Setting Goals: Why New Year’s Resolutions Don’t Work

The following is a post I wrote back in 2008 on a blog I maintained called Reach Your Peak. I started this blog as a way to examine how to reach my true potential and shared it with my readers. It was during a very introspective period of my life where I was reading everything I could about how the brain functions as it relates to goal setting, creating new habits, and getting rid of unwanted habits.

When I first created my How Big is Your Why? profile and posted it on ICA in 2012, I linked back to that blog post. For ease, I have now transferred that full post here. It will assist you as you teach that profile, and will help with your understanding of why New Year’s resolutions don’t generally work, and how we can take control over life changes and make them work for us.

Oh, and remember, I wrote this nine years ago!

In order to Reach Your Peak, you must learn to set goals to become a better you. But how do you do that in a way that ensures you will adhere to your goals?

It’s February 9, 2008. By now you should realize that New Year’s resolutions do not work, because if you’re like 99% of the people who made them at 11:59 p.m. on Dec 31, 2007, you’ve long forgotten them or deliberately thrown them in the trash.

Why? Because they are not backed by belief or the right mental preparation. They are usually conscious statements to overcome a perceived weakness, such as not drinking anymore (or as much), losing weight, watching less TV, spending more time with family, etc.

Besides, there is a big difference between wanting something and being prepared to receive it.

First of all, most people fail at resolutions because they expect to fail. They are conditioned to believe that they won’t achieve this goal because they never have before, so they believe it won’t work and they just go through the motions of setting resolutions and hoping they will come true.  

But hope alone won’t get you where you want to be; it has to be supported by a subconscious belief and inspired action.

Secondly, we are conditioned to remain at the same weight, income level, or in the same mediocre relationship due to the habits we’ve acquired and reinforced over the years. It’s like having an internal thermostat that will always bring us back to our current situation, even if it’s not desirable. Everyone is challenged when it comes to growing beyond our current “set point” because moving outside of your comfort zone, even if it will improve your finances, relationships, or health, is often more difficult than the perceived benefit (at least, according to your subconscious mind, which prefers homeostasis, even a mundane, inferior one).

Willpower or resolve is the domain of the conscious mind, which only controls about 2–4 percent of your day-to-day actions and perceptions. In order to be successful, you must change the underlying beliefs that control your everyday actions. That is the domain of your subconscious mind, about 96% of the brain. If you don’t like your current situation in life, then you must break from your old patterns of thinking and believing and take aim at the conditioning that is at the source of these patterns. Your underlying behavior and beliefs play such a large role in your decisions that pure willpower can hardly be expected to trump them.

The Amygdala

There is a structure of the mid-brain called the amygdala that is responsible for alerting the body in a survival situation. Joe Dispenza, in his book Evolve Your Brain: The Science of Changing Your Mind, describes the this structure:

(The amygdala) also stores the four highly charged primitive emotions: aggression, joy, sadness, and fear. (It) also helps to attach different emotional charges to our long-term memories. When a life-threatening situation exists, the amygdala gives a rapid, action-oriented assessment of the external environment. It is the most important fear-generating region of the brain. In fact, the amygdala is the part of the midbrain that activates the body to respond even before you are consciously aware of the danger, so we sometimes call this a precognitive response. This is why the amygdala is so important for the survival of our species, as well as many animals. It processes incoming sensory information that is vital to survival in a crisis situation and instantaneously alerts the body, bypassing other circuits.

John Assaraf calls the amygdala a “psychocybernetic trigger” in your brain that has tremendous power over your perceptions and actions. It acts like a thermostat in your subconscious and detects any efforts to change your current situation. It senses potential and real stress and orders the release of neurotransmitters in response to the stressor, causing you anxiety, doubt, and fear. When most people feel this anxiety, they then decide not to pursue that path of change, even if it’s something they said they really wanted. The amygdala metaphorically pats itself on the back for a job well done.

