Why Are New Year’s Financial Resolutions So Hard To Keep?

Welcome to Taking Stock, a space where we can take a deep breath and try to figure out what the COVID-19 economy really means for our finances. Every month, personal finance expert Paco de Leon will answer your most difficult, emotionally charged questions about money. This year has forced many of us to reprioritize our finances, and there’s no clear road map for getting through the pandemic yet — but Taking Stock is here to help us figure it out together.
This week, we talk about our New Year’s resolutions. How are they going? Have you already slipped up on a few? What can we do to resolve to be better about our New Year’s resolutions?
Dear Paco,
I've been thinking about financial goals I could set and stick to in 2021. But I always seem to give up on mine after a month. Why is that? Do I just have no willpower? Am I being too ambitious? Am I making the wrong kinds of resolutions? Am I not preparing myself to stick to these goals? Is there a good and not-so-good way to set resolutions so that they actually last for the whole year? It’s only January, but I’m already feeling nervous about how long I’ll be able to keep my eyes on the prize.
Dear Cautiously Ambitious in 2021,
A few years ago, around the start of a new year, I found myself walking around my neighborhood with a friend of mine. As we were enjoying an uncharacteristically cold day in Los Angeles, coffees in hand, he asked me what my goals were for the year.  
Achieving our goals can be elusive for many reasons. Goals often require you to change your behavior, act in the face of your fears, and navigate circumstances outside of your control. So even if you succeed in changing the thing within your control — yourself — you are still subject to outside circumstances, like a pandemic, or whatever the hell the stock market is doing. Realistically, there’s kind of a flaw inherent in setting out to achieve a specific outcome in life. When you don’t arrive at your intended destination, because a lot of things are out of our control — you’ve failed. I realized that the way we typically set goals isn’t the best way to attain meaningful achievement in our lives.
So, I responded to my friend: “This year, my goal is to have no goals.” It’s not that I don’t want to achieve things or to self-direct my life — on the contrary. But, what I’ve observed from the successes I’ve had is that achievement often requires an approach where you don’t focus on an outcome with a finish line. Instead, it’s about the process that’s committed to. So rather than having a goal to save $8,000, it’s committing to save 20 percent of every inflow — indefinitely. Our goals need to be less about arriving at a destination and more about the journey. 
Sounds corny, but a study published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology: Attitudes and Social Cognition showed that people who viewed their goals as “completing a journey” as opposed to “arriving at a destination” were more likely to maintain good behaviors. And ultimately, that’s what we’re trying to do: maintain good behaviors, consistently, over time.
I’ve failed at achieving plenty of financial goals. There were years where I didn’t save as much as I’d have liked, and times that I’ve grossly overestimated how quickly I thought I could get out of credit card debt. I’ve rigidly clung to underpaying jobs because I had an end destination in my mind, and I was terrified of letting go of that goal. But when I started to focus on the journey, I became flexible with the outcome and, in my experience, I ended up achieving more than I would have imagined. 
If you’re thinking of how to fine-tune your 2021 financial resolutions for long-term success, here are some ways to reframe your goal-setting.
Figure out what you really desire (or really fear)
What is it that you really want? And, how does money help you fulfill that? Let yourself connect with your desires. For some, looking at your desires might not resonate as much as looking closely at your fears. What are you most afraid of? What does that mean in terms of money and financial goals? Being aligned with your desires and fears is a fundamental part of achievement; otherwise, you’ll be fighting against your will whether you’re conscious of it or not.
Too much change all at once is hard to do
Focus on one goal first. What sets great apart from good is the ability to focus on one thing at a time. With one goal, you can get your footing, build a track record, and once the new system is a habit that requires little to no effort, it’s much easier to find the next set of goals you’d like to reach for.
Connect with your why
If you have already discovered the reason why your goal is important — excellent. If not, get to the root of why reaching a goal is important to you. What will it mean to accomplish this goal? What will it feel like? What are the things you can do to stay connected to your why? 
Deconstruct your goal
Break down your single goal into a set of behaviors that would precede actually attaining this goal. For example, if my goal is to save a year’s worth of expenses, the things that need to happen include saving a part of every paycheck and any other inflow of money, whether that’s tax refunds, bonuses, or gifts.
Create a system for the new behaviors
I can systemize the behavior I need to achieve my goal by first choosing how much I can reasonably save with each paycheck — let’s say that’s around 25 percent. Then, I’ll set it up so that the savings are automatically deposited from my paycheck. This kind of systemization, where it’s done automatically, is helpful for obvious reasons. You only have to set it up once.
Alternately, since my actual pay varies with my business income, I’ve had to set up a system where I manually make these transfers on the 10th and 25th of every month. I’ve had to train myself to create the habit. But once this system became a habit, over time, I realized that I was on my way to reach my goal, and even saved much more than I thought I could.
When the system fails, find where it broke down
If I’ve tried to implement my system for saving more money, but I still feel too far away from reaching a certain milestone, I may need to take a closer look at the system. Do I need to increase my savings percentage? Do I need to earn more? Or maybe both? If I need to earn more, how can I systematically approach that problem?
In this context, not achieving your goal doesn’t have to feel like a personal failure. We can simply examine why the system is or isn’t functioning. If it isn’t functioning, that’s a useful sign that something needs to be reexamined. 
Use a system to minimize potential failure
Most of my greatest successes have come from systematically minimizing the ways I could potentially fail. Instead of relying on willpower, I assume I won’t have any and I try to solve for that shortcoming. Having separate accounts for spending and saving, for example, is a way to protect you from yourself. So is keeping your emergency fund at a bank that’s different from the bank you have your checking account with.
Run the process consistently
Having a healthy set of teeth isn’t the result of brushing your teeth thoroughly once, or even a few times. Consistency over an entire lifetime is what’s required to make progress. Especially since our habits are one of the few things we can control. 
If you can create a good habit, you may find that the progress you’re able to sustain is much more fulfilling than simply reaching a goal. In The Karate Kid, Mr. Miyagi makes Daniel apply wax on and off a car, over and over again. The goal wasn’t to get the car shining. The goal was to have the movement become so ingrained that it would be a habit.
Find accountability buddies
Having even one person hold you accountable can help you stick to your new habits. According to the American Society of Training and Development (ASTD), you have a 65 percent of attaining a goal if you have someone holding you accountable. However, you can bump that up to 95 percent if you have an accountability buddy you have periodic check-ins with. You can try finding a friend who is also looking for accountability; you can join an accountability group; you can hire a virtual assistant that you report to. Accountability works really well for me; it’s easy for me to feel accountable to my audience, because I have to practice what I preach.
Focus on your circle of control, let go of things outside of it
There will always be financial shocks and economic downturns. We have to recognize where we have agency in our lives and focus on moving the needle where we can. For everything else, it’s a constant practice of letting go.
I hope this helps you reframe how you set goals in your life, and I hope that you can fall in love with the journey — because truly, that’s all there ever is.
Your financial friend,
What overambitious New Year’s resolutions have you set in the past, only to abandon them a few weeks or few months later? Have you set any money-related resolutions for 2021? Tell us your experiences here, and check back next week for a follow-up story on what R29 readers have to say.
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