Why We Don’t Keep Our New Year’s Resolutions, And What To Do About It…

Why We Don’t Keep Our New Year’s Resolutions, And What To Do About It

The start of the New Year is often the perfect time to turn a new page in your life, which is why so many people make New Year’s resolutions. But why do so many people have a hard time keeping their resolutions?

Researchers have looked at success rates of peoples’ resolutions: The first two weeks usually go along beautifully, but by February people are backsliding. And by the following December most people are back where they started—often even further behind.

According to U.S. News & World Report, 80% of New Year’s resolutions fail by February. A 2007 study by Richard Wiseman from the University of Bristol involving 3,000 people showed that 88% of those who set New Year resolutions fail, despite the fact that 52% of the study’s participants were confident of success at the beginning. The University of Scranton’s research suggests that just 8% of people achieve their New Year’s goals which means 92% of resolutions fail.

SEE ALSO: Why You Should Stop Being So Happy All The Time

Why do people make resolutions?

A New Year’s resolution is a tradition, most common in the Western Hemisphere but also found in the Eastern Hemisphere, in which a person resolves to change an undesired trait or behavior, to accomplish a personal goal or otherwise improve their life.

About 4,000 years ago, the Babylonians made promises to their gods at the start of each year that they would return borrowed objects and pay their debts. The Romans began each year by making promises to the god Janus, for whom the month of January is named. In the Medieval era, the knights took the “peacock vow” at the end of the Christmas season each year to re-affirm their commitment to chivalry. At watch night services, many Christians prepare for the year ahead by praying and making these resolutions.

This tradition has many other religious parallels. During Judaism’s New Year, Rosh Hashanah, through the High Holidays and culminating in Yom Kippur (the Day of Atonement), one is to reflect upon one’s wrongdoings over the year and both seek and offer forgiveness. People can act similarly during the Christian liturgical season of Lent, although the motive behind this holiday is more of sacrifice than of responsibility. In fact, the Methodist practice of New Year’s resolutions came, in part, from the Lenten sacrifices. The concept, regardless of creed, is to reflect upon self-improvement annually.

What do people make resolutions about?

According to researcher John Norcross and his colleagues, who published their findings in the Journal of Clinical Psychology, approximately 50% of the population makes resolutions each year, primarily focused on weight loss, exercise, smoking, money management, and debt reduction. According to a recent ComRes poll, the most common New Year’s resolutions, in order of popularity, include:

  1. Exercise more. (38%)
  2. Lose weight. (33%)
  3. Eat more healthily. (32%)
  4. Take a more active approach to health. (15%)
  5. Learn new skill or hobby. (15%)
  6. Spend more time on personal well-being. (12%)
  7. Spend more time with family and friends. (12%)
  8. Drink less alcohol. (12%)
  9. Stop smoking. (9%)
  10. Others (1%)

Why do people fail at keeping their resolutions?

Timothy Pychyl a professor of psychology at Carleton University in Canada, says that resolutions are a form of “cultural procrastination,” an effort to reinvent oneself. People make resolutions as a way of motivating themselves, he says. Pychyl argues that people aren’t ready to change their habits, particularly bad habits, and that accounts for the high failure rate.

Psychology professor Peter Herman and his colleagues have identified what they call the “false hope syndrome,” which means their resolution is significantly unrealistic and out of alignment with their internal view of themselves. This principle reflects that of making positive affirmations. When you make positive affirmations about yourself that you don’t really believe, the positive affirmations not only don’t work, they can be damaging to your self-worth.

Making resolutions work involves changing behaviors—and in order to change a behavior, you have to change your thinking (or “rewire” your brain). Brain scientists such as Antonio Damasio, Joseph LeDoux, and psychotherapist Stephen Hayes have discovered, that habitual behavior is created by thinking patterns that create neural pathways and memories, which become the default basis for your behavior when you’re faced with a choice or decision. Trying to change that default thinking by “not trying to do it,” in effect just strengthens it. Change requires creating new neural pathways from new thinking.