Why does it do that? In short, it doesn’t like change. When you make an effort to change something, it alerts you and fools you to thinking that the change is not worth the effort, causing you to doubt or have fear over what you are trying to do. It has an evolutionary purpose, to keep early man from venturing into that scary open space in the forest and avoid being eaten by a wild animal. Otherwise, without the triggers for extra caution, we might have been wiped out as a species. But in today’s world, it’s what holds you back from really pursuing your goals by secreting those pesky neurotransmitters to “scare” you into submission.

I like to think of it as the evil “devil” on your shoulder whispering in your ear every time you are about to move beyond your comfort zone for your greater good, and convinces you to return to your old patterns of behavior. Rationalizing is its favorite game, and as John Assaraf says, rationalize means “rational lies.”

Here are some examples of “rational lies” it might whisper in your ear:

  • Boy, some chips and salsa sound real good right now. Forget those carrots and celery—how fun is that? Don’t you prefer that salty, crispy, fatty taste?
  • That couch and remote look awful comfy right now. Isn’t there a game on? How about a Sex in the City rerun? Who cares if you’ve seen it before!
  • Why go to the gym when you might have to “sweat”? Yuck! Too much effort; stay home! It’s safer here!
  • You say you want to do a what?? A triathlon? You might get hurt, or worse, might have to give up some of that TV time! Better to not bother after all.
  • Ask her out?? What if you say something dumb, like you always do?
  • Whaddaya mean you want to take on more responsibilities at work? Don’t you know people don’t like you much? What if you screw up like last time?
  • Spend more time with family? That means you’ll have to actually listen to your mother-in-law! No way. Let’s think of an excuse not to go…

So all your best intentions go down the drain, destined to fail from the very first moment you stated your goal, or (returning back to the original premise) your New Year’s resolution. Hence, you repeat the same results over and over and over, because you haven’t changed the thought patterns or behavioral patterns that govern them. It’s like that old adage, “The more things change, the more they stay the same.”

Both your conscious mind and subconscious mind must be in alignment if change is going to take place, and usually there is a tug-of-war between the two. The conscious mind makes a statement: “I want to change this about myself.” But the body says (ruled by the subconscious): “Heck no. You haven’t trained me to be that way—you’ve trained me to be like this.”  

If you want to truly make permanent changes in your life, you must first retrain your subconscious mind and create different mental images of your body and your health, your financial situation, your relationships, and any other area where you would like to see changes. It takes about 15–30 minutes a day of mental retraining, and studies have shown (including a study by NASA) that it takes a minimum of 30 days to break subconscious patterns.

What does mental retraining consist of?

First determine your goal and be very clear about what it is you want. What do you want? Better health? More money? A physical challenge, like a marathon? More time with family? A new career?

Next, you must state the WHY behind each goal. Why do you want it? Will it make you a better person? Will it make you healthier, so you can live longer and spend more quality time with your children and grandchildren? Will financial freedom allow you to pursue your dreams of travel, send your children to the best universities, or allow you to fulfill your deepest desires for charitable giving? Will the reduction of stress allow you to focus on yourself and your family and your fitness?

Then through a combination of visualizations and affirmations, what Joe Dispenza calls mental rehearsal, state each desire and/or act them out in your mind’s eye with passion and emotion, a minimum of twice daily. Visioning is more than just passively fantasizing about what you want—it is a type of mental and emotional workout that actually prepares you to experience and attract into your life what you want (and what is already available to you).

How do visualizations and affirmations work?  

Visualizations and affirmations are methods of rewiring your brain. Your brain does not know the difference between a real event and an imagined event. In fact, through PET scans, brain researchers have found that the brain responds in a very similar manner to actual and imagined events. Neural pathways are developed that reflect what is frequently impressed upon the brain, and synaptic connections are built and reinforced that support habitual trains of thought. This is how new beliefs are created. By experiencing a desire regularly through visualization, you actually create the neural infrastructure to support and process it in reality.

In other words, you must first lay the groundwork for your success! See it in your mind. Believe it. See it manifested in your life!


Joe Dispenza, Evolve Your Brain: The Science of Changing Your Mind
John Assaraf, Having it All, Achieving Your Life’s Goals and Dreams


Here is a fabulous visualization tool.
How to write and utilize affirmations. 

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