Why Your New Year's Resolutions Fail (and How You Can Change the Pattern)

There are 3 kinds of New Year’s resolutions.  Will yours make it to February?  Savvy Psychologist Dr. Ellen Hendriksen reveals what type of resolution survives, what fails, and why.

Ellen Hendriksen, PhD,
January 30, 2014
Episode #004

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Try these tips and soon, you’ll be sticking to your resolution like gum in a preschooler’s hair!

1.     Be specific, very specific.  Transform Holistic Resolutions into Result Resolutions.  A 2013 study from the University of Liverpool found that people with clinical depression were more likely to set vague, undefined goals.  Having a vague goal made it more difficult to achieve the goal, therefore creating a downward spiral of perceived failure which could reinforce the depression.  By contrast, the researchers noted, setting a specific goal could help break the cycle.

Of course, you don’t have to be depressed to reap the rewards of a specific resolution.   In a real-life example, a lovely yet lonely patient of mine we’ll call Elizabeth came in with a resolution of “Be more social.”  I applauded her idea, and then we worked on transforming her Holistic Resolution into a Result Resolution so she could measure her progress and know if she had achieved her goal.  She turned “Be more social” into goals to join the local tennis club, volunteer as a stagehand for a community theater, and organize a reunion of her three best friends from college.  Other examples might include transforming “Save money” into “Direct deposit $100 per paycheck into a retirement fund” or “Be a better person” into “Volunteer at the animal shelter every other week.”

2.     The Fresh Start Effect.  Another way of making it easy to get back on the wagon is to consider not only January 1 as the starting line, but other natural beginnings throughout the year.  A brand new study out of Wharton and Harvard Business School suggests that people tend to start (and re-start) goals in relation to meaningful points in time, like New Year’s Day, but also birthdays, holidays, a new semester, and even the beginning of the week.  The researchers demonstrated that both Google searches for the term “diet” and actual in-person gym visits all peak at the beginning of the week, month, year, and holidays, then taper off.  The researchers named this phenomenon the Fresh Start Effect.  So starting your diet on Monday may be cliché, but restarting it every Monday is smart.  Give yourself permission to have many starting points this year and your resolution will stand the test of time.

3.     Be modest.  Small goals are more likely to be achieved, so go easy on yourself.  Small changes, done consistently, add up over time.  For example, walking for 10 minutes a day seems like nothing, but it adds up to 5 hours of walking over the course of a month.  If you have a really big goal, like losing 50 pounds, break it up into mini-goals like losing 5 pounds a month.   Looking at it in increments makes it more attainable and less overwhelming.  (Plus, do the math, and by the end of the year you may have lost 60.)

4.     Allow waves.  Especially for a Habit Resolution, beware the mistake of expecting immediate perfection.  The aspiring vegetarian could look at her first bacon-induced slip as either a temporary setback or a total failure.  Gently framing it as a minor setback makes it easier to get back on the wagon. 

5.     Tweak it until you’re excited.  Particularly for a Cessation or Habit Resolution, if it feels like drudgery, you’re probably not going to do it.  There are enough aversive things we make ourselves do, whether it’s floss, eat salads, or scoop the kitty litter.  The last thing we need is another task to slog through.  But if we look forward to tinkering with our new budget app, going to Zumba with two close friends, or heading to the farmer’s market for the week’s fresh veggies, a virtuous task becomes a pleasure, and, all of a sudden, much more likely.

6.    For a Cessation Resolution, reward yourself.  Again, it’s hard to get psyched about resisting temptation.  To add some incentive, consider rewarding yourself.  You could do this in terms of time—giving yourself a small reward every day, or a bigger reward each week, or even a tiny reward every few hours, if you’re tackling something really hard like quitting smoking.  Alternatively, if you’re trying to stop purchasing something, like cigarettes or twice-daily Starbucks, set aside the money you’d spend and, when it’s accumulated, spend it on a weekend getaway, a night on the town, or for the truly virtuous, an investment.

To sum up, mix specificity, a pleasant, sustainable system, and a little forgiveness, and you’ll have a bulletproof plan to stick to your resolution.  It may be so easy, you won’t even wait until 2015 to tackle your next resolution.


Dickson, J.M. & Moberly, N.J. (2013).  Reduced specificity of personal goals and explanations for goal attainment in major depression.  PlosONE, 8, 1-6.

Dai, H., Milkman, K.L. & Riis, J. The Fresh Start Effect: Temporal Landmarks Motivate Aspirational Behavior (December 24, 2013). The Wharton School Research Paper No. 51. Available at SSRN: http://ssrn.com/abstract=2204126 or http://dx.doi.org/10.2139/ssrn.2204126>

New Year's resolution and resolution fail images courtesy of Shutterstock.


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