All human beings are imperfect. Therefore it is extremely likely that you will experience failures on your journey to reach your goal. But what matters is how you react to these failures as they can be valuable and help lead you to your goal. (For these reasons and more, I see “failure” as a positive experience that deserves to be named and embraced [Young, 2021].) Here are four steps to repairing a broken resolution:
1. Build Setbacks Into Your Goal
A healthy goal will anticipate failures and prevent them from derailing the resolution. For example, someone might resolve never again to check their work email after dinner. They might be able to keep this up for a week, a month, or some other period of time. But it’s probable that at some point they will slip up. After that, they are liable to consider their resolution “broken” and their motivation to resume their efforts might be significantly reduced.
This trap is what’s known in substance abuse recovery as the “Abstinence Violation Effect” (Marlatt & Gordon, 1985). For example, a person who has been sober for 10 years might have a drink in a moment of weakness. In that case, people can tend to consider their goal “broken” and go into a full-on relapsethat includes binging. After all, they “failed.” Many more of us might connect to an example such as abandoning a diet completely after having a forbidden snack.
So a more effective goal for our above workaholic would be something like, “I will cut down on checking my work email after dinner from the current six nights per week down to no more than two nights per week.” This anticipates a human amount of failure. The resolver can still try to be perfect and abstain from email every night. But a slip-up won’t violate the goal and become demoralizing.
2. Envision What You Will Do vs. What You Won’t
Just as when we instruct children in their behavior, it can be helpful to resolve on something we will do as opposed to something we don’t do (Oscarsson et al., 2020). One problem with simply trying to avoid something is that people often don’t plan on what to do instead. Continuing to build on our previous example, the workaholic’s resolution could be further improved to something like, “After dinner each night, I will increase the number of nights I devote my full attention to myself or my family from my current one night per week up to at least five nights per week.”
Personally, I’ve found it can be helpful simply to have a theme (e.g., finishing old projects) that I continue to revisit throughout the year. This is also consistent with the findings by Oscarsson et al. (2020) that resolvers who made specific (i.e., SMART) goals were actually less likely to be successful in enacting change.
3. Be Accountable to a Friend
While there is not an extensive body of research on New Year’s resolutions specifically, Oscarsson et al. (2020) also found that social support was effective in raising resolvers’ odds of success. From college cohorts to 12 steps groups, success is often easier with what the TV series South Park refers to as ”accountabilibuddies.” This works for a number of reasons. Firstly, it is true that we generally want to avoid the embarrassment of admitting our shortcomings to others. But that motivation is only part of the story. A deeper and more positive dynamic at play is that we don’t want to disappoint the people we care about, and we may also feel propelled forward by a sense of camaraderie in joining with others for a cause larger than ourselves.
4. Ask Yourself if You Are Really Ready to Change
Norcross et al. (2002) found that successful resolvers demonstrated the skills to change, the readiness to change, and the confidence to apply these abilities (self-efficacy). In short, the resolver was ready, willing, and able to depart from their previous behavior patterns.
In substance abuse work, this factor often weighs heavily on a person’s odds of success. It essentially captures the first of the 12 steps: to truly accept that a shift must be made and made now. It’s not easy. People in recovery can struggle for years to cross this mental threshold. For many of us, our resolutions are not as challenging but the basic psychological mechanism is the same. We must imagine our lives with the change we envision and ask ourselves if we’re ready to make the sacrifices necessary to achieve that vision.
You Can Reset and Carry On
People don’t tend to change behaviors at the flip of a switch. To expect to do so is to set ourselves up for disappointment. If you have already broken your resolution, all is not lost. First, use that setback as a chance to introspect about whether you are ready for the change and if so, what additional resources you may need to reduce future setbacks. Reset your resolution by building imperfections into it and framing it in terms of not only what you will avoid, but what you’ll do instead. Then seek out friends or family who can provide both moral support and accountability.