Peter Bregman, writing in the Harvard Business Review Blog Network, argues: “When we set goals, we’re taught to make them specific and measurable and time-bound. But it turns out that those characteristics are precisely the reasons goals can backfire. A specific, measurable, time-bound goal drives behavior that’s narrowly focused and often leads to either cheating or myopia. Yes, we often reach the goal, but at what cost?”

Bregman advocates creating an area of focus rather than goals: “An area of focus that taps into your intrinsic motivation offers no stimulus or incentive to cheat or take unnecessary risks, leaves every positive possibility and opportunity open, and encourages collaboration while reducing corrosive competition. All this while moving forward on the things you…value most.”

Many people assume willpower is a character trait that you’re either born with or innately lack. But research suggests that it is more complex: It can be trained, but it also relies on energy and can become depleted if overused. “Just like a muscle, the amount of willpower you have at any given time rises and falls, and if you exercise it, it gets stronger,” says social psychologist Roy Baumeister, the Francis Eppes Professor at Florida State University.

He has spent years studying how people regulate emotions, resist temptation, break bad habits, and perform up to their potential—and why they often fail to do so. He was recently interviewed in the Atlantic about his new book, Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength, co-authored by John Tierney. He offered a clear picture of just why willpower is so tricky and misunderstood. Among his conclusions include: Each person’s supply of willpower is limited; and, as the ‘power’ aspect of willpower implies, it’s a form of energy. It gets depleted when you use it. So keeping New Year’s resolutions depends on the basic energy supply that the person needs for all other acts of self-control as well as other things, like decision-making.

Jonah Lehrer, writing in The Wall Street Journal, concludes that the latest neuroscience research suggests spreading resolutions out over time, is the best approach. He says this: “Willpower, like a bicep, can only exert itself so long before it gives out; it’s an extremely limited mental resource. Given its limitations, New Year’s resolutions are exactly the wrong way to change our behavior. It makes no sense to try to quit smoking and lose weight at the same time or to clean the apartment and give up wine in the same month. Instead, we should respect the feebleness of self-control, and spread our resolutions out over the entire year.”

A study, led by Kaitlin Woolley from Cornell University and Ayelet Fishbach from the University of Chicago, found that participants believe that both enjoyment and importance are significant factors in whether they stick to their resolutions. In fact, the researchers found. The enjoyment factor was the only thing that mattered. In other words, if the participants were getting immediate rewards from their new habits, they would be more likely to stick to them.

People often view resolutions as short-term goals to be achieved. So if they don’t quit that bad habit or lose that weight in a short period of time, they become demotivated and quit trying. According to research from University College London, it takes about 66 days to completely break an old habit, and it can take much longer to master something new. While you are anchoring this unique pattern of action into your life, you are also uploading a new program in your subconscious. To stay motivated, it is important to celebrate even the smallest positive changes.

What to do instead of setting goals for your resolutions

Forget about setting goals as a way to make resolutions work. In my article, “How Goal Setting Can Do More Harm Than Good,” I cite research that shows how goal setting can actually interfere with the attainment of what you want. L.A. King and C.M. Burton in an article entitled, The Hazards of Goal Pursuit, for the American Psychological Association, argue that goals should be used only in the narrowest of circumstances: “The optimally striving individual ought to endeavor to achieve and approach goals that only slightly implicate the self; that is only moderately important, fairly easy, and moderately abstract; that do not conflict with each other, and that concern the accomplishment of something other than financial gain.”

Adam Galinsky, a professor at Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management and one of the authors of a Harvard Business School report called Goals Gone Wild,” argues that “goal setting has been treated like an over-the-counter medication when it should really be treated with more care, as a prescription-strength medication.” He argues that goal setting can focus attention too much or on the wrong things and can lead people to participate in extreme behaviors to achieve the goals.

