New Year's Resolutions Typically Don't Work—Here's What to Do Instead
The New Year is upon us, and so is the season of New Year's resolutions. Everywhere, individuals will resolve to change something in their life this coming year. Some are health-driven and appearance-based, like changing your eating habits or starting a fitness program, while others are centered around connection with others. Most of these plans, however, will fail. In fact, according to research done by Dr. John Norcross, chair of psychology at University of Scranton, under half of all resolvers will be successful in upholding their resolution up to six months after swearing to make a change. If you're wondering why some New Year's resolutions don't work (or wondering why some do), we have the answers.
When resolutions end up sticking (Norcross' research says up to 44% of them do), it's not by chance. A successful New Year's resolution involves multiple components: a realistic goal, a clear game plan, measurable milestones, a contingency plan for setbacks, and a positive mindset. Without those key parts, it's difficult to uphold your resolution, no matter how strongly you may feel about it now.
The New Year presents an opportunity to reflect on your life and make positive changes that you truly believe will improve your quality of life. However, there's no requirement that it starts on January 1. "We can do this on January 1st or March 7th with the same success," says Sarah Stukas, master of science, licensed clinical professional counselor, and therapist at Life Insight. "We can also abandon goals that don't feel in alignment with us along the way. The key is to be intentional and take action to create a life that feels good to you."
What is a New Year's resolution?
A New Year's resolution is a popular tradition that involves individuals resolving to make a change in their lives in order to improve the overall quality. Most commonly, these pledges revolve around health, money and relationships. A Harris Interactive Poll conducted among over 3,000 American adults showed that 21% resolved to lose weight, 14% pledged to improve their finances and five percent focused on improving a relationship. New Year's resolutions can be any kind of change that will have a positive impact. For example, it could be "I want to eat more vegetables" to "I want to volunteer once a week."
According to Norcross, the tradition has historical roots. Romans, Babylonians and Medieval knights all made resolutions at the beginning of the New Year. It remains a popular tradition, as he estimates 40 percent of American adults (about 140 million) will make New Year's resolutions. "The New Year is a natural time of change—literally and psychologically, so it makes sense we'd want to use it as an opportunity to make positive change and continue our own self evolution," explains Landis Bejar, licensed mental health counselor and founder of wedding planning therapy practice AisleTalk.
Why New Year's Resolutions Don't Work
In theory, New Year's resolutions sound wonderful: On January 1st, you pledge to make a change. Then, your life changes for the better. But it's not that simple. Most will give up on their resolutions by the time they make it halfway through the year. Goals you've set for yourself are difficult to maintain without proper preparation. See the most common reasons why New Year's resolutions often don't work.
Your Motivation is External
One of the biggest reasons these pledges fail is because they're externally motivated. "External motivation is defined by how other people react to you," says Dr. Pauline Wallin, a licensed psychologist based in Pennsylvania. For example, saying you want to work out four times a week to look great at your wedding is external motivation. It's completely valid to feel those pressures, but Wallin says that reason alone isn't enough to motivate you through the tougher setbacks you'll face as you progress through the year. You need internal motivation as well. "You're going to feel more confident and stronger through the process if you're doing it for yourself," she explains. "You're not going to hate it so much because you know you're training for better habits in yourself."
Your Resolution is Unrealistic
In the excitement of the New Year, it can be tempting to make a lofty goal. While it's great to aim high, be realistic about what you can actually achieve. "I love big, bold goals and encourage my clients to set them, but the key is balancing intentionality with realism," Stukas says. "Many people attack too many things at one time or set goals that aren't realistic given their current lifestyle or situation."
For example, say your resolution is to plan one date night a week, but you're both working overtime on work projects. That's simply not reasonable, and failing to follow through on the resolution might leave you both feeling disappointed. Assess your lifestyle honestly and pick a goal that's the appropriate difficulty level (one date night per month perhaps).
"One strategy is to pick an area of your life that if you were to change would make other areas better, and place all your focus there," Stukas says. If you want to travel, have an amazing wedding and donate to charity more often, but your personal finances make that difficult, start there (maybe learn about money management and set up automatic savings for each paycheck).
