Why New Year’s Resolutions Fail, Part Two: Motivation is Fleeting. Build Better Habits.

People often ask how to stay motivated day in and day out.  Questions abound regarding ways to fit workouts into hectic schedules, tips to eat better, and how to become "healthy" again after a prolonged period of poor nutrition and inactivity.

Therein lays the problem. Motivation is fleeting.

In part one, I discussed the ways in which willpower can be exhausted and is therefor not the correct vehicle for reaching your goals.[1]  Since past behavior has such a large effect on future behavior, how then is one to create any lasting change in dietary or fitness resolutions?

People will often say that the key to motivation is discipline: that is only a half-truth.  In actuality, true change is about creating habits that become the new normal in our lives.

In order to learn more about habit formation in real life and how new behavior can actually become automatic, a 12-week study[2] was carried out in which subjects were asked to implement a new daily behavior in the same context (for example, after breakfast).  The behaviors in question related to eating, drinking, or performing an activity.

The rate of behavior automaticity increased with this constant context (same location, or same time of day) in place[2], further indicating that consistency is key.  Interestingly, a large disparity was shown in time necessary to cement the new behavior.  It took anywhere from 18 to 254 days for the behavior to occur without conscious decision. No one said it would be fast, or easy.

This brings us back to the idea of discipline.  Discipline is the first part of the story, and will be required of you as you begin to introduce your new habit.  You must practice this new habit until it is simply your new way of life.[3]

Plan for success.  Set SMART goals. Write them down.

SMART goals are specific, measurable, attainable, realistic, and timely.

  • Specific

Are you able to adequately articulate what it is you are trying to achieve?  Is your New Year’s Resolution a vague idea like “lose weight,” “exercise more,” or “enjoy life to the fullest”?

Figure out exactly what you want, and why.  Adjust your goals so that they are as specific as possible, in writing. By doing this you can reinforce and reexamine the goal- and in a way, make it real.

  • Measurable

A specific goal is a measurable goal.  In what increments are you able to determine your success?

Measuring your progress with predetermined criteria and target timeframes is essential.  This can also help in the breaking down of a larger goal into smaller, less overwhelming goals.

  • Attainable

Breaking goals down into steps can make them more attainable.  Be sure you understand exactly what is needed in order to achieve your desire, and celebrate the smaller victories that are necessary.  There should be no mystery.  Set yourself up with smaller, truly attainable goals, and you'll set yourself up for success. 

  • Realistic

Be realistic in your goals.  I don’t personally believe in self-sabotage by way of deciding something is too difficult or out of reach.  However, for true behavioral change to occur, we must be completely honest with ourselves.  Take a moment, pick up a notebook, and start to imagine and write down rational durations of time that you'll need in order to focus on your new behavior.  Through realism in regard to time management, energy and focus, you'll find the clarity you need to keep your new behavior top of mind.

  • Time bound

Set deadlines.  Meet them.  Experience what success feels like and then set another deadline.

By breaking a larger goal down into smaller, timely, incremental goals, one can set up a schedule for targeting the final objective.

Tying everything together: SMART goals + new habits.

Revisit your resolution and ask yourself if it falls into the above criteria.

Nail down the specificity. "Lose weight and exercise more," becomes "Lose ten pounds in 5 months and run the Brooklyn Half Marathon in May."  Write this goal down somewhere you can see it.

Continue to measure your progress.  In this example, weigh yourself once per week to ensure you are on track with your weight-loss goal.  Increase your running distance weekly to make progress.

Losing a significant amount of weight and running a half marathon are two accomplishments that can seem overwhelming or daunting at first glance.

Make these large goals attainable by breaking them down into small goals and the seemingly impossible becomes realistic.  To lose ten pounds in five months, you simply need to lose half a pound a week!  To go from running one mile to the recommendation of being able to run ten miles consecutively before attempting a half, you have to increase your weekly mileage by less than half a mile per week!

This goal becomes time bound the moment you sign up for a race. There's nothing like a deadline to light a fire and get you moving.

Repeating these habits daily, in a consistent context (always in the morning before work, always on lunch break, etc.) will cement them.  You will not have to rely on willpower to help you make the best decision for your health and well-being: you will instead become a healthier person.


  1. Baumeister, et al. (1998). Ego depletion: Is the active self a limited resource? Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 74(5), 1252–1265.
  2. Lally, et al. (2009). How are habits formed: Modelling habit formation in the real world. European Journal of Social Psychology, 40, 998-1005.
  3. Ouellette, Judith A.; Wood, Wendy (1998). Habit and intention in everyday life: The multiple processes by which past behavior predicts future behavior. Psychological Bulletin, 124, 54-74

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