Insanity is repeating the same mistakes and expecting different results.

I am goal setter. I have quite a few half-filled journals tracking whatever goals or resolutions I set for myself that month. I tend to follow the same pattern each time:

  1. Determined pep talk/gentle beratement: “Alright, Emily. Time to step it up. Starting next week, you’ll exercise each morning before going to work. No excuses.” I tell myself that it’s time to get it together and I set out to track my progress, thoughts, and feelings in an impulse buy notebook from Target using some carefully thought out scheme of color coordination.
  2. Follow through: For a week or so, I am a changed woman. I do the new thing and write the notes, and generally feel like I’m making good progress.
  3. The dip: Things get busy and I skip a few days. I rationalize the shit out of why I don’t have time for the new thing today. My notes become inconsistent. I am not gentle with myself when this happens. Eventually, the new habit or goal doesn’t stick and I’m back to my old ways.

Doesn’t this sound exhausting? And yet, I LOVE setting goals. Each time, I’m sure that things will go differently. This will be the time I start exercising more or I start drinking more water. In these last weeks of 2017, I’ve been trying to learn more about why I/we find it so hard to change bad habits. We’ve all seen the headlines about how most of us abandon our New Year’s resolutions after just a few weeks. Why? What can we start doing differently?


Read this before you make your 2018 resolutions

1. Know yourself

In Gretchen Rubin’s wonderful book about habits Better than Before, she begins by examining how people respond when faced with expectations, either set by others (outer expectations) or ourselves (inner expectations). People tend to fall into one of four groups.

  • Upholders: Respond to both inner and outer expectations
  • Questioners: Question all expectations and will only meet an expectation if they believe it is justified
  • Rebels: Reject all expectations and do whatever the hell they want
  • Obligers: Meet outer expectations but struggle to meet the expectations they set for themselves.

According to Rubin, most of us fall into the Questioner and Obliger categories. (If none of these groups are calling out to you, try taking this quiz.) My heart started beating a little faster when I read about Obligers. I typically have no problem meeting expectations imposed by work or school. I will complain about that paper deadline, but I will do what I have to do to turn my paper in on time. Inner expectations are a different beast. As much as I want to follow through on the expectations I set for myself, most often I fall short. The cycle I outlined above reads like textbook Obliger. Obligers do well with external accountability. Converting those inner expectations to outer ones (creating an accountability partner by telling a friend about a goal, for example) helps an Obliger follow through on a habit. Questioners have much more of an internal process. They will not follow rules for their own sake and must determine that there is a logical basis for an expectation to follow through on it.

The Four Tendencies are simple categories, but I think they’re a great starting off point for learning more about how you respond to expectations. Understanding how you think about habit formation helps you break away from past failures. Being aware of your thought processes around habits also helps you catch those sneaky loopholes you’ll inevitably create when you don’t want to do the thing anymore. Common loopholes include:

  • Moral Licensing Loophole Giving yourself permission to do something bad because you’ve been doing so well.
    Example: I’ve been exercising every day, I deserve a day off.
  • Tomorrow Loophole Writing off your actions today because you’re going to do better tomorrow.
    Example: I’m starting my diet today, so I can eat whatever I want today.
  • This Doesn’t Count Loophole Creating spaces in your life where you are exempted from following through on your habits.
    Example: It’s the weekend/I’m traveling/I’m on vacation.

Rubin covers more loopholes in Better than Before and I have used every single one of them. Don’t fall for them! Loopholes are insidious bastards that will derail your goals if you let them. Knowing which loopholes you tend to use will help you catch yourself the next time you start rationalizing away.

2. Set S.M.A.R.T. goals

Whenever possible, define your resolutions as specific, measurable, achievable, results-focused, and timebound. Take the common resolution to “Eat healthier.” This statement could not be more vague. What does healthy mean in this context? Eat more vegetables? Drink less soda? How will the results of your eating healthier manifest? Increased stamina? Loss of weight? Lower blood pressure? Without parameters or milestones, it’s easy to feel like you’re never doing enough. The vague dissatisfaction created by “I could/should be doing more.” increases your chances of giving up on the goal entirely. Narrow in on broad concepts so you’re clear on exactly what you want to be achieving. Here are some ways to rewrite “Eat healthier” as a S.M.A.R.T. goal:

  • I will bring my lunch to work at least two days this week.
  • I will use the treadmill for 30 minutes each day.
  • I will cut back to one soda a day.

Sometimes S.M.A.R.T. goals may not seem as glamorous, but don’t let that fool you. The examples above are all small pieces of eating healthier that can set the groundwork for real change.

3. Beware of resolution overload

A few years ago, I had a coworker who was so ready for the new year. Her resolutions included going to the gym once a day, giving up alcohol, and cutting sugar from her diet. She was going to undertake three very large lifestyle changes all at once, all with high standards for success and no plan for accountability. She fell short of these resolutions within a week and abandoned them all a month in. This isn’t to say that it’s impossible to make radical lifestyle changes, but before you set out to overhaul your life, take stock of your current lifestyle. Will your resolutions be simple adjustments or will they require some major lifestyle rerouting? Be realistic about what you can take on at one time.

4. Don’t test your self-control unnecessarily

Every time I walk from the Metro station to my apartment, I walk by an &Pizza. I’m convinced that &Pizza has installed a high-powered fan to waft the pizza smell as far as possible. The smell is unnervingly strong and you can’t help but longingly stare at the window as you walk by. I resist most days, but eventually I treat myself to some pizza because I’ve been so good at resisting all those other times (moral licensing loophole!). You know what else I could do? Walk on the other side of the street. Don’t put yourself in situations where you’ll be easily tempted to compromise your resolution or eventually decide to treat yourself after resisting repeated temptations.

5. Be gentle

You are human. You will fall short. You will fail. Be gentle with yourself when you do. A rough day is not a good enough reason to lose all the progress that you’ve made. Get through the rough day and start again tomorrow. Pick yourself up and keep going.

My 2018 Goals

2018 is going to be a year filled with a lot of change! I’ll be graduating in May, so transitioning to a new job and a potential move is on the horizon. To that end, my goals/resolutions/habit changes are focused on things I think I can achieve despite quite a bit of upheaval. I plan on coming back to these goals mid-year and adjusting as needed. I’m doing my best to implement what I’ve talked about here, paying special attention to creating external accountability.

  1. Pay off at least $10,000 of student loan debt. I’m very much hoping I will blow this number out of the water, but I’ve decided not to pursue a side hustle until after graduation. This is based off my current income and payments made in 2017.
  2. Walk at least 10,000 steps a day. I’m saving for a FitBit now and plan to use that as my external accountability.
  3. Read one book for pleasure a month. Over Christmas vacation, I spent a lot of time in my local bookstore and library. Reading brings me joy, but it’s something I discard when things get busy.

Bring it on, 2018! Share your 2018 resolutions and thoughts on keeping them in the comments section.


  1. Girl, are you me? Because I very easily could’ve written most of this post. Except for me it’s a BBQ joint that I walk past that wafts the smell of bacon towards me, especially strongly on days where my blood sugar is too low. Good thing I only live two blocks away so can resist the temptation! &Pizza though, mmmm…

    Happy New Year, and here’s to crushing your goals this year!

    • Haha, great minds think alike! I would struggle to resist the smell of bacon, too. Happy New Year! Can’t wait to see what 2018 has in store for the #DCMoneyNerds.

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