You Haven't Made a Game Plan
It's not enough to simply say what you want—you have to create a roadmap that details how you will get there. "It's recommended to make SMART (specific, measurable, attainable, realistic, time-based) goals," says Jordan Madison, licensed clinical marriage and family therapist at Therapy Is My J.A.M. "When goals are general, it can be hard to focus on exactly what that goal means to you and what you really want to achieve." Creating a specific goal with a plan will feel much more attainable, which can encourage motivation throughout the process.
It all goes back to science, says Dr. Allycin Powell-Hicks, a mental health and relationship expert with a Ph.D. in clinical psychology. "Our frontal lobe, the region of our brain right behind our forehead, is responsible for executive function and inhibition," she explains. This region is involved in problem solving but works best when presented with positively-worded, specific goals. "When we do this, our brain is able to systematically process how to get us what we want."
Additionally, it's helpful to create milestones for yourself to track progress and keep up motivation. This is especially important for individuals who have made big, bold resolutions, as they'll serve as check-in points and provide extra motivation.
You Don't Have a Plan for When Setbacks Arise
Initially, chasing a goal may seem easy because you're so excited. But after that feeling passes, your normal tendencies will return. You're essentially breaking a habit or forming a new one when working towards a resolution, which is difficult.
Try a small experiment (one of Wallins' favorites). Clasp your hands together, interlacing your fingers. Which thumb is on top? Now, try it again—but this time with the opposite thumb. How does it feel? Weird? That's because you're in a habit with which thumb goes on top, and breaking a habit is uncomfortable.
In this discomfort, you become vulnerable. The willpower to continue with your resolution may quickly diminish, which is why it's so important to create a contingency plan. Consider what your triggers are and be aware of them. List three different action items you can execute in these situations. "If you're prepared for the discomfort, it's fine," Wallin says. "You keep going because you know you're going to get used to it."
How you talk to yourself when setbacks arise matters too. In fact, Wallin says it's key in maintaining habit change. One strategy to overcome these negative thoughts is to remind yourself why you started in the first place. Another approach is what's known as the small-area hypothesis. For individuals in pursuit of a goal, it's more motivating to focus on whichever is smaller in size: the area of their completed actions of the area of the remaining focus. Take walking every day for a month. In the beginning, it's best to focus on the walks you've already completed. Once you hit the halfway mark, focus on what's left—not what you've already done.
Having a partner around means you have someone to help with motivation. Inspire each other with encouraging words, like "Only four more walks left this month—we can do this!" Together, you can help each other through setbacks that may arise.
Why Couples Should Create New Year's Goals Together
Despite the reasons listed above, New Year's resolutions can work. You simply need to be prepared for the discomfort of change. Framing it as a goal can be helpful as well, Bejar says. "Goals, unlike resolutions, are small, bite-sized, and build on top of each other at a measured and realistic pace." Whether you want to categorize it as a New Year's resolution or simply a goal, it's a great idea for couples to set positive intentions for the future. The title doesn't matter so much as the approach to the target.
Powell-Hickman explains why forming co-created resolutions is a productive activity for couples. "It can help them realign on shared goals or identify things they want to work on over a specific period of time," she says. Sitting down to discuss this is an excellent exercise in communication and can teach you more about how your partner views and processes the world.
It's important to make individual goals too. "In a healthy relationship, there should be a balance between autonomy and togetherness," Madison says. Still, there are many things you'll likely want to do together (such as buying a home or starting a family). "It would be helpful to discuss these and make sure you and your partner have similar expectations."
If you're stuck on where to begin, Stukas recommends looking into the future. "I like to have [couples] envision a future date where they sit down together as their best selves and feel connected in the relationship," she says. Then, she asks them what's different. "It may be a joint effort in making meals together, spending quality time together once a week or consistently contributing to a dream trip savings account."
It's worth noting that involving two people in a resolution can make things complicated. If you have an all-or-nothing mindset, things can go downhill quickly. "If one partner sticks to the goal longer than the other, there can be stress or shame associated with the partner who's unable to complete it or has a 'slip-up' early on," Bejar says.
