The Key Reason New Year Resolutions Fail

It’s January again, the time of renewed motivation, fresh starts and…magical thinking. With the promise of another new year come the short-lived resolutions that we will finally make the changes that will bring us long-term happiness.

Whether it’s cultivating more happiness, less stress, changing our bodies or reforming our health; all require fundamental changes to our lifestyles that take time to establish. They are a marathon that we approach with the tenacity of a sprint, before flailing in confusion when we can’t sustain the energy needed to get past the first lap.

Setting resolutions in this way is the very essence of magical thinking, which Transactional Analysis considers as the ‘tendency to seek supernatural connections between external events and one's own thoughts, words, and actions’.

It comes from a part of the psyche that is well-developed in childhood, but does not contain any of the logic and rationale that we possess as adults. Magical thinking is hopeful and motivating, but it is also, as its name suggests; not realistic. Examples of magical thinking include:

  • Detoxifying your digestive system with a juice cleanse

You are likely to experience temporary changes in digestion when only consuming liquids, but last time I checked, we have an entire organ to do that anyway. It’s called the liver and medics have yet to discover a juice that does a better job

  • Losing weight with diet shakes

You will likely lose weight if you eat fewer calories than you burn and this is probable if 2 of your meals now come in a calorie-controlled powder. The illusion is that you can sustain any of this weight loss when you go back to eating real food, having not learned or implemented any new knowledge or skill around nutrition.

  • Deciding to love yourself

Redeciding how we feel about ourselves is a long and complicated undoing of our social conditioning, followed by the implementation of conscious and deliberately different habits to those we were employing previously. Simply deciding to feel differently about yourself one day, without doing anything different; is a folly.

So how can you know whether the change you want is really something you are prepared to work for, or whether it’s coming from magical thinking? Here’s the difference:

Mick joins the gym in January. He wants to feel fitter and stronger by the end of the year. He mostly goes on the treadmill for 30 mins, twice a week, because he’s not sure what else to do and then feels disheartened after a few months when he doesn’t feel any different.

Annie joins the gym in January, for the same reasons as Mick, with the same goals. She reads that she needs to do a combination of resistance and cardiovascular training to become fitter and stronger and after assessing her options, chooses to lift weights and cycle. She learns about basic nutrition to ensure she has the energy to sustain her new habits. She chooses a gym near her workplace and diarises the days of the week she can reasonably commit to going. When her progress plateaus she seeks help from a personal trainer.

The difference between Mick and Annie, is that Mick is employing magical thinking. He is hoping for a change, without knowing whether his behaviours are going to achieve that change. Annie is consciously behaving in ways that will help her achieve her goals. She acknowledges they will only happen as a result of her effort and finds ways to make her commitment straightforward, such as choosing a gym near her workplace. She accepts there may be pitfalls and seeks well-informed support. Annie’s thinking is grounded in reality, giving her the best chance of succeeding.

The psychoanalyst Jonathan Shedler speaks on magical thinking around therapy:

“Many people do not come to therapy to change. Not really. They may say & think they want to change. It soon becomes evident that they want to continue being exactly the person they have been & living life in the same self-limiting ways, but feel better doing it”.

You could replace the words “come to therapy” in this quote with “start exercising”, “eat differently”, “leave a relationship”, “go travelling” “start volunteering” or any other behavioural shift or habit that you hope will change your life. Try substituting your New Year’s Resolution and see what happens.

In summary, resolutions are usually too good to be true because we make them with the quick-fix, magical thinking mentality, despite the desired result requiring long term, sustained effort. We think magically because we don’t want to take the sacrifices and put in the work to get us there. And that’s ok! If you don’t want to, you don’t have to. But if you do, stop kidding yourself that it’s going to come ‘magically’. If you want the best chance of reaching your goals, dreams or ambitions this year, only two questions really matter:

  • What will it realistically take to achieve this goal? (eg. Annie’s goals will entail loss of free time, expenditure of physical energy, fatigue, muscle soreness)

  • Am I willing to go through this to achieve it?

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