Why We Fail at Keeping New Year’s Resolutions, Plus Pro Tips on Keeping Them This Time Around

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Why We Fail at Keeping New Year's Resolutions
A journal open to a page where someone has written their New Year's resolutions

If you’ve ever set a New Year’s resolution with ambitious gusto — and really meantit this time — only to lose sight of the goal in a few weeks, you’re definitely not alone. In fact, you’re part of a crowd of determined goal-setters who flounder faster than they can say, “How long is a 5K, again?” 

And not to rub salt in the wound, but research conducted by Strava, an app where you can upload and share your workouts with friends, even pinpointed the approximate timeframe in which people tend to call it quits. It’s about two weeks into January and aptly dubbed “quitters day.” 

“At least 40% of people who make resolutions don’t keep them,” says psychologist Dr. Gail Saltz, host of the How Can I Help? podcast. “The reasons they aren’t successful are multifactorial, but the bottom line is it is very hard to change behavior. It takes a lot of work, persistence, and willpower to follow through.” 

Why Is It So Hard to Keep New Year’s Resolutions?

The phenomenon of losing sight of a goal so shortly after setting it has intrigued scientists and psychologists for decades. In fact, there’s an entire field dedicated to the study of human motivation and self-determination theory.

“[The research] provides insight into what is helpful in terms of setting goals, forming habits, and sticking to those habits,” notes Rae Thomas, licensed counselor and chief clinical innovation officer at The Recovery Box. This research has pinpointed a few key pillars of motivation that encourage habits to stick around: 

  • Intrinsic motivation: The habit should be enjoyable in and of itself versus wanting satisfaction solely from the results.  To that end, it’s important to have some autonomy in the goal setting, meaning you choose and set the goal versus being coerced into it.

  • Self-compassion: Being gentle on ourselves, especially in the face of inevitable waning, “is far more effective in reigniting motivation than self-deprecating comments or thoughts,” notes Thomas. 

  • Personal value: The habit is connected to a personal belief or set of values. In other words, being really tapped into your “why” versus setting an arbitrary goal.

Factors that can contribute to a lack of motivation include not meeting our basic needs first (like eating enough or catching enough zzz’s), forgetting to acknowledge small wins, and relying entirely on personal willpower — which is finite — without having other tools and support in place.

How to Keep New Year’s Resolutions (For Real This Time)

To help you set thoughtful goals and stick to them well beyond January, we’re diving into 10 of the most common New Year’s resolutions. For each, we’ve identify some common reasons they fail, then offer helpful tips on how to keep the New Year’s resolutions you focus on this year. 

Lose Weight

Ah, the ever-so-present goal of losing weight. Common reasons why this one fails include fixating on the outcome — particularly one that’s unachievable or hard to quantify. Other common pitfalls: sacrificing our basic needs, like over-exhausting ourselves or not eating enough.  

“When individuals come to me saying their goal is to lose weight, I think it’s helpful to focus on the why, because that gets at your personal values,” says Thomas. Ask yourself what you’d be able to do if you lost weight, versus focusing on weight loss itself. It might mean being able to play with your kids more, going on hikes with your friends, or building endurance.

Prioritize Mental Health 

Mental health is top of mind as we navigate the slippery waters of a post-pandemic life, an uncertain economy, and a difficult struggle to balance life and work. Having the awareness to prioritize your mental health is step number one in making progress and feeling better. 

Dr. Bethany Cook, a licensed clinical psychologist and author, says that one of the biggest hurdles here is simply access to therapy and resources. If the cost of mental health care is prohibitive, she recommends connecting with people you trust. “Having the support will also help you stay committed to the process,” she says. “Also identify resources that may help, [such as] an online class offering advice for managing stress or finding a YouTube channel that has verified professionals offering coping strategies for anxiety.”  

Eat Healthier  

The main culprit here is focusing on rigid restriction. Allow some flexibility in your diet and avoid beating yourself up for wanting (or having!) a piece of cake. Instead of the word “restriction,” focus more on the words “balance” and “body fuel.” This creates a mindset of abundance and health versus frustrating constraints. Make it fun by trying new recipes, eating new-to-you fruits and veggies, and indulging on special occasions. 

Quit Smoking   

Trying to quit smoking is arguably one of the most challenging, given the addictive nature of nicotine. For this New Year’s resolution, it’s important to outline your “why” in clear terms and remind yourself of it often. 

Research says that quitting “cold turkey” offers higher success rates. Practice self-compassion, as you could slip back into a smoking habit. If that happens, remind yourself of your why and start over again. Do this as many times as it takes. 

Exercise More   

It’s easy to frame exercise as punishment or something you “have” to do. By flipping the script and channeling intrinsic motivation, you’ll be more apt to achieve your goals, says Thomas. 

Another common issue: not setting quantifiable goals. If the resolution is nebulous, you won’t know when you’ve achieved it and when you haven’t. Create a specific, achievable goal that you’re excited about — like trying six new classes in the first six months of the year, or walking a certain number of miles within a month — and work toward it. 

Save More Money   

Not identifying why you want to save money, or what you want to save it for will be your demise with this goal, Thomas says. It’s also difficult to achieve this goal if you can’t figure out where your pain points are — AKA what’s causing you to spend more money?

Figure out what’s motivating you to save and how you can save more effectively, then work toward that goal. Maybe it’s saving for a vacation, creating an emergency fund for peace of mind, or building up a retirement fund. 

Make this as easy on yourself as possible by setting highly specific goals and automating savings wherever you can. The less mental labor it requires, the more likely you’ll achieve this New Year’s resolution. Remember, willpower is finite so use whatever resources you have available to you.  

Spend More Time With Family & Friends 

The world never stops rotating and the throes of life tend to distract us from what is really, truly important: our connection to others. Dr. Cook says that to find success here, you must get specific. Remind yourself of why you want to spend more time with family and friends, who you want to see more, and what you want to do together. She adds, “Share your intent with this person and see if they are at a place in their life to also make time for you and then get some dates in the calendar.” 

Get Organized 

The task of “getting organized” can make you feel exhausted before you even begin. To prevent feeling overwhelmed, Dr. Saltz says to narrow your focus to a small project versus feeling like you have to take on the whole house.

If you fail to take things in bite-sized pieces — say a junk drawer one evening or a closet on the weekend — you’ll quickly feel overwhelmed and want to quit. Know that getting organized will take time, sometimes months, so go at a pace that feels achievable and figure out ways to find joy in the process.  

Travel More 

Seeing more of the world is one of the best ways to broaden your horizons, and it can also give you time to slow down and refuel. That said, many variables stand in the way of getting from home to wherever it is you want to explore. These hurdles include cost, time, and planning. 

Determine where you want to go, pencil in the date, and request time off. (Make sure to research the destination in advance to get a feel for cost and travel time.) Booking something in advance gives you more financial flexibility since you can pay for things, such as lodging and excursions, over the course of months versus up front.  

Try a New Hobby    

Fear of failure and pushing through the uncomfortable feeling of learning something new are big hurdles for achieving this New Year’s resolution. “Recognize and accept that learning something new means you will be growing,” says Dr. Cook. “To grow means to change from one thing to another and sometimes, that's uncomfortable. It doesn’t mean it’s a sign you should quit.” 

She suggests giving yourself permission to “trial” anything new for a specific amount of time and not quitting until that time comes. This reduces the pressure of finding the “perfect thing” when selecting a new hobby and it gives you an out if you don’t like it to try something else. 

Along with some of the common pitfalls for all the above goals, keep the key pillars of motivation in mind as you set and work toward all your New Year’s resolutions.