If at first you don't succeed

. . . Try, try again. Or don’t.

resolution post-itsMost of us make New Year’s resolutions each year trying to change health-related behaviors. Interestingly, research shows most people tend to make the same resolutions year after year. New Year’s resolvers typically report making the same pledge for five years or more before they manage even six months of success.

On average, 25 percent of all resolutions are abandoned within the first two weeks of starting. UGH!

The most popular resolutions are also the most difficult to achieve: to quit smoking, start a diet, lose weight, join a gym, etc. Even more benign resolutions, such as studying or changing TV viewing habits, often fall short of the goal.

Our repeated attempts at self-change, despite a track record of failure, suggest a certain resilience of the human spirit — or reveal people’s inability to face facts. Change is very difficult and takes more effort than most are willing to undertake.

False hope springs eternal

The cycle of failure, self-interpretation, and renewed efforts at changing behaviors constitutes what has been termed “the false hope syndrome.”

It works something like this. First, we undertake a difficult (or impossible) self-change task. Although we may achieve some initial progress, ultimately, we fail to achieve our goal. Then, having failed, we interpret our failure in such a way that the failure is seen as far from inevitable. We convince ourselves that with a few adjustments, success is within our grasp.

Alternatively, we acknowledge that the task is difficult but not impossible, and we believe that the rewards of success make repeated attempts worthwhile. Finally, we embark on yet another attempt, propelled by memories of our previous, limited success and/or positive expectations for the future. This cycle often continues indefinitely.

Of course, not all self-change attempts fail. We all know family, friends, and neighbors who have given up cigarettes, stopped drinking, and/or started exercising with each new year. These successes, highlighted in the media via “surefire” success aids, reinforce our “false hope” that our own failed attempts at change are just one or two products away from fruition: “If they can do it, so can I.” And so the false-hope cycle of failure and recommitment continues.

Why resolutions fail

Why is it that most of us fail in our attempts to rid ourselves of maladaptive behaviors? Understanding the reasons for these failures — and appreciating how we might interpret them — may help us understand how we can summon up the resolve to try yet again to make such changes.

If behavior changes initially succeed, why do they eventually fail? There are four main sources of failure for behavior-change attempts, each of which relies on unrealistic expectations about self-change.

  • The amount of change expected
  • The speed at which these changes can be achieved
  • The ease in which change can take place
  • The effect(s) any one particular change is perceived to have on other aspects of our lives

Scale and tape measureAmount of expected change: We often believe we can change more than is realistic. For instance, one research study assessed patients’ goals, expectations, and evaluations of various weight-loss outcomes before, during, and after 48 weeks of treatment.

Before treatment, overfat women defined their goal weight and what they saw as their “dream weight,” “happy weight,” “acceptable weight,” and “disappointed weight.” Goal weights required an average loss of 32 percent of body weight. A 37-pound weight loss was generally defined as “disappointed.” A 55-pound loss was “acceptable.” After treatment and an average 35-pound weight loss, 47 percent of patients did not feel they had achieved even a “disappointed weight.” This is just one illustration that the amount of expected change often exceeds the amount of feasible change. Such unrealistic goals can lead people to reject more modest, achievable ones.

Speed of expected change: Those of us who make resolutions often predict we will change more quickly and more easily than is possible. There appears to be an optimistic bias in people’s anticipated speed of success at achieving desired goals, such as weight loss.

Ease of change: Likewise, we believe the changes we desire are more feasible or easier to attain than is often the case. For example, overweight dieters believe they can modify their weight without excessive effort, despite the difficulty most individuals encounter in achieving successful weight loss.

Effects of change: We mistakenly believe making a change will improve our lives more than can reasonably be expected. Dieting may lead to weight loss but not necessarily to a new job or relationship. At the very least, dieters, in general, believe that weight loss will convert their image from that of being self-indulgent, lazy, or even irresponsible and immoral to one that symbolizes self-control, hard work, ambition, and success. These expectations are highly inflated, if not entirely baseless, according to research.

How we (mis)interpret failures

How we interpret our failures has received little research attention, but certainly may be the key to explaining the phenomena of failure-to-renewed hope.

It seems we humans are not designed to accept defeat so easily. Failures are typically followed by explanations — actually self-pardons — that cloud or even reverse the message of our failure. For example, many gamblers continue to believe they will win “next time” because they explain away their losses as “near wins” while accepting their wins as “appropriate outcomes.”

