or socialising (eg climbing Kilimanjaro or organising a big family get-together). This is probably the same for everyone -these are fun things to work toward as well as do, and they only have to get done once.

Specificity is also good. If you take the time to review old goals you’ll often find that in hindsight it’s really hard to know if you achieved it or not. often this can be because the intention itself is vague (lose weight, get faster, win more business, improve presentation skills) or because that behavioral gremlin inside of us reared its ugly head to protect us from potential failure by obfuscating.

But specific goals are good. running a 90-minute half marathon, a sub-20 min parkrun. We know for sure when these are achieved and it feels great. Even if we miss these sort of goals we often still achieve the broad principle behind it better than if we kept it vague (eg run faster). So it’s practically a win-win.

What I’ve alway found harder are those daily habits: meditate, do more yoga, journal, read an extra story to my son, take a daily walk, get consistent better sleep. This is important information. Habit change is difficult and subtle. I could write a whole blog, or book on habit change but there’s no point as James Clear has already written the definitive guide to that in Atomic Habits, which you surely must have read. If not, stop reading right now and do so immediately.

Changing habits is tricky but not at all impossible and requires less discipline and willpower than you might think if you set things up right. From experience. and James Clear’s help, I commed four key points that have made the difference in habits that have stuck vs not stuck:

  1. Make it part of your identity. Not “run more” but “become a runner”. Not “write more”, “become a writer”. this allows you to add all sorts of helpful extras on as well as triggering the powerful behavioral forces of identity: join a running club (make it social) get some nice new running shoes for christmas (make it fun), create your running playlist, sign up for strava etc. Side note, I think this is partly why the Spartan races (which I like) are so successful – it neatly connects the name of the event to a desired identity.
  2. Sort your environment carefully – sounds obvious to say it but if you want to eat healthy and drink less then better have those healthy snacks all over your kitchen and within easy reach, throw out the chocolate and lock the wine in the garage. Sounds so obvious but we so often fail to do this, or the equivalent in different contexts. “Be an architect of your environment” is the posh way of saying this. I just think of it as locking the chocolate in the garage
  3. Habit stack. Do the new habit straight after an existing succesful habit. Read that extra story to your son/daughter just after bathtime, meditate just after you clean your teeth.
  4. Change one thing at a time. we all want to do more yoga, meditate, eat more healthly, cook, journal, spend more quality time with the kids etc but there is no way to make all of that work in one go (if you manage to, let me know how!). so just choose one, let all of the others go so you can concentrate on planning how to make that one stick.

Psychologist Joy Lere has written an excellent piece here exploring more reasons for why resolutions do and don’t stick.

Getting these small habits to change succesfully can be incredibly rewarding and I think it’s important to split goals between those big ticket splashy items like holidays, big events, sporting achievements, and the more day to day changes. As James Clear himself says: Intensity makes a good story, consistency gets progress. And most of us probably do need more consistency than intensity.

I really do hope you have a great year in 2022, think about some goals, set them, and embrace failing some of them.

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