Build your skills: Andre Spicer

If at first you don’t succeed… maybe trying and trying again is actually not such a great idea

By Andre Spicer

02 Feb 2015

At the start of the year, we return to work with a hope of changing something. We might resolve to go to the gym, be more mindful, or look for a new job. The most striking thing is not that we fail to live up to our resolutions. It is the fact that once we have failed, we try all over again – often with equally disappointing results. Why do we do this and how can we avoid cycles of over-ambitious goals, failures and subsequent commitment to even tougher goals? 

We all know significant dates prod us into action. A recent study found that people were more likely to run their first marathon if their age ended with 9 (29, 39, 49 etc). Another study found that internet searching for diets and gym attendance peaked on the first day of the month. I have been to many ‘kick off’ retreats where people routinely start new projects, despite the fact that old projects remain uncompleted. This is what some psychologists call ‘the fresh start effect’ – our tendency to assume that on auspicious dates (like our Birthday) we can make significant changes in our life we would not normally be able to make. 

When starting out, we tend to set unrealistic goals. One study found that the average dieter sets a goal that requires them to lose 32% of their body-weight. Dieters in this study said that losing 17kgs was disappointing, and a loss of 25kg was acceptable. The dieters also hoped they could lose large amounts of weight in short time spans. In organisations, we often do the same by setting unrealistic goals and thinking we can achieve them in very short periods of time. Underpinning this is well-known cognitive bias of wishful thinking – our tendency to over-estimate the likelihood of positive outcomes, particularly when we are involved.

After committing ourselves to unrealistic goals, we often rapidly abandon them. One study of people who had made New Year’s resolutions found that, after one week, 22% of people had given up. After one month, the number of quitters had gone up to 45%. After six months, 60% of people had given up. Only 19% of people had stuck with their resolution after two years. Ultimately, only about 10% of people managed to permanently change their behaviours. Following an organisation’s away day, many of the goals laid out are completely forgotten. Once the next year rolls around, only one or two goals have actually been achieved. 

Failing to live up to our commitments prompts feelings of guilt, shame or self-loathing. 48% of dieters became preoccupied with food, 44% suffered from increased anxiety and 27% were more depressed when dieting. To compensate for these bad feelings, dieters often reverted to over-eating. As a result, 95% of dieters eventually regained the weight they had lost, with the majority actually regaining more weight. Similar processes are at work in organisations: the failure to hit over-ambitious goals can often lead to much (self) flagellation and subsequent relapse into old ways. Often organisations which set ambitious goals and then fail to achieve them go on to purge some of the people involved and then set even more ambitious goals (which in turn are not achieved).

Following these relapses, we are often all too willing to forget our past failures and re-commit ourselves to even more ambitious goals. 60% of people who fail to achieve their New Year’s resolution this year will make the same resolution again next year. On average, people have to make the same resolution five times before they stick with it. The failure to carry though a project in an organisation is often followed with even more ambitious projects being planned. This cycle of eternal optimism, despite the evidence, seems to suggest we learn very little from our past failures. 

There are five basic things we can do to avoid the traps described above. First, we should not make resolutions on apparently auspicious dates (like the start of the year). Instead, we should wait until one set of goals has been achieved before committing ourselves to a new course of action. By doing this, we can ensure we are not weighed down with many uncompleted projects. 

Second, when we make these resolutions, they should not be unrealistic. We have to realise that most changes are often relatively modest and take some time to make. If we have a great goal, it is better to slowly build up towards it, rather than set the bar at an impossible level at the beginning. 

Third, we should avoid making too many resolutions on paper. Making a few focused resolutions and building them into our day-to-day routine is much better. Often the hardest aspect about achieving goals is not starting out on a new path, but keeping that going over time. 

Fourth, if we slip off the wagon, we should avoid blame-seeking and backlash behaviour. Instead, we need to gently but firmly bring ourselves back to our goal. Minor slip-ups should be treated as an opportunity for insight rather than seen through the prism of moral downfall.  

Finally, if we do fail to live up to our ultimate goals, then we need to be willing to look at why we failed and learn from this. It may be a painful process, but it is likely to mean we do better next time.

Changing the way we set and pursue new resolutions can help not only to make us more effective individuals, but it can also help to create more effective organisations. Instead of having organisations which are overloaded with fantastic hopes for change and unrealistic targets, it may be possible to have more focused workplaces which are less cluttered with dashed hopes and dreams. 

Andre Spicer is a professor at Cass Business School. His new book, The Wellness Syndrome, is out now

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