Why Most New Year’s Resolutions Fail (and How to Make Yours Stick)
The transition from one calendar year to the next is a wonderful opportunity to reevaluate your wellness goals. If you’re like most people who set goals for the new year, however, the harsh reality is that statistically speaking, your New Year’s Resolutions are likely to fail .
If you're determined to set yourself up for success in 2023, and to be among the minority of people who succeed in keeping their resolutions, it's critical to understand the reasons why most resolutions fail. Only then will you be able to recognize and overcome the common pitfalls that plague so many well-intentioned January change-makers.
Why do Most Resolutions Fail?
“The Man who chases two rabbits, catches neither”
A major reason why New Year’s Resolutions fail is that people bite off more than they can chew, either setting goals that are too big, or setting too many goals at once.
It’s not uncommon for someone struck with a lightning bolt of motivation on January 1st to resolve to meditate for 20 minutes every morning, exercise for an hour every day, and overhaul their diet all in the span of a week.
They might begin the year firing on all cylinders, feeling motivated and energized. But a few weeks in, they miss a workout, or skip a few days of meditation, and feel like a failure.
As motivation inevitably fades and life gets in the way – in the form of work stress, family demands, or whatever else – they reflexively revert back to their old, familiar habits. As January ends and February begins, they give up altogether.
Imagine a different person who strategically resolves to start small. They meditate for a meagre two minutes every morning, and go to the gym only once per week. On the surface, this doesn’t sound like much. Is it even enough to make a difference?
Over the course of a few weeks, however, these behaviors become automatic, and they’re able to stick with them as life gets hard. They become increasingly motivated by the feeling of achieving their goals (however small). Come February, this person increases their meditation time to 5 minutes per day, and starts going to the gym twice per week. Momentum builds. By the summer, they’re meditating 10 minutes per day, going to the gym 3 days per week, and seeing huge changes in their mental and physical health. By the fall, they’re a whole new person.
Resolutions are a marathon, not a sprint. When you’re dreaming up your goals, remember the wise words of the writer James Clear: “A habit is a lifestyle to be lived, not a finish line to be crossed .” The modest habit you humbly build on over time is always superior to the moonshot that you begin enthusiastically but give up on within a few weeks.
Focusing on Outcomes, rather than the Process
Another reason many resolutions fail concerns a subtle shift in how they are framed. Most people focus on the outcomes they want to achieve to the exclusion of the specific actions required to achieve them.
Of course, you need an aspirational endpoint in order to reverse-engineer your plan. Once the goal is specified, however, you must break your resolution down into manageable, measurable tasks that you can track over time.
“Get healthier” or “lose weight” are vague aspirations that are unlikely to lead to success.
Conversely, “Eat two servings of vegetables with dinner every night” or “walk 7500 steps per day” are specific behaviors with clear criteria for success that will drastically increase your chances of actually getting healthier and losing weight.
No one has ever gotten rich by setting the intention to “have more money.”
Plenty of people have improved their finances by committing to “automate bill payments using online banking” and “track spending using a budget spreadsheet.”
A bulletproof resolution starts with shooting for a dream outcome, but it only succeeds through getting granular about the process.
Lack of Accountability
It’s hard to make big changes alone. Without a coach, friend, or social network to keep us accountable for our behavior, it can be all too easy to let ourselves off the hook when we just don't feel like keeping up with our resolutions.
It’s easy to do the hard thing when you’re feeling motivated. Anyone can do that. The question is how you get through the days when you’re feeling tired, lazy, and distinctly not motivated. Those are the days that separate the minority who become success stories from the majority who fail.
Different people lean on different things in those difficult moments, but having a support system, accountability partner, or even going so far as hiring a coach is among the most powerful ways to maximize your likelihood of long-term commitment. I guarantee you that if you’ve paid for a personal training session, or have a friend meeting you at the gym, your desire to not waste your money or disappoint your friend will supersede your lack of motivation to get off the couch.
While setting realistic, process-based goals is important, finding an external source of accountability is a foolproof way to increase your chances of sticking with even the toughest of resolutions.
The Bottom Line
Setting New Year’s Resolutions can be a powerful way to make positive changes in your life. By formulating realistic goals, focusing on the process rather than the prize, and leveraging the power of accountability, you can make sure that 2023 is your best year yet.
 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.