Why Your New Year’s Resolution is Likely to Fail (and What to Do Next)

Why Your New Year’s Resolution is Likely to Fail (and What to Do Next)

As a therapist, I’ve learned that holidays and life events take on many different meanings for people. For some, Thanksgiving Day is a wonderful opportunity to reflect on the good things in life while enjoying good food. For others, it means sweating through an awkward dinner conversation with strained relations. New Year’s Day is another holiday that can bring a whole range of emotions. Many of us take the turn of the calendar as an opportunity to reflect on the past year while committing ourselves to personal improvement for the year to come, focusing these intentions in the form of the dreaded New Year’s Resolution.

Taking a new year as a time to reflect and commit to our priorities seems like a fantastic idea, right? And yet research has consistently shown that people are notoriously unsuccessful at achieving or maintaining these resolutions. In fact, you may be reading this blog post shortly before or after so-called “Quitters Day” (the second Friday of January), which is the statistically most frequent day for people to give up on their yearly goals. Past surveys indicate that by the end of January, 64% of individuals are no longer working on their resolutions. Discouragingly, only 9% of individuals can expect to successfully keep their resolutions.

So what goes wrong?… and what can you do about it? Here are some of the common problems that can trip up our goal pursuits, as well as possible ways to adjust.

  • Trying to change too many things at once: Let’s face it, building a new habit or breaking an old habit is hard! It means consciously thinking about doing things differently, breaking automatic responses, and often exerting physical and mental energy to do something difficult. Trying to add multiple new habits at a time, while still maintaining daily functioning, is often unrealistic. What to do instead: Examine the relative importance of your goals and pick one (maaaaybe two) to focus on for now. If you get to a good place with that goal, then you will be able to add a new goal while maintaining your progress.
  • Artificial timing: Studies in the field of psychology find that when an individual makes significant behavior change, they typically go through several phases in the process including precontemplation, contemplation, preparation, and then finally action. Not surprisingly, it is probably relatively rare for these stages to line up such that January 1st is the perfect day to move from the initial phases to action! Committing to a goal that does not have a solid foundation of motivation and preparation is a recipe for failure. What to do instead: Try not to focus on the calendar as you work toward a goal. Allow yourself to work organically and be prepared for ups and down in the process.
  • Focusing on the wrong outcomes: Most of the time, we set resolutions that involve long-term benefits. We know that if we work out regularly, eat right, and save money, we will be better off in the future. The challenge is that the benefits of these actions take time to accumulate, while the pain or discomfort is immediate. Two weeks into a new exercise routine, it is likely that you will still look mostly the same in the mirror and be wearing the same clothing sizes. So where is the payoff? What to do instead: Focus on the short-term benefits of your actions rather than the long-term outcomes. Even for actions that will benefit us in the long run, we need relatively immediate reinforcement to sustain the action. Continuing to use exercise as an example, instead of focusing on the long-term changes, try to find satisfaction in the feeling of accomplishment, the increased energy or improved mood, a reduction in stress, or enjoyment of the activity itself. One study found that when individuals focused on these short-term (proximal) benefits of exercise, they were significantly more likely to stick with their exercise routines.
  • Perfectionism: A common pitfall with New Year’s resolutions is setting goals that are unrealistic and unattainable, or being too unforgiving of slip ups. Resolutions offer the tempting trap of a “clean slate,” a chance to finally get it right and stop screwing up. Unfortunately humans are exceptionally prone to screwing up! Entering a resolution with the expectation of unwavering fidelity makes someone highly likely to give up on the goal at best, and to experience depression symptoms and self-criticism at worst. What to do instead: Try to develop flexibility in your pursuit of progress. A classic study found that people who successfully maintained their resolutions for two years had an average of 14 slip ups during that time period. In other words, it is essential to expect setbacks and to respond flexibly when they occur. Instead of trying to be perfect, aim for “good enough” (or, if that feels too unambitious, aim for “excellencism,” which emphasizes high standards while allowing for flexibility).

Although this list certainly does not cover all of the many ways resolutions can go wrong, hopefully it gives some encouragement to just keep working incrementally toward your goals and bouncing back after slip ups. Whatever the date on the calendar is when you find yourself reading this, it will feel good to take successful action toward your goals and priorities. Give yourself credit for any progress, and for being self-reflective enough to be working on goals at all. Because one success is more than none, and two is even more than one!

References

Evans, M. B., Shanahan, E., Leith, S., Litvak, N., & Wilson, A. E. (2019). Living for Today or tomorrow? self‐regulation amidst proximal or distal exercise outcomes. Applied Psychology: Health and Well-Being, 11(2), 304–327. https://doi.org/10.1111/aphw.12160

Moore, E., Holding, A. C., Moore, A., Levine, S. L., Powers, T. A., Zuroff, D. C., & Koestner, R. (2021). The role of goal-related autonomy: A self-determination theory analysis of perfectionism, poor goal progress, and depressive symptoms. Journal of Counseling Psychology, 68(1), 88–97. https://doi.org/10.1037/cou0000438

Dickson, J. M., Moberly, N. J., Preece, D., Dodd, A., & Huntley, C. D. (2021). Self-regulatory goal motivational processes in sustained New Year resolution pursuit and mental wellbeing. International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, 18(6), 3084. https://doi.org/10.3390/ijerph18063084

Norcross, J. C., & Vangarelli, D. J. (1988). The Resolution Solution: Longitudinal Examination of New Year’s change attempts. Journal of Substance Abuse, 1(2), 127–134. https://doi.org/10.1016/s0899-3289(88)80016-6

Prochaska, J. O., Norcross, J. C., & DiClemente, C. C. (2013). Applying the stages of change. Psychologists’ Desk Reference, 177–181. https://doi.org/10.1093/med:psych/9780199845491.003.0034

Better than perfect: How to be excellent | Psychology Today. (2022). https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/finding-new-home/202206/better-perfect-how-be-excellent

(2023). 19 surprising New Year’s resolution statistics (2024 updated). Insideout Mastery. https://insideoutmastery.com/new-years-resolution-statistics/

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