Researchers who’ve examined people’s descriptions of successful and unsuccessful life-change experiences found that in the case of failure, change was described as resulting from external factors and lack of willpower. (i.e., “We just did not try hard enough.”) Successful change was seen to result from greater personal effort.

Setting up an unrealistic resolution for change with subsequent failure initiates this self-defeating cycle. Obviously, if we interpret our failure as intrinsic, the only recourse is to try harder next time. And, alas, usually, to no avail.

Why people try again . . . and again

If we were to interpret our failures as indicative of our inability to succeed, we might well desist from further efforts. However, this often is not the case. We convince ourselves that what caused us to fail was something that can be corrected on the next attempt. If the perceived consequences of success remain attractive, we are unlikely to let prior failures deter us from trying again. This interpretive strategy leaves open the possibility of future success.

What are the incentives to try again? They are the same hoped-for consequences of success that impelled us to try in the first place. In the case of dieting for example, the incentive is weight loss, or the “benefits” of weight loss such as attractiveness and health to which weight loss is simply a means. Attractiveness, health, and social and professional success are such coveted goals that we convince ourselves we can achieve these too. This positive illusion motivates further self-change efforts.

Another incentive to keep trying? It feels good. With each endeavor our feelings of control and efficacy surge, fueling our initial enthusiasm. For the most part, we enjoy this feeling of control, whether it be control over our environment or ourselves. For example, research shows cancer patients with enhanced perceptions of control over their disease are less depressed.

Even minor behavioral efforts at controlling one’s problems may be rewarding. Research shows a depressed individual who schedules an appointment with a psychotherapist experiences measurable improvement. Resolving to change, then, might well be experienced as rewarding even before any success has been achieved — indeed, even before any effort has been made.

Successful changers

People who study behavior change identify several skills successful changers possess.

  • Successful changers maintain a singular focus on success. They don’t engage in self-doubt. They avoid individuals and activities that might sabotage their efforts.
  • Successful changers show a quality of persistence. Making changes often means taking two steps forward, one step back. At least the trajectory is in the right direction. Persistence pays off.
  • Successful changers know and practice change all the time. Changing means practicing all the time, not just on the weekends. Changing behaviors means being committed for the long haul because we think new behaviors can change lives forever.

Many resolutions fail because they’re just not the right resolutions. And a resolution may be wrong for one of three main reasons:

  • It’s a resolution based on what someone else (or society) is telling us to change.
  • The resolution is too vague.
  • We don’t have a realistic plan for achieving success.

Practicing SMART change

Setting a new resolution should be based on research and experiential success. The SMART system of change has been shown to be successful in many areas. SMART is an acronym first coined in 1981 for use in the business world. It stands for specific, measurable, achievable, relevant, and timely. 

Specific. Any resolution should be absolutely clear. Setting a concrete goal, rather than a vague one, is vital. For example, an exercise goal needs to specify exactly how much exercise per day (time, distance, speed, heart rate, etc.) you plan to do. These expectations need to be based on science and research. You need to know what’s possible (walking/running three miles without stopping) versus what’s impossible (completing a marathon in one month).

• Measurable. Consistently logging progress is important. This is easier and more convenient than ever before in the age of wearables and apps. Details matter here. This may seem obvious, but without consistency in recording and measuring progress, change almost never happens.

• Achievable. All resolutions should be achievable within a specified time period. This doesn’t mean that you can’t have big goals, but trying to take too big a step too fast may result in frustration and failure. For example, resolving to save enough money to retire in five years when you’re 40 years old is not realistic; but saving an extra $10-$100 per month may be. Sometimes, little changes over longer time periods are more sustainable and rewarding than major (though often short-lived) changes over shorter periods of time.

• Relevant. Choosing a goal that really matters, and for the right reason, is paramount for setting up success. We have to be able to look critically at ourselves and evaluate what’s in our best interest. Here again, it becomes important to have the correct support structure in place.

• Timely. Much like establishing achievable changes, we must create a realistic timeline. Too often we underestimate the amount of time necessary for change to occur. Often it is advisable to benchmark intermediate goals along the way. Focusing on small, achievable changes in a reasonable time period is important to show gradual progress – a predictor of success. When you’re building a habit, you’re planning for the next decade, not the next couple of months.

Share some of your most successful resolutions and strategies in the comments section below.


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