Why Resolutions Fail And What To Do About It

As the year has come to an end many of us take stock of the last year and make new goals and “resolutions” for the year to come. By now, most of you have decided on this year’s resolutions, purchased gym memberships, decided to eat healthier, or reduce your debt. However, as many of us are all too familiar, by 30-60 days into the new year we have already broken our resolutions and sometimes are in a worse position than we started. 

Researchers have looked at success rates of peoples’ resolutions. As you might expect, in the first two weeks things are going along swimmingly: people are going to the gym regularly, eating well, not smoking, and spending within budget. According to the Journal of Clinical Psychology, approximately 50% of Americans sets New Year’s Resolutions and according to Forbes only 8% achieve success. 

I, myself, have fallen into this trap year after year. So, why do our resolutions fail? One reason is that in essence, a resolution is a form of culturally co-signed procrastination. This year, I’m getting married and like most people keep telling myself I’m going to start working out, but rather than just starting in small steps, I procrastinate for the new year with a grandiose plan to change.

This grandiose plan is another reason resolutions don’t work. We often pick goals that are unrealistic and set ourselves up for failure. This can create a “false hope syndrome,” where our goals are unrealistic or not aligned with our value system. It’s not realistic to think that just because it’s a new year I will suddenly enjoy working out or eating differently. We are really bad at setting achievable goals. Part of the problem is setting goals in absolutes. 

Another aspect may reside in our motivation for setting the resolution in the first place. Many of us believe that if I just lose the weight, or manage my budget I’ll be happy. When starting to meet our goals doesn’t create the result we were looking for we can get discouraged and revert back to old behaviors. 

So, what to do if you want to make a New Year’s Resolution and stick to it? Here are some tips that can help:

1.    Pick one resolution rather than several. 
2.    Set realistic goals that don’t expect perfection. Try to avoid absolute language in your goal such as "I’ll go the gym 3x/week". Then if you only go 2x/week you are still meeting your goal. Instead, try I’ll work out 1-3x/week. 
3.    Don’t give up if you miss something or revert back to old behavior. It’s about progress, not perfection. 
4.    Prepare for your change in behavior. You don’t have to start just because it’s January 1, 2017. 
5.    Reward yourself. Celebrate your small successes before meeting your final goal. 
6.    Have someone to hold you accountable to your goal. Maybe find someone with the same goal. 
7.    Focus on the present. Be mindful. Be aware of your physical, emotional, and mental state in this moment rather than focusing on the past or future. 

Many of us have experienced failure in the past with our New Year’s goals. Past failure can impact our motivation and performance. Failure impacts our perceptions, often causing us to over-estimate how difficult our goals are to achieve. Remember that there is a difference between not being perfect and failure. We all will have off weeks. Our new year’s resolutions are about lifestyle change and not perfect goals. Practice patience for long term success.


Lianna Tsangarides, LCSW has a private practice in Watertown CT. She specializes in working with teens and young adults. Lianna is also a workshop facilitator for DBT, Trauma informed care, and safety planning. 

Photo by Death To The Stock Photo