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Why we struggle to keep our New Year’s resolutions

We are goal-oriented beings that desire to accomplish something. Unfortunately, the cultural fad of making New Year's resolutions doesn’t work with our brains.

As 2020 quickly approaches, many of us will find ourselves reflecting on the past year. What happened? Where did the time go? What stands out in the past 365 days? Did I reach my goals? 

Following this period of reflection, often around December 30th, we begin setting our eyes on the upcoming year. January 1st marks a fresh start, a time in the calendar where our past failures of the previous year don’t count and we can place our hopes in the new year. We sign up for a gym membership, join a masters swim group, register for a big summer race or simply write out a few aspirations.

Going to the gym in the New Year?

We are goal-oriented beings that desire to accomplish something. It doesn’t matter if you’re a triathlete or not, we all have this innate desire to achieve something great. Unfortunately, the cultural fad of making New Year’s resolutions doesn’t work with our brains. Setting a broad goal of losing weight or improving our run off the bike gives us little guidance and it can leave many unmotivated after a month. 

Related: How to get ready for your first triathlon

Why do our New Year’s resolutions fail?

(Okay, this may be a huge generalization, but it’s no secret that more often than not we fall short of reaching our goals.)

In an article from Psychology Today, Dr. Bobby Hoffman explains how aspects of our behaviour are fleeting and depletable. After setting the desired goal, we use physical and mental energy to keep our eyes on that goal. We deplete ourselves without giving much thought to recharging or restoring some kind of balance. In other words, we are gun-ho on completing the goal(s).

Psychologically we can become depleted in motivation when striving to reach our New Year’s resolutions.

However, we were never intended to operate like this. Whether it’s a physical or mental exercise, there is usually a cycle of work and restoration. For example, take the singular event of an Ironman. In the build-up, there’s a lot of training, as well as recovery. Following the event, when your body is depleted so much that you can’t get out of bed, there is a significant period of restoration. The same is true following an intense stretch of work or studying at university. Without some cycle of work and rest, the body and brain burnout. 

Related: How to train for your first half-Ironman

In the context of New Year’s resolutions, psychologically you can become depleted in motivation. Case and point, the number of unsuccessful dieters (short- and long-term) or failed smoking cessation attempts. Eventually, no matter how much effort we put into our goals, there is a decision-making threshold. At this point, we either power on (finding some other motivation), change goals (adjust) or just give up.

How should we set our goals?

Goal setting is an art, and it takes practice. The first step in setting a goal or New Year’s resolution is planning and accepting that you’ll probably have a setback or two (but plan for that – how will you overcome).

Reflecting on 2019 and planning for 2020.

In 2019, Dr. Edwin Locke (University of Maryland) and Gary Latham (University of Toronto) published a retrospective chapter in Motivation Science on 50 years of research that went into developing the Goal Setting Theory. 

Practically, the Goal Setting Theory can be guided by S-M-A-R-T.


In other words, is your goal(s) clear? Is there a definitive objective?

You should be able to answer who, what, where, when and why. Who is involved (support, yourself)? What is required (equipment, time, daily, weekly, monthly)? Where will this take place (working towards the goal, completing the goal)? When will you practice and complete the goal? Why are you doing this? Does it work towards another goal? Is it intrinsically important to you? Is it to improve your health? All are important questions to ask yourself.

Related: How to move up to the Ironman distance



Feedback is an important aspect of goal-setting theory. Receiving quantitative and qualitative feedback allows one to access their progress and manage expectations. 

It’s should also be noted the importance of publically sharing goals with a close social network. Whether it is with family, a coach or the local cycling group you’re part of, inviting people into your goals that can help motivate you is important.

Related: January 17th, the day we give up on our New Year’s resolutions


The goal must be both realistic and challenging. In their 50 years of research, Locke and Latham have shown that more specific and ambitious goals lead to a greater performance improvement than simple goals. As long as the individual accepts the goal themselves and has the ability, there is an apparent linear relationship with goal difficulty and performance improvement. 



Locke and Latham found that goals are something that people intrinsically value. However, just because something is intrinsically valuable, it is important to access whether the goal is relevant to other long term goals and challenges your current skillset. If not, there may need to be a few other short term goals before this one.

When setting a goal it is important to test whether the goal is relevant to you, your ability and time. 


There should be a “deadline” for your goal. A date that you work towards. It’s important that once you’ve set a SMART goal that you set additional goals that help you work towards the big goal. 

Using these five guidelines won’t guarantee whether or not you’ll stick with your resolutions in 2020, but if done diligently, they will act as guiding principles for goals in triathlon, school and work.