As Americans, we like to think of ourselves as rugged individualists, self-sufficient and driven to succeed. So, it’s no surprise that when it comes to our New Year’s resolutions or other big goals, we rely on our willpower and sheer determination to change our habits. After all, we can do it! But nearly 80% of New Year’s resolutions fail within a month. It may be wise to consider how humans can effectively implement personal change and use an alternative approach to make your goals—and ultimately your life—successful.
Who to Blame When Goals Fail
We tend to blame our lack of willpower for failed New Year’s resolutions, and equate this with a countrywide decline in self-control. Science does not back up our propensity to insist that we and our peers follow the age-old, all-American advice to “pull yourself up by your bootstraps,” though. In fact, it’s nearly the opposite.
It’s true that there is some work you can do by yourself to make change impactful and lasting. A deep understanding of how and why you operate the way you do is beneficial in many areas of life, not least of which for behaviors you’d like to change. When you truly grasp your mindset and core values, as well as what’s holding you back and limiting you, you will be more effective at changing your habits. An action you want to achieve that speaks to your core values, life purpose, and sense of meaning is an action you are more likely to take. And when you make it a SMART goal, you are more likely to succeed with that action.
That said, big personal change and goal achievement doesn’t happen in a vacuum. You need to make a sustained effort to change your habits over the long term, and one of the more effective ways to get there is by shaping your external environment—not focusing on your internal “lack” of self-control or otherwise blaming yourself for missteps or failures.
How to Make Goals Successful: Our Environment
We need to face facts. We will always have temptations thwarting our best intentions: the free candy when you’re trying to reduce added sugars in your diet, the compelling clickbait article when you’re trying to lower how much time you spend in front of a screen. There will always be obstacles in our way to a better life; we can’t control these. We can, however, exert some influence on our social and physical surroundings. Research shows that rather than rely solely on willpower to achieve our resolutions, we need to shape our environment to make self-control and accountability simple, easy, and convenient. Think of it as preparing the groundwork to then be lazy!
You have likely heard of the term “accountability partner” in reference to goal setting—and with good reason. When you shape your environment to achieve lasting change, put help via outside accountability high on your to-do list. This may come in the form of a formal or informal support group, online or in-person, who are making similar changes themselves, or it could be an individual accountability partner: a coach, a mental health practitioner, or someone else who is committed to helping you make the change you wish to see. Whichever it is, check in regularly.
That may sound like more work, and it is, but it substantially increases your chances of being successful with your stretch goals. We are, after all, social animals. Keep in mind that by adopting a support network, it may mean more internal work, too, in that you may need to not only hear constructive criticism, but embrace it. By welcoming external feedback, you can discover what went wrong and find ways to fix it, thereby improving yourself and moving ever closer to your big goals.
In addition to finding others to support us, another method to creating a fertile field for change is to design our physical environment. When we optimize our environment, we make self-control easier. If your goal is, for example, to spend less time with your smartphone, you could change your physical surroundings by putting your cell phone in a hard-to-reach place or disabling apps that might be tempting. The farther away and the more effort you have to make to indulge a temptation, the better. Make the good choice the easy choice by default.
Willpower is a limited resource, just like attention. Don’t make it do all the work to change—shape your support network and design your surroundings so you are set up for success.