New Year’s resolutions are notoriously broken. Whether it’s a small or a large goal, it seems we inevitably fall back into our old habits. Our hopes for a better self become next year’s problem.

In fact, last year a survey found that more than 70 per cent of Canadians who made a New Year’s resolution inevitably broke them.

So why is it so hard to keep a New Year’s resolution and how can we break the failure cycle?

In order to find out, emailed psychologist Patrick Gaudreau, who runs a research lab at University of Ottawa that studies motivation, goal achievement and how people control their actions. asked him a few questions to get to the bottom of our bad New Year’s resolutions habits and here’s what he had to say: Why do you think so many people break their New Year’s resolutions?

Gaudreau: Having a New Year’s resolution is a norm in our society. A lot of these resolutions are not personal goals; they are wishes or desires.

Wishes and desires are prone to rapid failure and disengagement because, most of the time, they are pursued for the wrong reasons. What are some mistakes people make when deciding their New Year’s resolutions that you’ve noticed in your research?

Gaudreau: Unfortunately, not all personal goals are truly personal. Setting goals only to create a good impression or to please your partner, parents or friends is not very useful.

Setting goals only because you are feeling pressured or obliged is unlikely to help you attain this goal. How can people set better resolutions or goals in general to ensure they accomplish them?

Gaudreau: Your goals have to be important and meaningful to you. They also have to be coherent with your other personal goals, activities, lifestyle, values, and interests.

After selecting a goal that is really a personal goal, a few additional principles can be used to maximize the effectiveness of your goals.

First, it is better to have one clear goal rather than a list of goals.

Second, it is important to write your goal somewhere in order to help you evaluate whether your goal is specific or vague.

For example, a vague goal (I want to do physical activity) can easily be reformulated into a specific goal (I will walk 30 minutes each day).

Third, the goal has to be challenging and difficult yet realistic and attainable. Difficult goals will help the individuals in making effort and work hard. Making progress on these goals will be rewarding and satisfying.

However, extremely difficult goals will be discouraging because even your best effort is not good enough to get you closer to attaining your goal. The unreachable nature of these goals will be threatening and frustrating to most people. What are the best ways to stay motivated over extended periods of time to ensure you don’t give up on your resolutions?

Gaudreau: Setting a goal is insufficient to get started. Therefore, goal-setting is clearly insufficient to stay motivated for the long haul.

People need to create an action plan.

The person needs to think about what they need to do and when, where, and how they’re going to do the actions and behaviours to accomplish their goal.

Creating an action plan helps individuals incorporate the new goal into their regular daily schedule and can eventually help the new goal become a habit. What are some mental pitfalls to avoid when setting goals and when trying to stay on track?

Gaudreau: People often think they need to rigidly stick to their initial action plan.

It is natural to revise your action plan in order to adjust one’s goal pursuit to changing life circumstances.

For example, going out for a 15-minute walk from 7 p.m. to 7:15 p.m. might be a desirable plan in September or October when the sun is still up after diner. However, some people might need to adjust their goal during the winter. What’s the best way to deal with challenges that come up when trying to stick to your New Year’s resolutions?

Gaudreau: It is better not to wait for obstacles to happen. Many obstacles can be anticipated and successful goal-strivers often take the time to create coping plans in order to know what to do to handle the obstacles.

These plans can take the form of an “if-then” coping plan to help handle problems.

For example, IF it rains outside, THEN I will go for a walk at the shopping mall.

Coping plans help you stay on track on days when barriers and obstacles might interfere with your personal goals and action plans. Are there any specific traits that make people more or less likely to succeed with their resolutions?

Gaudreau: Most people are capable of making progress on their personal goals.

However, individuals who are perfectionists often struggle.

Trying to set and pursue the “perfect goals” and rigidly creating and sticking to the “perfect plans” is not a desirable mind-set.

It is normal to hope for the best, but it is important to accept that it is impossible to attain your goal on each and every single day of your life.

Goal-setting and goal-planning require flexibility, patience, and tolerance toward mistakes.