The Psychology Behind Why We Can’t Keep New Year’s Resolutions

If you’re in that 8%, well good for you, but if you’re like the rest of us mere mortals and struggling to carry to them on for longer than a week, read on. 

New Years Resolutions
Photo by Gemma Chua-Tran on Unsplash

As the year draws to a close, you might be thinking back to the resolutions you made at the start of the year and feeling a little disappointed if you didn’t achieve them. Well, you’re not alone. Research suggests that only 8% of people actually achieve their New Year’s goals. That’s a pretty small percentage when you think about how many people are actually making New Year’s resolutions (most people do and I’m sure you’ve at least thought about it). So just why are we so bad at keeping New Year’s resolutions? We start off with the best intentions, maybe even carry on our fitness or money-saving routines for a couple of weeks, but it seems we just can’t keep them.

We all have good intentions for the New Year and feel motivated and excited about all the positive changes on which we’d like to start working. But New Year’s resolutions, like any goal or positive change that we try to make in our lives, can be difficult to achieve and maintain. We spoke to Gabrielle McCorry, a psychologist at LysnLysn is a digital mental health company with world-class wellbeing technology that helps people find their best-fit professional psychologist whilst being able to access online tools to improve their mental health. If you’re in that 8%, well good for you, but if you’re like the rest of us mere mortals and struggling to carry to them on for longer than a week, read on.

new years resolutions
Image: Kelly Sikkema via Unsplash

The Top Reasons Why We Can’t Keep New Year’s Resolutions

1) You might be choosing the wrong words.

Surprisingly, the way we phrase our goals and the words we use can actually have an effect on whether we’ll achieve them. As a start, take out the word ‘should’ when setting goals, and replace it with ‘will’. The word should tend to remind us of commitments we haven’t met and of obligations, we haven’t fulfilled. In fact, lifestyle coach Erin Falconer says in her book ‘How to Get Sh*t Done,’ that using the word ‘should’ is definitely a bad idea when it comes to goal setting because it is often associated with guilt, shame, and an absence of decision.

In addition, phrases like ‘have to’ and ‘need to’ fall under the same banner as ‘should’ as they don’t compel us to reach our goals. Also, take out the word ‘soon’ because it can be seen as a lofty timeline and is not requiring a specific and measurable outcome. Replace ‘soon’ with a timeframe or specific date, for example, ‘I will be able to run 5km without stopping by 30th April 2021’. 

2) You might be setting unrealistic goals.

If you never seem to be achieving those resolutions, it might be worth looking at the goals you’re setting and whether they’re realistic. Evidence shows we are more committed to achieving our goals if we believe they are attainable. At the risk of sounding like we’re taking you through a goal setting 101 class, we really should go back to basics. Set ‘SMART’ goals (Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Realistic, and Timely). The key thing here is making them achievable, so setting goals like ‘I’ll save 1 million dollars this year’ when you’re only earning $50,000 a year would count as an unrealistic goal. Whilst it’s great to be optimistic, it’s important to be realistic.

The same goes for fitness goals – if you’ve never been a runner and you decide to run a marathon, whilst this is achievable, it might be more realistic to aim for a half marathon instead. Also, avoid lofty goals with phrases like ‘I’ll exercise more’ as this isn’t measurable and there is no specific outcome that you can aim to achieve.

3) False Hope Syndrome

This too relates to unrealistic goal setting and those larger than life expectations, which offer an easy opt-out when you don’t come close to achieving them. Overly ambitious resolutions can be almost like giving up without even starting because our goals aren’t feasible. If you must set yourself grand goals, set out a plan to work towards achieving them. Break the goal down into smaller, practical, and more realistic tasks that you can work on each day. Take a leaf out of Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg who once shared his personal resolutions on Facebook, announcing his determination to run 365 miles in one year. That’s the equivalent of 10 marathons and for most people might seem like an overly ambitious resolution. However, he later explained that 365 miles are just one mile per day, approximately 10 minutes of daily running – very achievable!

best new year's resolutions
Image: Danielle Macinnes via Unsplash

4) Too many goals at one time. 

If your New Year’s resolutions span longer than the credits of a movie, you might be setting too many goals at one time. Too many goals are too overwhelming for our brains to handle and this means we will struggle to focus wholeheartedly on all of them. Instead, choose 3 of your main goals that will require most of your attention. These can be from three key areas of your life, for example, fitness, career, and finances. That way you’ll know you’re still making an impact without the risk of giving up altogether.

5) Don’t wait until the new year. 

If you do find yourself landing in mid-January having already forgotten about your New Year’s resolutions, never fear. Studies suggest that 25% of us lose steam within just one week when it comes to our New Year’s resolutions. Whilst the new year seems like the perfect time – a clean slate, fresh start, etc, sometimes doing it at that time of year is setting yourself up for a fail. Especially when you consider what’s happening – we’ve just finished Christmas and New Year’s parties which usually comes with a lot of overindulgence on food, alcohol, and spending. Then you try to set up big goals like losing weight and exercising after you’ve spent the last few weeks doing the opposite – seems like it might make things even harder! If you do find yourself falling off the bandwagon and not keeping your resolutions, just start again.

Remember, whenever we try to change our behavior, we usually fail at least once. Relapse is a normal part of the change process, so don’t be hard on yourself, just get back on track and start again. You will eventually make it! That might mean starting at a better time, perhaps you’re back at work, back into your routine and you’ve got fewer social outings to attend. Seems like a better foundation for achieving success!!

6) Focus on the positives of change, not the negatives. 

Considering what went well last week rather than what went wrong is more motivating and builds confidence that you can succeed. Research shows that if you note the times when you have been successful, this reinforces behavior change and reduces the chances of relapse. Furthermore, ‘goal achievers’ think positively about reaching their goals. If you have thoughts like, “I won’t be able to lose weight” or “I’ll never save enough to get a deposit for a house”, then you probably won’t. Evidence shows that positive self-talk contributes to increased self-confidence in achieving goals.

7) Celebrate small wins.  

Finally, rewarding ourselves for making progress towards our goals increases our motivation to continue. Consider the points at which you will reward your progress, rather than just when you “feel you need to”. Also, make sure the reward is proportionate to the achievement you’ve made and is consistent with the nature of the goal. For instance, a reward of ice cream for losing five kilograms may not be appropriate. Finally, the reward you choose needs to be meaningful to you otherwise it is not likely to motivate you to keep going.

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