Are Your New Year Resolutions Setting You Up to Fail?

By: Jason D. Nickerson, CFP®, EA, Executive Vice President & Chief Operating Officer, John G. Ullman & Associates

That’s right, I said it.  A quiet voice amongst a crowd of gurus and life coaches that surface this time of year to help you get on track.  I am the opposite of this.  Not because I don’t believe in goal setting.  As an advisor and Certified Financial PlannerTM, this is the second step in our process.  It is essential to have goals.  As Zig Ziglar said, if you aim at nothing, you’ll hit it every time.

We need to aim for something in our personal and professional lives.  So, we set our targets, goals, and New Year resolutions.  Increase profits, increase customer satisfaction, lose weight, and get our financial lives in order.  We use “proven” systems to lay out our goals and plans, we buy-in to the hype of some consultant who is going to help us set our sights, and then ultimately, we fail.  Why?  “I used the SMART system.”  “I had an accountability partner.”  “I did everything they told me to do.”  I am telling you it’s not your fault, its psychology that is built into us.

First, let’s dive into why we set New Year resolutions.  Psychologists call this the Fresh Start effect.  We pick some arbitrary point in time that we feel is the beginning.  Monday, January 2nd, whatever, this is the first step in our failure.  We make such a big deal out of the starting point.  We eat worse because we know we won’t be able to eat the junk food starting at that point.  We rest and reduce intensity and focus knowing we have this big goal we will start working towards starting at some point.  We spend a certain amount of time just getting ourselves up to a pace of work and intensity to make progress and we find ourselves already behind our timeline a short time in.  You see, not your fault.  Its psychology programmed into us.

Second, there are two places we fail in this goal setting and chasing:

  1. We set big, huge, monstrous goals, and as humans, we tend to believe we are capable of more than we are. This is related to the Dunning-Kruger effect.
  2. We lose sight of the fact that there is very little within our control.

Again, I am all for setting goals and achieving them, so please don’t take this article as you should not be setting goals.  There is great advice out there to support this process (like SMART goals).  Let me present ideas on how we can do this better, given the errors I have pointed out.

  1. “A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step” (Chinese proverb): Focus on the single step. If you want to lose 20 pounds in 2023 as an example, focus on losing 1-2 pounds the first week.  Then another 1-2 pounds the following week.  That success drives motivation and motion.  This can be attributed to the snowball effect in psychology.  A snowball rolling downhill picks up speed and size.
  2. Realize that there is so much more out of our control than within our control and you won’t lose site of the goal when you get delayed or behind. At the beginning of 2020, people and businesses were on their way to chasing down those big goals and resolutions.  Then a global pandemic hit and shut down the world.  Realize there will always be something that knocks you off course.  The universe is built this way.  Use it to toughen your resolve.  Reset your timeline and then go back to focusing on that next single step.

Psychology has failed you, but do not let that be your crutch and excuse.  Set your goals, get started now, know you will fail, toughen up, reset, and get back after it.  Cheers to you all for a successful 2023!