When you fall off the horse, get back on

We’re only little more than a week into the New Year and already I have to ask: Do you still have any resolutions left to keep?

Pardon the rude question. It’s really a matter of projecting my own weaknesses on the world. For most of my 79 years, my experience has been that I could break resolutions just as fast as I could make them.

That’s right: some didn’t even survive a day. Most drifted off into a thick haze before the middle of January.  A little research tells me I’m not alone in this regard.

The Marist Institute for Public Opinion’s annual survey a year says that fully 44 percent of us make New Year’s resolutions, up from 39 percent the year before. The most popular New Year’s resolution in 2017 was “being a better person.” Good luck with that. I hope you stick to it. I really do. The world could use more better persons – a lot more.

In a second place tie were the old saws “exercising more” and “weight loss.”

High rate of failure

Did you know that only eight percent of people who set New Year’s resolutions actually keep them?

According to a study by folks at the University of Scranton, 25 percent of our resolutions are cast aside before a week passes in January. About half are broken within six months.

The Week reported that Facebook check-ins at locations with “gym” or “fitness” in the name drop by 10 percent in February.

Silver lining

Despite these discouraging percentages, The Week also reported that those who actually make New Year’s resolutions are 10 times more likely to achieve goals than people who don’t bother to make resolutions at all.

So if you went to the bother, take heart. No matter what has happened to your best intentions since you embraced them, you still have a head start on the herd.

Understanding failure

Among the many reasons we fail to keep our resolutions is “false hope syndrome” – where in a surge of optimism we set unrealistic goals, we underestimate the obstacles, or we set too many goals. As Tash Eurich, an executive coach, told The Week: “As the saying goes, hope is not a plan.”

Experts say pick one goal, make that your resolution, and then develop a clear plan for achieving it.

Want to lose weight? Exactly how, where and when are you going to change your eating habits?

Want to exercise more? When and where are you going to do it? How are you going to adjust your routine to fit in the extra work?

Focus on the small steps and eventually you get to your destination.

Adopting SMART goals

Many productivity experts recommend the SMART goals system, pioneered by legendary management consultant Peter Drucker.” He said goals should be:

  • Specific,
  • Measurable,
  • Achievable,
  • Realistic, and
  • Time-based.

Some people adopt goals with ladders, or incremental milestones, often with monthly targets. That’s what I’ve learned to do to achieve and maintain weight loss. I pick a goal for the end of the month. If I achieve it, I adopt another goal for the next month. If I don’t achieve it, I stick with it for another month.

Perseverance can pay off over the long haul – just as long as we don’t give up before achieving our goal.

Take heart in Paul’s advice: “Let us not grow tired of doing good, for in due time we shall reap our harvest, if we do not give up” (Galatians 6:9).

Sticking with it

The biggest problem with resolutions is not that we make them and break them, it’s that we don’t try again when we fail. What’s the old advice when you fall off a horse? Get back on. It’s that way with resolutions too. One failure is not an excuse for quitting. Start over. Stick with it.

By the way, I didn’t achieve the monthly weight loss target I set on New Year’s Day two years ago by the end of January.  But I did finally hit it on Dec. 14. And I hit it again on Dec. 20. Then I hit it again – five days in a row – beginning Jan. 10 of this past year.

At first glance that may not look like victory. But look again. Where would I be today if I had given up and quit at the end of January 2016?

If the past is any indication – and usually it is – I’d be five, maybe 10 pounds heavier. If may not be winning any other contests, but I’m making specific, measurable, achievable, realistic and time-based progress.

Let’s toast persistence – which can actually win a year even as it struggles to win a day or a month.

And let’s give credit where credit’s due. With prayer I’m never alone, no matter how many times I have to pick myself up and start trying all over again.

With prayer I’m never alone.

And the more I pray, the better I do being faithful to my resolutions. As the Apostle Paul said to the church at Colossae, “Devote yourselves to prayer, being watchful and thankful (Colossians 4:2).



Owen Phelps

Dr. Owen Phelps is Director of the Yeshua Catholic International Leadership Institute and author of the book, The Catholic Vision for Leading Like Jesus: Introducing S3 Leadership — Servant, Steward, and Shepherd. He has presented Lead Like Jesus Encounters in Canada, Uganda and India, as well as all across the U.S.


He formerly served on the faculty of the College of Business & Management at Cardinal Stritch University in Milwaukee, and was a consultant on the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Communications Committee for about a decade. He has served as a consultant to church organizations from Vermont to Texas. 


Dr. Phelps was an award-winning writer, columnist, editor and publisher with a multi-state publishing company before he began work in ministry. He has written several articles and contributed chapters to two books devoted to issues of faith-based organizational performance.


He and his wife Jane, a CPA, have been married for 49 years. They live in Durand, Illinois, and Lac du Flambeau, Wisconsin, and they have five grown children and 17 growing grandchildren.