Why New Year’s Resolutions Fail – And 7 Ways To Succeed

Keeping new year resolution. Smiling woman holding out paper that says "I can't", she is tearing off the end to leave "I can"

Why do we fail at new year resolutions and what’s the science behind it?

It’s an accepted joke that our new year vows for self improvement will have fallen by the wayside within days, or certainly by the end of January. Are we all just weak-willed snowflakes, or are there other, more subtle reasons? Psychologist and life coach Jivan Dempsey looks into what we can do to get out of this dispiriting pattern.

  • The terminology of resolutions – using the word “should” is associated with shame and guilt
  • Using the words “should do something” gives us an excuse to not do it
  • Resolutions are often health or finance based – and straight after the holidays is a bad time to tackle things like that.

Getting healthy in the new year or managing finances better tend to be the most popular resolutions for people. Yet surveys suggest only 8% of people who set resolutions tend to be successful. Why?

For some of us at this time of year, we can set huge expectations that we “must” or “should” make ourselves different.

We can get carried away, and understandably so, with the huge marketing effort that stokes up desires at this time of year – that becoming different is somehow expected.

Unrealistic goals

Shot of a group of people having a exercising class at the gym

Pic: iStockphoto

This isn’t a great reason to be setting resolutions. The reason we fail is that we don’t really believe we can achieve them – or don’t know the reasons we are attempting them in the first place.

For some of us, new year resolutions are just a bit of fun. We don’t take them too seriously because we “know” we will fail them anyway!

Whatever our reasons, we can easily get carried away in the moment and often set unrealistic goals. For example, setting a goal to go to the gym 5 times per week when you normally go only once or twice a month might be just too hard.

We can find ourselves justifying failure – “oh, it’s just a new year resolution” – but you may still be left with feelings of failure and thinking you’re not living up to your true potential. This impact how we feel about ourselves, our confidence levels and possibly self-worth. For some of us there maybe additional feelings of shame and guilt. To be successful we need realistic and achievable goals and psychologically we need to want to be successful.

How do I do New Year Resolutions successfully?

woman running, new year resolutions

pic iStockphoto

  • Set realistic goals. Often we set over-ambitious targets, unrealistic timescales with no clear start or end point. Successful change tends to happen in small chunks and over time.
  • Set yourself simple goals and then scale up your goals as you succeed. For example, if you are already a runner and regularly doing 5ks, deciding to do a 10k may be a stretch but you may perceive it as achievable. Then you can step up to a half marathon when you are already successfully running your 10ks. So change is incremental and you enjoy every small success as you journey possibly to a full marathon!
  • Believe in yourself and your goals and have a positive attitude. To achieve any goal you need to have faith that you can do this. However NYRs have a label attached to them of being something fun. So you go into them with a certain light-heartedness, and this provides a mental framework that allows you to give up easily, and an opportunity to justify failure.

Your time is now…

A multi-ethnic group of adult women are dancing in a fitness studio. They are wearing athletic clothes. Two women are laughing while dancing together.

Pic: iStockphoto

  • Don’t wait until the new year to start your change. This is especially true if it’s something important, like health and finance. Try not to label or associate them as New Year resolutions when there is more opportunity to fail.
  • Do it with someone else. Social support can be really helpful and the partnership of sharing every success is empowering.
  • Say it out loud. This can give you some ownership and personal responsibility. A spoken resolution becomes more “sticky” than having it in your head or writing it down. Saying it out loud can make your New Year resolutions harder to break.
  • Be kind to yourself and continually review your goals. Check in with how you can make them more achievable and successful, because as you build on your success, you become even more successful.