Here’s Why You Keep Failing At Your Health Goals - Healthy Living Association

Here’s Why You Keep Failing At Your Health Goals

Did you setup new year’s resolutions this month? If so, you’re in the majority. Around half US adults set yearly goals… but most of them don’t see them through. Luckily, experts have found a better way to ace your health goals. Here’s what you should know.

Why you don’t follow through with new years’ goals

Even though up to 50% of American adults setup new year’s resolutions, only 10% of them keep those goals for more than a few months. Simply put, the odds are against you!

Psychologists think there are three main reasons behind our chronic issue with accomplishing goals [1]. Does any of the following sound like you?

  1. Difficulty breaking old habits: new year’s goals usually relate to changing something in our life. Unfortunately, we’re creatures of habit, and it’s easier to keep doing whatever we’re used to. This can take a toll on your mental health, because while you want to change, it seems very difficult once you have to act on that desire. The problem is habits become so ingrained in our brains that it happens on ‘auto-pilot’.
  2. You focus on time-sensitive, specific outcomes: when it comes to goal-setting, specific objectives can be a double-edged sword. On the one hand, setting vague goals doesn’t offer enough emotional pull to reinforce your commitment. On the other one, too specific outcomes, such a certain goal weight or physical look by a certain date, can make it easier to quit if you don’t get there fast enough.
  3. Too many changes at once: lifestyle changes like the ones we tend to focus in our new year’s resolutions are a challenge by themselves. But trying to change several things at once can lower your success rate. It’s easier to make one small modification to your daily routine, and add to it once it becomes a habit.

Now that you know why our new year’s resolutions tend to fail, it’s time to make a change. According to psychologists, the key to fulfilling our goals lies in setting a different type of goal: setting up systems instead of outcomes.

Process vs outcome goals

While psychologists have been studying goal-setting since the seventies, this topic is still underdeveloped. Since goals are an essential part of any process -from education curricula to scientific research-, they are generally treated as an afterthought. Because of it, there’s more information about how goals work in business settings. However, the same logic used in business can be applied to everyday life.

As such, we can distinguish between outcome and process goals. Outcome goals are what we generally think about when setting New Year’s resolutions: they involve achieving something. These look like this:

  • I won’t drink alcohol until February
  • I will go down one size by summer
  • I’ll read one book a month for the whole year

Of course, some outcome goals can be better-formulated than others. In general, SMART goals have a better success rate than vague wishes. In this case, S.M.A.R.T is an acronym that means Specific, Measurable, Assignable, Realistic, and Time-Related [2].

However, even the best-laid outcome goals can be very hard to accomplish, and it all comes down to our hard-wired habits. Because outcomes are essentially timed, it’s easy to fall back into our old ways once we reach an outcome goal. Plus, outcome goals fuel the all-or-nothing mentality: if you missed one day from your 1-month challenge, then why keep going anyway?

While some people manage to build long-lasting habits from outcome goals, this generally doesn’t happen. This is where process goals come in.

As the name indicates, process goals focus on the road to your desired outcome. Some management experts also call these ‘systems’. In order to increase your success, process goals take into account your current habits and make your new goals fit within those.

In general, process goals eliminate decision fatigue and focus on sustainable change. By properly setting up a process, you set yourself up for success. The best part is that by accomplishing the process consistently, you’ll eventually get to your desired outcome. So, taking the examples above, those goals would end up something like this:

  • I’ll suggest we go out to the movies instead of going to the bar.
  • I’ll set my clothes out the night before to walk one mile in the morning.
  • While I drink my morning coffee, I’ll read a couple pages of a book

So, which type of goal is the best?

Experts consider both goals and systems have their place. By setting goals, you have a clear picture of where you want to be. But, by focusing on the process, you stay motivated, enjoy the journey and stay away from feeling failure for the small things.

How to improve your health by setting systems

Thinking systems-first can help you reach your health goals faster and without stress. Having a proper system in place takes stress out of the equation: your only job is following through with your process. Plus, you can also tweak and change things as your needs evolve. In turn, this improves the system and makes it easier to keep going.

Here are some system examples that could help you reach your health goals:

If you want to: start working out in the mornings

Set up this process: pick out your workout clothes the night before, and put it on as soon as you wake up. Now that you’re dressed, your only job is getting out the door and working out.


If you want to: drink more water

Set up this process: get a large water bottle and keep it with you at all times. Now, every time you get up to do anything, take a sip. Before sitting down, take a sip.


If you want to: wake up earlier every day

Set up this process: fine-tune your evening routine. Figure out what your usual routine is, and shift it so you’re free to go to bed earlier. Get your clothes ready the night before, and prep everything so waking up is easier.

Of course, the above are very general examples of systems to reach your health goals. In general, the key is setting up repetitive new habits that fit into your regular lifestyle. Soon enough, they’ll become second-nature and your goals will be that much closer.

Did you setup goals for the new year? How are they coming along?


  1. Why we make (and break) New Year’s resolutions, and 4 tips to help you achieve your goals. Western Connecticut Health Network. Available here.
  2. M. A. R. T. Objectives. Wayne State University. Available here.


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