The authors of Goals Gone Wild have identified several specific negative side effects associated with goal setting: “An overly narrow focus that neglects non-goal areas; a rise in unethical behavior; distorted risk preferences; corrosion of organizational culture; and reduced intrinsic motivation.”

Maurice Schweitzer of the University of Pennsylvania and Lisa Ordonez of the University of Arizona, co-authors of Goals Gone Wild, have studied the psychology of goal attainment, and in several experiments have shown that when people self-report their achievement of goals, if they are not entirely successful, a significant percentage of them lie to make up the difference. One inherent problem with goal setting is related to how the brain works. Recent neuroscience research shows the brain works in a protective way, resistant to change. Therefore, any goals that require substantial behavioral change, or thinking-pattern change, will automatically be resisted. The brain is wired to seek rewards and avoid pain or discomfort, including fear. When fear of failure creeps into the mind of the goal setter, it becomes a “demotivator,” with a desire to return to known, comfortable behavior and thought patterns.

Zero in on habits

Focus instead on developing good habits and systems. Unlike goals, which can interfere with the attainment of regular long term behavior, the development of habits and systems to support them, can result in long term gains and behavior change. A habit is a fixed way of thinking, willing or feeling acquired through previous experience repeated over an extended time and usually occurs unconsciously. Habits can be compulsory–such as biting your fingernails–and they become bad habits.

Old habits are hard to break because the behavioral patterns we repeat become imprinted in our brains’ neural pathways. New habits, which can become good habits are sometimes hard to form because we haven’t repeated them enough to become more automatic and imprinted in our memories. Serious bad habits can become addictive and pose a mental health problem to the point where the individual has no control over the habitual behavior.

Habits become more ingrained with age because repetition reinforces the habits over time. Your brain is fundamentally lazy. When it can, the brain wires thoughts, emotions, or behaviors into circuits deep below the surface where they become automated. During the day, hundreds of habits—automated chunks of thought, emotion, or behavior—come online and offline, usually with little conscious awareness.

Some habits you might think of as good, such as washing your hands after you visit the bathroom, brushing your teeth, or meditating daily. Others you may consider bad, such as negative self-talk or snacking on junk food. But most of your habits are neutral. For example, by habit, you steer along the same roads to work, position yourself in the same spot in a gym class, fill your shopping cart with the same food at the same supermarket, and tune your ears into the same music.

James Clear, author of Atomic Habits: An Easy and Proven Way to Build Good Habits and Break Bad Ones, makes the following arguments about habits and systems as the key to making changes (and thereby keeping your resolutions):

  • If you focus on 1% improvement but do it consistently, the effect is cumulative and therefore powerful.
  • Understanding and practicing the habit loop is the key to success. The habit loop is the cue (trigger); craving or motivation; the response (the actual habit you perform); and the reward (which satisfies the craving).
  • Develop a Habits Scorecard which is a list of all your habits and indicating whether they are good or bad.
  • Control the environment you are in to control bad habits rather than relying on motivation.
  • Make the habit you want irresistible and attractive so that you get a dopamine reward.
  • Make the habit easy to do, and do not choose a high degree of difficulty.
  • When you start a new habit, follow the “two-minute rule” — you should be able to do it in 2 minutes.
  • Make the rewards for doing your new habit immediate, and not delayed.

Scott Adams, author of How to Fail at Almost Everything and Still Win Big, argues we need to develop systems in our lives to achieve goals. According to Adams, “A system is something you do on a regular basis that increases your odds of happiness in the long run”. Specifically, a system comprises a habit, or a string of habits, that effortlessly nudges you toward the desired outcome. Examples he cites:

  • If your goal is to gain 12 pounds of muscle, your system is to count calories and lifting heavyweights.
  • If your goal is to write a book, your system is to hit a daily or weekly quota (Google Tim Ferriss’, “two shitty pages a day”).
  • If your goal is to learn a musical instrument, your system is to practice the fundamentals every day.

