We have such high hopes in January when we set out to make changes for the year to come. This year things will be different. This year I really will keep my resolutions. This year my new, healthy habits will stick. I’ll buy a gym membership — that will spur me to exercise as I won’t want to waste the money. I’ll haul home healthy groceries, no more junk food. See those new running shoes by the door?

But the reality is that an estimated 80% of resolutions fail by mid-February — and that’s without the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic to keep us all at home for weeks. How is it that we ooze with excitement for change on New Year’s Day but fall victim to failure by Valentine’s Day?

The start of summer is a good time to take stock of your progress —or lack of it— and re-set your resolutions so you can still see some progress in the second half of the year.

Oftentimes, the reasons your resolutions are not successful in the long-term fall into three categories:

  1. Too Unrealistic: The “over” in overachieving plays its part. People sometimes make resolutions that are very challenging to accomplish. If the goal is to run a marathon, having never run before, it’s awfully difficult for most folks to hit those 26.2 miles. Disappointment makes it all that much easier to give up.
  2. Lack of Intrinsic Motivation: Creating resolutions because “it’s what you do on January 1st” is not always the best option. Doing something because you feel you should, rather than because you genuinely want to, often yields unsuccessful results. In one exercise study, participants who exercised for extrinsic reasons (seeking an “outside” reward or outcome, such as improving appearance or reducing clothing size) were less likely to continue exercising long-term than the participants who exercised for intrinsic reasons (enjoyment of the activity, desire to achieve competence, etc.). Starting something when your heart is not really in it makes it easier to stop doing it.
  3. Too Vague: “I am going to lose weight” is a statement almost everyone utters in life at one point or another. Although it sounds perfectly achievable, the fact that it is very vague can stand in the way of actually achieving the goal. How much weight? What is your marker of success? Is there ever an end to the weight loss? Without clear milestones, it’s easy to get frustrated or lose interest — not because you can’t succeed, but because you never defined what success would look like, so it remains outside your grasp.

Action planning

Committing to goal setting and action planning rather than resolutions can help solve these problems. Goal setting is effective because it focuses on actionable steps and creates a roadmap to follow for achieving a purpose, making the process clear and understandable. Using action plans leverages small and achievable goals to set up success long-term and fulfill larger goals.

So how can you ensure you are setting actionable goals rather than resolutions? Follow this three-step approach to set yourself up for long-term success:

  1. Get Real: It starts with choosing realistic goals. A goal must be do-able in order to be successful. If you are new to exercising at the gym, then perhaps your action plan should be 2 times a week for the first few months in order to get acclimated — not all seven days. Be honest with yourself about what you can handle. And if you have weeks where you do make it to the gym all seven days, then that is just a bonus. It is better to plan realistically and sometimes surpass the goal you set for yourself, than to set unreasonably high expectations and court failure. Your self-esteem will thank you for it.
  2. Identify Your Drive: Pinpoint internal motivation before setting out on your goal. Are you giving up doughnuts solely because your co-worker swears he lost 10 pounds doing so? What’s really fueling your drive? Is it external or your own? Determine why you are trying to lose weight — to reduce the risk of diabetes? for a better quality of life? to live longer for your family?). Find that intrinsic motivation and embrace it. Write it down, post it on the mirror — whatever it takes to remind you of your own “why.”
  3. Focus on the Process: When you set a goal, don’t obsess on the endgame. Instead, focus on the journey you will take to reach that goal. Don’t fixate on dropping 5% of your weight, but concentrate on the changes you can make that will result in that 5% weight loss. Immerse yourself in the process that needs to occur for weight loss to happen. It may mean reexamining portion sizes or zeroing in on nutrition information or planning a break-time group walk with coworkers to increase your daily physical activity.

So for the second half of the year, set a goal and develop an action plans to support the resolutions you haven’t been able to keep. When the focus shifts to actual steps, rather than the goal itself, the process becomes easier to navigate. These action plans will snowball week to week and reinforce your commitment, steadily advancing you toward long-term success.