Solving the Resolution Conundrum: Putting your Best Foot Forward

By Colin Vincent, MSW, RSW

“The future depends on what we do in the present.” Mahatma Gandhi

I came across a Calvin and Hobbes cartoon recently, in which Calvin is reflecting on New Year’s Eve and bemoaning just how little humankind seems to have accomplished by the end of another year, despite all of our lofty resolutions. Hobbes remarks that the trouble with the future is that it keeps turning into the present. Funny that.

At the same time, it’s important to remember that the future doesn’t just arrive all willy nilly. It is not some immutable thing, impervious to our best intentions or interventions.

As Mahatma Gandhi points out above, the future is shaped by our ideas and actions in the here and now.

Being that it’s January 2015, for many of us the here and now involves struggling with keeping New Year’s resolutions. So let’s explore how we can make change that sticks.

Why we need to set resolutions in the first place.

Research tells us that something like 55% (some estimates run as high as 80%) of people who make a New Year’s resolution fail to maintain desired behavioural changes after six months.[1] Ouch!

But despite that dishearteningly high rate of failure, making New Year’s resolutions remains a worthy activity. Why? Because resolvers (those who have committed to changing particular behaviours) tend to outperform non-resolvers (those who are interested in changing particular behaviours but have not made a definite commitment) by a wide margin.[2]

In fact, research tells us that individuals who make New Year’s resolutions are more than 10 times more likely to achieve desired outcomes during the year compared to non-resolvers. I’ll take those odds any day.

So it turns out that making meaningful change isn’t easy. But if you want to make a change, your best foot forward is to make a specific commitment. Which begs the question, what sets successful resolvers apart over the long haul? Here are a few key strategies for what to do. . . and what not to do.

What to do

  • Find your focus. Prepare for success by connecting your running resolution to your values. Ask yourself why you have made this resolution. Write down your reasons and remind yourself on a regular basis why your resolution is important to you.[3]
  • Choose a realistic long-term goal. Confidence in your ability to meet your goal is strongly associated with positive results.
  • Reinforce good behaviour early on. When you do what you have resolved to do, reward yourself. Could be a tasty treat immediately following a long run, a hot bath, a break from work, basically anything that feels good and is associated with the targeted behaviour. It will increase the likelihood that you’ll keep on track.
  • Be a good coach to yourself. Offer yourself plenty of encouragement, support and understanding as you move forward. Recognize that changing behaviour is a tough business.

What Not to Do

  • Don’t blame and criticize yourself for inevitable slipups. Non-successful resolvers tend to criticize, lecture and blame themselves more compared to their successful counterparts. So if you sleep through your scheduled Sunday morning long run because you stayed out later on Saturday night than you planned, this does not mean that your entire training plan is kaput. It means you’re human. Give yourself a break and then get back to training as soon as possible.
  • Avoid wishful thinking. Wishing you had not stayed out late last night, or eaten that delicious cheeseburger; wishing you were more disciplined; wishing you were faster or stronger or leaner… Research shows wishful thinking does not work! In fact, it’s associated with more negative outcomes. So focus on the positive steps you’ve taken so far and the steps that you can take today, which will stoke your confidence and strengthen your willpower – two factors that are associated with success.

Now it’s time to let go of 2014, whatever happened good or bad. It’s a new year. Lace up your runners and put your best foot forward!

Colin Vincent, MSW, RSW, is a Social Worker with Lanark County Mental Health and a fitness enthusiast who can often be seen running the rural side roads of Lanark County on his lunch hour.


[1] Norcross, Ratzin and Payne, 1989.

[2] Norcross, Mrykalo and Blagys, 2002.

[3] For more info on developing long-term focus, check out this article at Mind Tools.