Why New Year’s Resolutions Usually Fail

By Triantafillia Memisaki

It’s that time of the year again when many of us decide to turn over a new leaf and start anew. The start of a brand new year motivates us to change everything we don’t like about ourselves. But often, in spite of our best intentions, our resolutions fail. The first three weeks of January go by smoothly. Yet, by February, most of us revert to our old lifestyle. In fact, statistics show that 88% of all resolutions are unsuccessful. Why is this?

Here are some suggested reasons:

1. Most people make too many resolutions at once. Resolving to lose weight together with trying to get your dream job, for example, can be too much for the brain to handle. Too many resolutions overpower the brain and it ends up getting tired. This reduces our thinking capacity, thus lowering our level of self-control. Extra things to keep track of take up more space in the brain, thus weakening willpower and making it much more difficult to resist “unwise” choices. The brain is like a muscle: if we ask it to hold too much, it will give out and drop everything on the floor.

2. Again, just like a muscle, exercising will-power uses up energy, so beware if you’re trying to lose weight as a resolution – starving yourself will reduce your will-power to stay on track and will end up having the opposite effect, which is why after a harsh diet we tend to gain even more weight than we lost. Starving the brain of calories—even for just a few hours—can impact behavior significantly, so skipping meals makes it harder to summon up the strength to, for example, quit smoking.

3. Many New Year’s resolutions are made on the spur of the moment. They are not given much thought all year long and most people decide to make resolutions as the year is almost over. Most of the time, people make resolutions just for the sake of being in the spirit of celebrating the new year, coming up with a last minute resolution on New Year’s Eve! This results in resolutions that are often unrealistic and impossible to achieve, because they haven’t been given the necessary consideration.

4. We tend to give too much importance to resolutions. We assume that our very fate depends on achieving these goals, that our entire life will change drastically and dramatically and – sure enough – when it doesn’t, we get discouraged and revert to our old patterns and routines.

5. We try to go against subconscious predispositions. Our innermost instinct has always been and always will be… survival. Our body is hard-wired to crave foods with the most calorie intake because that is what will sustain us longer. This was a good instinct to have when trying to survive in a harsh, barren world, but today we live in societies of abundance and have no trouble getting the nourishment our body needs, whenever it needs it. So this involuntary drive is something we need not succumb to right away.

6. Pleasures become habits. Our brain makes neural connections with past experiences that gave us good feelings, telling us that something that feels good should be repeated. Biologically-driven activities such as eating or having sex are especially hard to resist because not only are they addictively satisfying, but they are also very well programmed into our subconscious. Once a behavior activates our brain hormones of pleasure (oxytocin, vasopressin, endorphins), we want to continue what we’re doing, even though we know we shouldn’t.

7. Self-examination is too scary and unpleasant. We are afraid to face ourselves and admit that we need help in a certain area. Facing our shortcomings is not pleasant, so naturally, our inclination is to avoid it. And New Year’s resolutions are the ultimate act of owning up to our flaws and weaknesses.

8. We usually select our resolutions out of shame and social pressures. We humans are meaning-makers. If something is not important to you, then you tend not to do it. So, despite the fact that your friends or family said it would be a good idea, why vow to lose weight or stop drinking, if right now these issues are not the ones that bother you the most?

9. We try to change what we do without first changing how we think. Achieving a resolution involves changing behaviors we have become used to over a long period of time. But it is impossible to permanently change our behavior, without first changing our thinking (or “rewiring” our brain to accept and acclimatize to these new behaviors). 

So many reasons! Is there anything we can do to avoid falling into all these traps? Ways that can help us take our new year’s resolutions all the way to the finish-line? Of course!

Try these on for size:

1. Focus on one resolution rather than several and do not wait for New Year’s Eve to resolve to do something. It should be a year-long process to evaluate and re-evaluate who you are and if what you are doing remains in tune with who you want to be.

2. Break up a large goal into small steps so that you don’t take on too much or increase your anxiety. Take it one day at a time, or if you can, one hour at a time. Try to check your progress hourly and, eventually, you will be able to monitor yourself daily and then weekly. This approach also makes your anxiety remain small and therefore more manageable, in the event that things don’t go as planned.

3. Celebrate your success between milestones. Don’t wait for the goal to be 100% completed to pat yourself on the back.

4. Train your will-power. Remember that training yourself in self-discipline isn’t restricted to just one activity. Practicing mental discipline in one domain (for example, improving your posture) increases will-power in other areas of your life (not giving in to sweets) without you even being aware of it.

5. Keep yourself well-fed at all times. Don’t at any point starve yourself, even if it’s just for a few hours, because that will ruin all your progress with self-discipline. Your mind and body panic when they think you are going to starve and they don’t focus on the things you consider more important.

6. Don’t eliminate pleasurable activities from your life. The more you deprive yourself, the more likely you are to give up, so focus on limiting the activities you believe you have over-indulged in without deleting them from your life all at once. Of course, if the activities in question are particularly harmful to your health it is important to not try and tackle them alone, but instead to seek out the help of an expert, as well as the support of loved ones.

7. Make realistic, specific and well-thought-out goals. For example, “losing 7 pounds in 90 days” is a more realistic and specific goal, compared to just “losing weight.”

8. Become aware of who you really are. The only way to fix willpower flaws is to know about them. And the only way to succeed in becoming the person you want to be is to know what kind of person you are now and figure out what you need to change. Write down issues that bother you about yourself and the life you’re living. Then make a small list of ways you can get yourself one step closer to fixing these issues. It’s important to focus on issues that are important to YOU, not things that you have been TOLD you should change.

9. When you get tempted, distract yourself rather than trying to power through. Trust me on this one. It’s much preferred, even if it doesn’t make that much sense.

10. Don’t give up. To err is human. It doesn’t mean you are a failure or that you are unworthy of achieving your goal. When you make a mistake, remember not to punish yourself and learn to laugh at your mistakes every once in a while. Tell yourself that you deserve to be happy, healthy and in charge of your life and every mistake brings you one step closer to your goal by showing you what doesn’t work.

11. Add rewards of your favorite things so that your brain can make a connection between discipline, deprivation and pleasure. When you accomplish your hourly or daily goal, pick a “reward” for yourself from a previously written list of acceptable indulgences. Avoid using your unwanted behavior as a reward as that can cause you to revert to it in a time of difficulty. Eventually, the pleasure of the reward will become more important than the pleasure of the unwanted behavior.

12. Enlist a “buddy” to help you with your journey. It’s hard to take big steps alone. Others who are going through similar problems can provide tips and emotional support. If your partner or other family member does not want to make changes with you, joining a support group is even more important.

13. Focus on the present. Don’t look too far ahead, coz you build it up too much and lose motivation. What’s the one thing you can do today, right now, to help you reach your goal? It doesn’t have to be a big step. In fact, it is much more important to take one tiny step every day rather than big steps that are days apart.

14. Believe in your own ability to change. Consider that every day, people in the worst of circumstances — whose lives have been taken apart by factors like addiction or trauma – decide to change their lives and do it. If they can; you can. Whatever has happened in the past has no impact on what you can do with your future.

Hopefully, after reading this article you understand what has been going wrong and you can now try again to realize your dreams. This time with transformed motivation, awareness and – above all – resolve. They weren’t called “resolutions” for nothing, after all. 


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