Develop “Keystone Habits.” In Charles Duhigg’s book, The Power of Habit, he discusses the idea of keystone habits. We have habits everywhere in our lives, but certain routines — keystone habits — lead to a cascade of other actions because of them. In the book The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business, Charles Duhigg talks about Keystone Habits.

“Keystone Habits” are small steps or habits that have the power to start a chain reaction into other areas of our lives or businesses. Duhigg argues keystone habits “… can influence how people work, eat, live, spend and communicate” and that success “… doesn’t depend on getting every single thing right, but instead relies on identifying a few key priorities and fashioning them into powerful levers.” “The habits that matter most are the ones that, when they start to shift, dislodge and remake other patterns.”

Two keystone habits Duhigg refers to in his book are exercise and food journaling in relation to exercise: “When people start habitually exercising, even as infrequently as once a week, they start changing other, unrelated patterns in their lives, often unknowingly. Typically, people who exercise start eating better and becoming more productive at work. They smoke less and show more patience with colleagues and family. They use their credit cards less frequently and say they feel less stressed. It’s not completely clear why. But for many people exercise is a keystone habit that triggers widespread change.”

Duhigg refers to the study by Kaiser Permanente of nearly 1700 people. The study found that keeping a food diary can double a person’s weight loss. Keith Bachman, MD, a Weight Management Initiative member from Kaiser Permanente says – “Keeping a food diary doesn’t have to be a formal thing. Just the act of scribbling down what you eat on a post-it note, sending yourself e-mails tallying each meal, or sending yourself a text message will suffice. It’s the process of reflecting on what you eat that helps us become aware of our habits, and hopefully change our behavior.”

Make the habit easy

A recent study showed that people who traveled 8 km to the gym went once a month, whereas people who traveled 6 km went five or more times a month. “That 2 km makes the difference between having a good exercise habit and not. That is how our habitual mind works – it has to be easy,” says Wood.

Focus on one habit at a time

The general consensus among behavior change researchers is that you should focus on changing a very small number of habits at the same time. The highest number you’ll find is changing three habits at once and that suggestion comes from BJ Fogg at Stanford University. Let’s be clear: Dr. Fogg is talking about incredibly tiny habits. “Lose weight” is not specific. Losing 10 pounds in 90 days would be.

Don’t Think of it as a New Year’s Resolution, says Charles Duhigg, the author of The Power of Habit– think of it as a new year plan. “Much more important than setting a far off goal, like running a marathon, is to set an immediate plan that you can start right away.” Start with baby steps – running half a mile every Monday morning, for example – and you can work upwards. Whether you are making a new habit from scratch or changing an old habit, decide on the cue and the reward.

The cue could be a time, a place or a feeling, while the reward must be instantaneous, explains Wendy Wood, provost professor of psychology and business at the University of Southern California: “Don’t buy a new pair of shoes at the end of the week – that works for our conscious mind, which is not the neuromechanism behind habits. The reward needs to be immediate, something that makes the behavior fun.”

Take small steps

Many people quit because a goal is too big and the steps required are too much of a stretch and therefore requires too much effort and action all at once. You can get immediate rewards from very small steps.

Celebrate success between milestones

You don’t need to wait for the goal to finally be completed in order to celebrate small wins. Remember, to remain motivated, you need to get a shot of dopamine frequently and regularly as a way of sustaining repetition of the habit. Every time you practice the habit successfully or even partially successfully, you should design and implement some kind of reward for yourself.

Set a reminder for your new habit

Relying on your memory to practice the new habit is not sufficient.A reminder is a critical part of forming new habits. A good reminder does not rely on motivation and it doesn’t require you to remember to do your new habit. Setting up a visible reminder and linking your new habit with a current behavior made it much easier to change.

Some examples: Text message reminders encouraged saving, reduced smoking and increased voting. Another way is to have a checklist you refer to every morning.

