Why Do New Year’s Resolutions Fail?

8bc72ed7It’s another year, and another time to reflect on the amazing things have been created over the past year, while also considering great new possibilities for the coming 12 months.

It’s also a time of year when gyms and health clubs are packed and hordes of people are crowding the organic produce sections at the local grocer in an attempt to clean up their diet, their bodies and their overall health. Yes, it’s that time of year – resolution time.

Even though history shows that the vast majority of resolutions set at the beginning of the year go unfulfilled – people still go through the process of setting them and then charging out to achieve them with reckless abandon.

I mention health specifically since it is the most common resolution people tend to make, but there are many more. Exercise more, eat better, make more money, work less, etc. However, despite the variety, there is a still a unifying thread under them all.

Each and every one of these resolutions (at least the vast majority) will go unfulfilled. Most will not make it past January 15th.

This has nothing to do with the capabilities or level of dedication that someone has to see a goal through. It just has everything to do wih the actual resolution itself. A poorly set goal is a waste of time  – plain and simple. The key here is the power and ultimate motivation (intent) behind the goal to begin with.

It is the intention, not the resolution or goal itself, that truly matters.

New Year’s Resolutions Cut Off Choice

When you resolve, you decide. That is to say, you close off all possibilities. If you are standing on a trail in the woods, and you come to a fork, you have a choice to make. You can go back (turn around) or go on one fork or the other. Taking a course of action essentially precludes the others. While in theory you could take one fork for a while and then turn back and take the other – this doesn’t happen in real life (as an aside – in real world studies of people who have gotten hopelessly lost in the wilderness, backtracking almost never happens, even when they have no idea where they are going!).

When you take a path, it is human nature to close off other possibilities. Our brains are wired so that we can filter out information that isn’t in line with our goal and identify information that is. The issue here is that while focusing in on a goal is a powerful skill, life is often far from clear cut, and when we commit to accomplishing some thing, we may miss out on noticing other things that could be even more aligned to our true needs and support our life in a more positive way.

For example, someone may make a resolution to jog every day for at least 30 minutes.This seems like an admirable goal at first, and frankly, exercising every day is a great thing for most of us to aspire to. However, suppose that what this person is really after is to have more energy in their life so they can come home from a busy day at work and still have the energy left to play with their kids.

Jogging is a nice goal, but consider how this resolution could actually close of other possibilities for to get exercise – opportunities that might involve other things besides jogging – and might actually preclude activities that could incorporate having fun with the kids while getting exercise at the same time (like playing ball, tennis, hiking with them, etc.).

In other words, resolutions restrict opportunities by focusing the human attention on a very specific goal, a goal that might not be directly aligned with the underlying motivating force for change.

The Power of Intention

It’s the “Why” that matters, not the “What.” If you have a goal to get six-pack abs, lose 20 pounds or clean up your diet – those resolutions are all about the “What.” They don’t consider the “Why.” This is why so many resolutions like this fail hopelessly.

The “Why’s” are the compelling reasons that will motivate you to get up early and stay up late in the pursuit of something that truly matters to you. In the case of losing weight, ask yourself “Why is this important to me?” Is it because it will allow you to live longer? Play with your kids without getting tired? Play sports at a higher level and more safely? For each of those “Why’s,” there is in turn another another set of reasons that are driving them. Continue down this path of asking why, and you’ll notice a series of deeper intentiuons that will bubble up.

These fundamental intentions are the driving forces that will be strong motivations for you over the long-term, when the going gets tough and the initial energy and zeal behind your goal fades away. They will serve as powerful landmarks that will open you up (and more specifically open up your sub-conscious mind) to people, places, things and experiences that are in line with your intention.

8 Steps to Connect With Your Intentions

Here are a few simple steps I take to come up with my intentions for the new year. I’ve done this for the past 4 years or so (modifying the process along the way) and it works incredibly well. Try it out even if you already have your goals all set for the new year, and see how it can help you to get even more clear on what your real intentions are for the year.


Begin by taking few blank sheets of paper. I recommend doing this by hand (not on the computer) to avoid distraction and allow for free-association. You can even put on background music if you like. It also is a good idea to do this with others (friends, family) for extra motivation and accountability. Take 10 minutes and just brainstorm all the different things, people, experiences you would like to come into your life. Don’t worry about the time-frame. Just brainstorm. Let your mind flow. Be sure to consider your health, wealth, relationships and career. Think broad. Your goals should be to keep writing without stopping.


Take a moment and them write a 1, 3, 5, 10, or 20+ next to each item in your list based on the time frame for the item. For example, you might have “buying a house” as a 5 year goal, but “losing 20 pounds” as a 1 year goal.


