Why New Year’s resolutions fail (and how to save yours)
Sticking to your New Year’s resolutions requires focus, specificity, and a heavy dose of realism. Here’s how to create the habits you need to take your goals to the finish line this year.
8 min read
It’s the same story every January: millions of people distill their hopes and dreams for self-improvement into a shiny set of New Year’s resolutions. These goals range from getting fitter to becoming financially independent, and they often start out with the best of intentions. So, why is it that so many New Year’s resolutions fail every year?
It’s true. Past studies and surveys have concluded that, by February, as many as 80% of New Year’s resolutions will have been abandoned. This suggests that we’re approaching New Year resolutions all wrong. What if, instead of setting impossible-to-achieve goals and watching them fail like clockwork each year, we tried to better understand the psychology behind our goals?
In this article, we’ll talk through the common pitfalls many people experience in setting New Year’s resolutions. We’ll also discuss how you can avoid these pitfalls in setting your 2022 resolutions—and maybe even cultivate great habits that can last a lifetime.
Why most New Year’s resolutions fail
It’s easy to understand why New Year’s resolutions are so popular.
For one, they can give us a clear indicator of our success over time, with a clear starting point and a clear finish line. We can track our progress month-by-month, and our goals feel satisfyingly bound by the constraints of time (e.g. “By next year, I’ll have saved up an emergency fund!”).
Secondly, the beginning of a new year invites us to imagine our future, “improved” selves. This projection of who we’d like to be can be exciting and motivating—at least for a little while.
But what if this way of thinking sets us up to fail from the start? When you look back on failed resolutions from years past, you may notice that they suffer from common pitfalls such as:
- An all-or-nothing mentality
- An overly ambitious mindset
- A lack of specificity
- An emphasis on achieving goals vs. building habits
- A lack of relevance to our day-to-day reality
Let’s unpack these pitfalls one-by-one to better understand how they prevent us from achieving our goals.
An “all-or-nothing” mentality
New Year’s resolutions tend to encourage “all-or-nothing” thinking. Success is measured as either a complete win or a complete failure.
The problem with such “all-or-nothing” goals is that they don’t accommodate for even the slightest slip-ups. Once you fall off the bandwagon, it’s easy to get discouraged and give up entirely. This is a big reason why so many folks abandon their resolutions by February, according to the studies and surveys referenced above.
All-or-nothing thinking can be the result of self-sabotage. Without realizing it, many of us may believe that we’re undeserving of success. This means that we’re constantly battling with ourselves as we subconsciously engage in behaviors that actively make achieving our goals harder. Such behavior can look like:
- Waiting until the last minute to focus on a time-bound goal (i.e. procrastinating)
- Suffering from imposter syndrome and negative self-talk
- Difficulty creating and maintaining boundaries
An overly ambitious mindset
In the excitement of the New Year, it’s easy to set goals that are overly ambitious and don’t reflect your current reality. Deciding to become completely debt-free in one year may sound good, but what if that means you have nothing left over to budget for rent?
Creating resolutions that are too far removed from our current reality is a surefire setup for early failure. In order to stick, the shift from our current status quo to our idealized end point needs to be gradual, sustainable, and supported by a system of habitual behavior. Thinking smaller may not feel as inspiring in the short term, but it can certainly lead to more inspiring results.
A lack of specificity
Sometimes, New Year’s resolutions fail simply because they’re too broad. “Read more,” “eat healthy foods,” and “save more money” are examples of goals that lack any real specificity. This can be problematic for three reasons:
- They’re not actionable. It’s difficult to know what exactly you need to do to achieve your goal.
- They’re difficult to measure. It’s difficult to create mental milestones of success, as there’s no clearly defined end goal.
- They lack accountability. If a goal is too vague, it can seem more like an aspiration rather than a practical, real-world target. With no target to aim for, you aren’t really accountable for hitting anything.
An emphasis on achieving goals vs. building habits
New Year’s resolutions often fail because they encourage a goal-oriented, rather than a process-oriented, approach. Where the former adopts a narrow focus in pursuit of achieving a single goal, the latter looks at developing a healthy set of habits to arrive at the goal—and perhaps even surpass it.
A goal-oriented perspective can be motivating for some, but it can be too black-and-white for others. Even if you make great progress towards a goal, you’ve technically “failed” by not achieving 100% of it. Habits, on the other hand, focus more on the journey than the end result.
A lack of relevance to your lifestyle
Another reason so many New Year’s resolutions fail? They’re tied to what we think we want rather than who we really are.
Say, for example, you’ve resolved to get a promotion at work this year. This sounds great on paper, but not if you’re unhappy working in your current job or industry! It may seem like a promotion will make the job more bearable, but in reality, it may be better to aim for a new job in a field that’s more aligned with your interests.
Your lifestyle also has a big impact on the likelihood of sticking to a New Year’s resolution.
For example, imagine you set a goal of going to bed at 9 p.m. and rising at 6 a.m every day. However, your partner works night shifts every other week. This goal doesn’t take into account the fact that for half of the year, you’d barely see your partner. This could put a strain on your relationship and makes it unlikely that you’ll stick to your resolution long-term.
How to make New Year’s resolutions you can actually keep
Having explored why most New Year’s resolutions fail, it’s time to use this understanding to make some well-informed decisions for the year ahead.
If you want to make some 2022 goals that you’ll see through to the end of the year, you can use the following tips to help you plan.
1. Make your goals specific and measurable
Nothing is more demotivating than setting a lofty, ambitious goal…and having no way to measure your progress. Not only does this prevent you from celebrating any small wins on your path to success, but it also obscures the steps you need to achieve your goal.
To avoid this pitfall, make your New Year resolutions specific and measurable by doing the following:
- Give yourself a clear, well-defined goal. For example, “Compete in the local half-marathon this summer” vs. “Run more often.”
- Set clear benchmarks to measure your progress. For example, “Run a 5K twice a week by April” vs. “Run twice a week.”
2. Focus on improving what you’re already doing
Reflect on what went well the year before, and decide how you’d like to improve on it.
By crafting your resolutions around your past experiences, you’ll have a better sense of what your benchmarks and end goals should be. This helps you craft resolutions that are specific, measurable, and aligned with who you are. Speaking of which…
3. Make sure your goals are aligned with who you are
Ultimately, you’re only going to stick to your New Year’s resolutions if they’re aligned with who you are and what truly brings you joy. This may sound obvious, but it’s easy to choose resolutions because they sound like the “right” thing to do—without a thought of whether they’re right for you.
To avoid this trap, take some time to reflect deeply on the following questions:
- What really motivates you?
- What brings you the most joy in your life?
- Have you had trouble sticking to resolutions in the past? What made you give up on them?
- What was your greatest accomplishment last year, and why?
Once you’ve answered these questions, it’ll be easier to work out how you want to grow in the coming year. From here, you can craft specific, measurable resolutions that are aligned with your life priorities.
4. Celebrate the small victories
Celebrating small wins can give you the motivation you need to stick to your resolutions in the long term.
Our brains are hardwired to react positively to rewards. Each time we’re rewarded for performing a certain behavior, the brain engages the dopamine feedback loop. Once triggered, this loop releases some feel-good dopamine and makes us associate that behavior with a positive feeling.
Rewarding yourself for reaching small milestones doesn’t just make it more likely that you’ll achieve your goal. It also makes the process much more enjoyable! So, before you commit to your resolutions, take some time to decide exactly how you want to reward yourself for hitting benchmarks along the way.
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