The Truth About Changing Habits and Reaching Goals: You’re Going to Fail
It’s time to be honest.
Changing habits, whether it’s making new ones or getting rid of old ones, is one of the toughest things you can do. Achieving long term goals can also be daunting. It takes effort, persistence, and commitment.
You’re probably going to fail. But that doesn’t mean you won’t eventually find success.
News Alert: People Fail All the Time
Before we dive in, I want you to know that there are two parts to this story. I’ll tell you the second part later, but for now let’s look at a common phenomenon many of us undertake each year.
New Year’s resolutions. Sure, they’re slightly different than a regular goal, but it’s still something that we set out to achieve for ourselves. We’re notorious for making them come January. And they’re also notoriously hard to keep.
Richard Wiseman, psychologist and author of 59 Seconds: How to Change Your Life, conducted a year long survey in 2007 with about 3,000 people. He found that only 12% were successful at carrying them out. That means out of 100 people, 88 of them fail.
The University of Scranton also keeps annual statistics about resolutions. While the numbers vary slightly from year to year, they found that only 8% of people are successful at achieving their resolution (it was 9.2% in 2017).
Yet another research study covering a 2 year span found a success rate of 19% for New Year’s resolutions.
We also Fail at Making/Breaking Habits
Many of our resolutions focus on habits and behavior change. So let’s talk about them.
The fact is, we’re pretty horrible at habits as well. Researcher Sonja Lyubomirsky gives us some grim statistics from The How of Happiness:
Indeed, well controlled treatment studies show incredibly high recidivism rates for people who try to change their behavior.
We’re told that 86 percent of those who try to quit smoking eventually take it up again, and 80 to 98 percent of those who try to lose weight gain it back…
That might look bleak, but don’t even think for a second it’s not worth trying. Here’s the other half of the story you usually don’t hear about, but should.
You Can Fail And Still Make Progress
Let’s circle back around to those numbers on New Year’s resolutions. Because so far we have an incomplete picture.
While the University of Scranton found an 8 percent success rate for resolutions, they also list another interesting statistic that never gets mentioned. They report that 48% of people have infrequent success.
The problem is they never define what “infrequent success” means. But I’m guessing that it means that a large amount of people ended up having some success, while not necessarily achieving their goal.
What does that mean?
For example, say you vowed to lose 10 pounds but only ended up losing 5. Technically, you weren’t successful. But it wasn’t a complete failure either, because progress was made. It’s a kind of gray area of goal achievement.
So how frequently does that happen?
The numbers may be even better than the 48%. A poll from the American Psychological Association in 2010 found that 16% of people who tried to change health related behaviors were successful. But the number of people who reported being at least somewhat successful was a whopping 88%. And isn’t some progress better than no progress at all?
Every Success Will Have Its Setbacks
There’s more lessons buried in the numbers. Remember the 2 year study I mentioned where 19% of people kept their resolutions? Well the researchers discovered that the road to success wasn’t a straight line. The people who were successful had slipped up at least once. And on average, people who were ultimately successful had suffered setbacks 14 times!
And those people who were trying to change their habits, losing weight and stop smoking. It turns out those numbers can be a bit biased because those are only the hardcore cases. People who are seeking treatment aren’t representative of the average Joe.
For example, a study from 2010 found that people who were overweight are more successful than you’ve been led to believe. The authors write:
More than one out of every six US adults who has ever been overweight or obese has accomplished long term weight loss maintenance of at least 10%.
Sure, 1 out of 6 adults doesn’t mean there’s guaranteed success. But that’s far better than we’ve heard before. Here, too, researchers saw that it took people multiple attempts before finally achieving their weight loss goals.
Evidence that that goal pursuit is a learning process, just like any other skill.
The Going Will Get Tough
When I say you’re going to fail, it’s not to scare you. Or make a case that habits can’t be developed. Or that goals are pointless.
People might try to tell you that you’ll end up failing, so why even try. But they’re dead wrong. You absolutely should try. Setting goals and developing good habits is the core of self-improvement and personal growth. Here’s some additional motivation from psychologist David Niven talking about research in 2001 from 100 Simple Secrets of the Best Half of Life:
The capacity to continue trying despite repeated setbacks was associated with a more optimistic outlook on life in 31 percent of people studied, and with greater life satisfaction in 42 percent of them.
Yeah, goals make you happier. But here’s the takeaway:
You shouldn’t be discouraged when you see statistics like these. People can and do succeed. When things don’t go according to plan or life takes a twist – and it most certainly will – you need to dust yourself off, learn from it, and try again.
The road to success won’t be a straight line. It’ll be a winding path through hills, valleys, mistakes, bumps, and setbacks. Failure only happens when you stop trying.