Why 80% of New Year’s Resolutions Fail by February

This blog is an excerpt from the chapter What We Talk About When We Talk About Goals in Andrew’s book, Age of Agility.


Two data points

  1. A 2016 article in Forbes put a price tag of 10 billion dollars per year on the self-improvement industry. That’s business in the U.S. alone.
  2. In 2017, Business Insider reported 80% of New Year’s resolutions fail by February.

Interpretation: A lot of money is invested in setting goals and a majority of people in the U.S. have a hard time following through.

While billions of dollars are spent each year fixing symptoms and contributing factors, the root cause continues to be overlooked. Goals, at their most basic level, are language. If language is at the foundation of setting a successful goal, how someone talks about their goals affects the outcome. The untapped billion dollar answer could be in something called Neuro-Linguistic Programming, or NLP for short.


Neuro-Linguistic Programming

NLP is a communication approach that focuses on how language affects the nervous system. The theory is, we have an emotional response to signs and symbols, the most popular being language. How and why we respond is a combination of our past experiences and our present sensory interpretation. Before I get too far ahead of myself, let’s look at the definition of each word that makes up NLP:

Neuro: indicating a nerve or the nervous system.

Linguistic(s): the science of language, including phonetics, phonology, morphology, syntax, semantics, pragmatics, and historical linguistics.

Programming: to train; predispose by rigorous teaching, condition.

So, what does this mean? At its most basic level, it means that word choice can be strategically used to affect how we think. Since there is a direct link between language to our nervous system, language has the power to shape our sensory impressions, making what we say very important. NLP has been successful in helping people work towards their goals, fight phobias, change habits, and emulate patterns of success.

Here’s an example of how it works:

Each word and symbol we encounter has an associated trigger. If you hear or read the word “cat”, your brain sends signals to your body based on your associations. Right now, you are probably thinking about the furry domesticated pet that says “meow”. Along with the description of “cat” comes your personal feelings, positive or negative. If you were attacked by a cat as a child or can’t stand them for another reason, your associations with the word are negative. If you own a cat or two (or three or four or…) or enjoy petting and playing with them, your associations are probably positive. That means when someone uses this word, depending on your association, you have a slight positive or negative feeling.

Here’s an example of how language affects your nervous system:

Imagine you are sitting at your kitchen table with a bowl of freshly cut lemon slices in front of you. Using your dominate hand, take a lemon slice and raise it so it is just below your nose. Not too far, you don’t want to get any juice on your upper lip. Take a breath. Can you smell it? Can you feel the moist yellow skin in your hand? Bring the lemon closer and place it in your mouth. Bite down and slowly begin to chew, making sure to grind your molars on its soft oily skin.

What did your face do? What happened in your mouth? Did your face pucker? Did your mouth start producing saliva? Besides the lemon, did any words stick out? I planted a few, did you catch any of them? The one that sticks out to me is the word “moist”. Some people have an immediate aversion to words like “moist” and using it here causes most people to pucker more, even before they bite down and start chewing on the metaphorical lemon. (If you are looking for another example, I wrote a more descriptive paragraph about a tart cherry pie in the Notes & References section in the back of Age of Agility.)

When you’re reading in a book about a spider crawling on a character’s neck, do you feel a tingling sensation on your neck as well? When you hear someone talking about mosquito bites or a sunburn, how does your skin feel? The interplay between mind and body occurs millions of times throughout the day and most of the time we are unaware of it. Someone who is self-aware and knows their NLP triggers can manipulate their environment to affect a desired outcome. What does this have to do with goal setting? People who use NLP can engineer positive associations around a goal, making it easier to achieve.


The Positive Outcome Strategy

The Positive Outcome Strategy (POS) is a goal-setting approach that uses NLP to positively reinforce the desired outcome of a goal. That’s a mouthful, so let’s work through an example.

Anne is choosing to eat healthier and exercise, with the end goal of losing some weight. When she talks to her friends about her new lifestyle change, what does she say? If she tells herself and her friends that she is trying to lose weight, she may be unconsciously making it harder for herself.

Here’s why.

Every time Anne says she is trying to lose weight (or thinks it), she is saying that she is currently not at her ideal weight. This triggers an earthquake of negative feelings associated with body image. Instead of focusing on the healthier person she is becoming (something positive), the words are triggering the non-ideal image she has of herself (something negative).

Let’s break Anne’s goal down so we can identify what she is working to achieve. Anne is choosing to eat right and exercise so she can tone her body and feel more energized. Instead of telling her friends (and herself) that she is trying to lose weight, she can say that she is achieving her ideal weight.

Here are a few more examples:

  • I am becoming more present earlier in the morning. Revised from: I want to wake up earlier in the morning.
  • I am learning to enjoy each breath as it comes. Revised from: I want to quit smoking.
  • I am taking an interest in how my actions can inspire others to use their time more efficiently. Revised from: I want to be an effective manager so I can get a promotion at the company I am working for.

When you are creating your own POS, focus on the positive aspects you are trying to accomplish. Ask yourself: what are you really changing and how can you use words that encourage a positive change? The more specific you can be, the better. In addition, it’s helpful to use a progressive verb (verb + -ing) when constructing your POS: becoming, learning, taking. These words signal that you are always making progress, so when you talk about your goal it feels more obtainable. On a final note, I want to be clear that these are not positive aphorisms; your POS is an honest goal reframed so you can push with, not against, the emotional side of change.


Key Takeaways

  • Goals are made of words, and words matter because they have power.
  • Rather than describing the negative behavior you want to stop, reword your goal so it highlights the positive aspects.
  • When you focus on the positives of your goal, you will be inspired by the things you can do instead of the things you can’t.


In honor of failed New Year’s resolutions, Age of Agility is 99 cents until Feb 5! Buy the Kindle here.


Andrew J. Wilt is the author of Age of Agility, a book that addresses the skill gap between school and work. He can be reached at Andrew.wilt@sustainableevolution.com and on Twitter @andrewjwilt
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