Minimize decision-making

Decision fatigue can interfere with good habit formation. One study published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology found that participants demonstrated reduced self-control — less physical stamina, reduced persistence in the face of failure and more procrastination — after making several decisions about what types of goods to buy.

Streamline your routine and narrow your choices — in as many aspects of your life as possible — will save you the mental energy you’ll need for acquiring that good habit or eliminating that bad one.

Track your habits

Keep track of how much you’re actually whatever your habit may be. Either in a little notebook, calendar or in the notes of your phone, write down every time you complete or practice the new habit. Also make note of the times you skipped or missed the habit.

Change your environment

Putting yourself in an environment that distances you from your bad habit is critical. If you’re a stress-eater, keep junk food out of your cabinets. If you’re trying to quit smoking cigarettes, walk away when a friend lights one up. It’s straightforward — our environments affect our cravings, but we have control of the environments we establish for ourselves or those we choose to put ourselves in says Art Markman, author of Smart Change: Five Tools to Create Sustainable Habits in Yourself and Others.

Have an “accountability buddy” to whom you have to report your progress

Track your efforts and make public declarations about your new habit. According to the lessons learned from the Hawthorne effect, you’re more likely to follow through with a commitment when you’re being observed by others. To stick with this new routine, you should let others know about your efforts and goals. Post updates on social media accounts, use apps like Chains and Coach.me to track your progress, work with an accountability partner, or post regular updates to an online community related to the habit.

Do whatever it takes to get reinforcement from others in support of your new routine. Never underestimate the power of social approval. Simply knowing you will be held accountable for your habit keeps you focused and consistent. “People who monitor behavior tend to do a better job, even if they’re not actively trying to change,” says Gretchen Rubin, the author of Better than Before.

Be mindfully present

Become physically, emotionally, and mentally aware of your inner state as each external event happens, moment-by-moment, rather than living in the past or future. Stay in the present moment when you are engaged in your habit and don’t think about past performance, or what will come in the future.

Accept that you won’t be perfect and show self-compassion

In order to adopt better habits, you don’t have to make zero mistakes. In fact, you will do better if you expect them as part of the process. Perfectionism can be serious impediment to achieving your goals and developing good habits, and can contribute to declining or poor performance and demotivation. Dr Jessamy Hibberd, a clinical psychologist, says “the biggest obstacle to new habits is self-criticism. Study after study shows that self-criticism is correlated with less motivation and worse self-control, in contrast with being kind or supportive to yourself, as you would to a friend – especially when confronted with failure.”

Use implementation intentions to solidify your plan

Chris Armitage, professor of health psychology at the University of Manchester, explains: “This is a technique that is specifically structured to take advantage of the ways in which habits are formed to change behavior. The structure is ‘if-then’.” Say your resolution is to run half a mile on Monday mornings. Your implementation intention could be: “If it’s Sunday night, then I will set my alarm 30 minutes earlier, so that I have time to run.” Identify the situations related to your cue to find your “ifs” and link them with appropriate responses to make your “thens”. In a recent study by Armitage, 15% of smokers who formed implementations quit, compared with 2% of those who did not.

Do it in the morning

One study found that simple habits form more quickly in the morning than in the evening. Researchers believe this may be to do with levels of the stress hormone cortisol, which tend to be highest when we wake up. The author of the study, Marion Fournier, a lecturer at the Université Nice Sophia Antipolis, explains: “Cortisol elevation changes the mechanisms in our brain – it blocks the prefrontal cortex, meaning behavior becomes habitual.”

So drop your resolutions, and replace them with a good habit system, one that has a greater chance of success.

Read my latest book: Eye of the Storm: How Mindful Leaders Can Transform Chaotic Workplaces, available in paperback and Kindle on Amazon and Barnes & Noble in the U.S., Canada, Europe and Australia and Asia.


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Ray Williams


Ray Williams an Author and Executive Coach. He has written four books and published more than 300 articles on leadership…

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