It’s the beginning of December and if you’re as old as I am, the chain of events you will likely see or personally experience in the next 2 months should not surprise you. I’m talking of course, about setting new year resolutions. 

Picture this: As the year-end festive season approaches, you decide to take it easy and indulge in some of your favourite festive foods. Before you know it, a cheat meal turns into a cheat day which extends into a cheat month. As the end of the year approaches, you regret your choices but make a resolve to achieve the best physical fitness in your life the next year. When the new year arrives, you sign up for a new gym membership and promise to work your butt off until you reach the goal you’ve set for yourself as part of your new year’s resolution. If you’ve found yourself in that position, how long did that resolve last? If you’re like me, probably not as long as you would have liked. And we’re not alone.

A 2019 Forbes article wrote that “approximately 80% of New Year’s resolutions fail”.

Instead of setting New Year’s resolutions next year, I’m trying something new instead. Earlier this year, I read the book Atomic Habits by the author James Clear. The gist of the book is that small incremental improvements to your life will compound and result in drastic changes to your life. Think of it as how the dollar-cost average investment strategy steadily adds up over time but apply the concept to your personal habits instead.

One of my key takeaways from the book was that setting goals doesn’t work in helping you reach those goals, at least not in isolation. An excerpt of the book on why can be found here. To summarize the article, here are the reasons why:

  • Winners and losers have the same goals
  • Achieving a goal is only a momentary change
  • Goals restrict your happiness
  • Goals are at odds with long-term progress


Coming back to the topic, what are New Year’s resolutions, if not goals that we set for ourselves at the start of each year? With the comparison in mind, it’s not hard to understand why we don’t always achieve the resolutions we set out to. Instead, what Clear suggests is implementing systems together with goals. In short, think of systems as the steps you take to help you reach your goals.


For instance, instead of saying you want to read 2 new books a month this year, set aside 15 minutes every night to read, and do it without fail. Instead of saying this is the year you finally reach your fitness goals, build small daily habits that you can sustain over the long term. Over time, you’re likely to see drastic improvements that you might not have expected.

In my opinion, another reason I believe that New Year’s resolutions tend not to succeed is the limited time frame we give ourselves to reach these goals. Sure, we may think that setting challenging goals gives us the push to excel and achieve them quicker. In reality, the many demands of our life e.g. work, family, friends compete for our attention, effort and willpower, all of which are in limited supply. As soon as you know it, another year has passed and you have not made significant progress toward the goal you set for yourself. Feeling dejected, you decide to give up and find a new, more achievable goal. You reflect and think that perhaps the goal was unrealistic after all.

But what if the problem wasn’t that the goal was too challenging? Perhaps what you needed was just more time. John Donaher, who’s trained some of the most prolific Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu competitors in the world, believes that it’s possible for someone to reinvent themselves over the course of 5 years. Granted, his conversation was in the context of combat sports and may not apply to something like learning a new programming language, but the idea that giving yourself a long enough timeframe to achieve your goals is a powerful one. Instead of telling yourself that you have one year to master a given skill or reach a certain physique, give yourself 5 years and compare who you are now to you 5 years in future. You’ll be pleasantly surprised at how far you’ve come.

A final point I’d like to make is that you shouldn’t be too hard on yourself for not meeting your New Year’s resolutions. Whether it’s learning a new language, picking a new skill, reaching your fitness goal, or any number of other goals, it’s impossible to succeed in all that we set out to achieve. With that in mind, the idea that failing once means we’re not good enough and that should prevent us from trying again is a silly one. The next time you don’t meet a particular goal, take a step back to reassess why and be honest with yourself. Once you’ve recalibrated your goals, taken steps to address your previous mistakes, and introduce small habits that push you towards your goal, just try again.


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