Or, if the goal is couple-oriented (say: one date night a week), but it's too unrealistic for the couple's schedule, the strain is then put on the couple. "This makes it feel like the couple has failed when really it was just a resolution that didn't make sense for your relationship." Bejar explains. In order to find a goal that works for both of you, reflect before you set your goals. Honestly assess your relationship so you choose something that's feasible for both of you.
New Year's Resolutions to Inspire Couples
Ready to create your own New Year's resolutions? Here are a few helpful starting points to get you and your partner going.
Reflect on the Positives
Bejar encourages couples to look back before they begin setting goals for the future. "Start to take inventory of what you think you did well in the previous year, both as individuals and as a couple." For the individual, this might be anything from using a meditation app once a month to starting therapy. For the couple, it might be learning how to share a workspace amid COVID or opening a joint bank account.
"If you're starting with reflection and then setting goals, the goals automatically become more realistic than resolutions because you're setting the next small achievement you would like to attain based on what you've been able to accomplish," Bejar adds.
Focus on Connection
The coronavirus pandemic has tested couples greatly. Many are sharing workspaces, spending most of their time together and dealing with frustrations around postponed weddings. A productive resolution or goal for couples might be to nurture their connection. Madison says this can be done in a variety of ways: Pledge to set aside date nights to pour into each other, find ways to practice your partner's love language daily, make sure you take time for yourselves outside the relationship or start couples therapy. Any of these goals are attainable if you strategically plan for them. For example, perhaps you start with one session of couple's therapy every week. Or, maybe you plan one special date night a month.
Plan for the Future
If you and your partner want to plan for the years ahead, Madison recommends discussing finances as a way to kick off this conversation. Create financial goals as a couple, such as saving a certain amount of money up or buying a home. You can discuss other topics too. Consider setting goals such as preparing healthier meals at home together or working out together three times a week.
Set Abundance-Oriented Resolutions
How you frame your resolution matters. "What can you add into your routine rather than take away from yourself?" says Tori Simeone, trainer at Tone It Up. "Instead of saying 'no carbs,' how about saying 'more veggies?'" This goes for every aspect of your life. Rather than positioning your goals as a sacrifice, consider reframing it through a lens of abundance. For example, swap "no phones past 10 p.m." for "talking to each other for 30 minutes before bed."
Let Go of Perfection
The New Year comes with intensified pressures to "do it all," which can take a toll on a relationship. Before setting out to achieve the "perfect relationship" via New Year's resolutions, remember there's no such thing as perfect. In fact, the pursuit of perfection will likely do more harm than good. "Relationships, like people and like goals, are not perfect," Bejar says. "This focus on perfection is what thwarts our efforts toward resolutions in the first place."
Rather than base your goals off what you think others expect, talk to each other about changes you'd like to make. "The only people who can define what 'perfect' means in a relationship are the people in it," Madison says. "Focus on how you and your partner want to feel, not what others have to say."
Stukas says focusing on small, consistent gestures is more effective than chasing perfection. " I might start with the concept of love languages—can we each commit to making sure our partner feels loved by identifying one to two things we will do consistently?" she says. For example, you might commit to rubbing your partner's shoulders at night while they might commit to emptying the dishwasher in the morning. "They don't have to be grand gestures, but they do have to be consistent and done without the other asking." Start small and build on the good feelings you've created together.
The actual pursuit of your goal doesn't have to be perfect either. Don't beat yourself up if you haven't achieved your goals 100%. "There is no such thing as perfect, only permanent," Powell-Hickman says. "What you practice is what sticks with you, so improve your practices and form long-lasting habits."
Remember that any progress towards a positive change in your life is a win. While vague, larger-than-life New Year's resolutions might fail, clear ones that are well-thought-out succeed. It's all about preparing yourself adequately, communicating openly, practicing a positive mindset, and being kind to yourself. No matter how big or small your goals may be, you're working towards change—and that's something to be proud of.