Now, circle your top 5 (you choose how many….3-5 is a good range to start) goals for 1 year, 3 years, 5 years and 10 years.


Re-write your circled goals on another sheet of paper, but instead of writing your goals in a list, you will do an affinity map. To do this, begin to write goals that are similar to each other close to each other. For example, if you have a goal to “lose 20 pounds” and another to “run a marathon” these might be close to each other because they are related to health and fitness. If you have sticky notes available, you can even write all of your circled goals on stickies and then arrange them into little clusters based on similarity. At the end of this step, you should see a few clusters begin to emerge.


For each cluster, consider the person you would have to become to achieve those goals. This is where you begin to develop your intention. For me, I structure my intentions in the form of “I am…“. For a cluster of health-related goals – for example – I might write “I am a strong and lean physical powerhouse.” Putting the “I” at the beginning makes them personal, and using “I am” precludes that you are already that which you seek – your job is just to discover that and see it in yourself! Once you have discovered this intention, write it down as the title for the cluster.


Look across the intentions you have created…all starting with “I am”….and if you have more than 5, circle the top 5 (ideally you would have 3-5 at most). These would be five things that – if you really embodied these intentions for the year – would completely transform your life and the lives of those around you.


Now – for each of these 3-5 intentions – write a short paragraph about why they matters. Think about the people you will impact for the better. Think about how your life will be better. Think about how you will feel when you embody the intention every day of your life.


Revisit the list of specific goals you have for each intention (look at the affinity map clusters you created) – and add any additional goals that might have come to mind for you. Take about 10-15 minutes to really flesh these out. You can also take this time to get more specific about goals you have already identified. For example, if your goals is to “lose weight,” perhaps you can get more specific and say “I will lose 10 pounds of fat while gaining 5 pounds of muscle in the next 3 months.”

There you have it! Post your intentions in a clearly visible place and reflect on them (and the goals that support them) every day.

Through following this simple process, you will used your brain’s natural desire to set and accomplish specific resolutions/goals to uncover the fundamental intentions that are driving your desires. You will also have a specific set of goals that map to each intention, giving you a clear place to start from and march toward.

However, unlike traditional resolutions, the intention – that is to say – the role that you have created for yourself (the “I am…..“) is what really matters.

Keep reading these intentions to yourself every day, and your brain will continue to serve you by being on the lookout for situations and experiences that can help you become the person you intent to become.

I’ve used this process to achieve big things in my my own life, I hope that it is useful to you. Please try it out and let me know how it goes in the comments!

Published by Ravi Raman

Executive Coach + Yogi + Endurance Athlete

4 replies on “Why Do New Year’s Resolutions Fail?”

  1. Great post Ravi,

    goal setting is an art form…You are right on the money! One thing I was thinking about: what do you think is more productive, to set really high goals (with a relatively meek likelihood) or moderate them so that completion is more likely?

    And for the new year, I’m really interested in knowing how you maintain a healthy lifestyle, do yoga, work out…read a lot of books while working at Microsoft. E.g. I suspect a large duration of your day is spent in the office: What do you eat during office hours. Do you use your lunch brakes to do yoga or work out.
    I personally never want to categorize myself as a vegan, or semi raw because in a social (or office) environment because people get defensive about their own habits.

    Drinking uff, It’s seriously bad for you but in a corporate environment going out for drinks is a huge bonding experience, and a huge advantage in creating personal relationships.

    What I’m ultimately asking is, how do you minimize the distinction you create between yourself and the average Joe that does by no means understand the concept of setting higher standards? 🙂

    Best regards,


  2. Hi Darri,

    I prefer to set achievable goals….ones that stretch me, but that I really think I can achieve. This doesn’t mean that they are small or not impressive…they very well may be something big and daunting, but you also must whole-heartedly believe that you can and WILL achieve them. This is a must. You should be able to visualize and feel what it is like for you to actually accomplish the goal. That will be a huge motivator in helping you get there.

    In terms of being vegan in a business environment, it is no issue for me. I am vegan for reasons that are super important for me and I have only seen people I work with respect my decision. In fact, my healthier nutrition choices have rubbed off on some of them! (though none have gone vegan…yet!).

    Whatever you decide to do, do it for reasons that matter a lot TO YOU, stick to it (even when it gets uncomfortable) and others will respect that.

    Have an outstanding 2009 Darri!

  3. Beautifully put Ravi…on reading your blog it has now become very clear to me (one of those light bulb moments!!!!) a goal writer for a while now with out realy knowing, as you say its the why not the what that sets the goal.
    Am of to sort out the whys and then rewrite the goals.

    Many thanks

  4. Pingback: Get Back in the Groove — Set Higher Standards

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