Do New Year's Resolutions Really Work?

People who set New Year’s resolutions are ten times more likely to keep other goals that they set. Here's how to create New Year's resolutions you can achieve this year.

Aug 23, 2022 UPDATED
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“The new year stands before us, like a chapter in a book, waiting to be written.” Melody Beattie

As we approach the final months of this year, I realize I am more than willing to let go of the past twelve months. I'm excited to boldly look ahead toward the new year.

It’s time to start carefully constructing my New Year’s resolutions for the year ahead. Or, should I reconsider? 

Should I even bother with a New Year’s resolution?  

After having persevered through almost three years of collective trauma from the COVID-19 global pandemic, you may find yourself wondering, like me, whether it's even worth it to set new year's goals when we may have no idea what will happen in the coming months? 

Still, the answer to the question of whether I believe it's worth it to create a New Year's resolution is a resounding yes!

Why? Because of hope.

Hope is the belief that something different can happen, even in the face of life’s difficulties, and I have hope.

(Well, at least I hope to make New Year’s resolutions. I’m not always so hopeful about being able to keep them.)

History of New Year's resolutions 

The custom of creating New Year’s resolutions dates back 4,000 years, but they were popularized during the 17th century and have been a holiday tradition ever since. 

Most resolutions are focused on self-improvement and usually include goals of losing weight, improving diet, exercising more, saving more money, achieving a career goal, or spending less time doomscrolling social media and news headlines on our mobile phones.

If you’re like the approximately 50% of Americans who make New Year’s resolutions each year, then you’re probably also part of the 80% who fail to keep those resolutions. 

resolutions infographic

I don’t doubt that most people who create resolutions have good intentions when they make them.

But, what is behind the astonishing number of New Year's that fail so quickly before January is even half over?

Why most New Year's resolutions fail

There are many reasons New Year’s goals falter.

Maybe the goals we set were too difficult, or maybe we got bored.

After all, it’s captivating to be celebrating with friends, sipping champagne, and contemplating the miracle of a new year ahead full of promises and aspirations. 

Anything is possible, as they say.

What’s really behind the success and failure of our New Year’s goals? What makes us more or less likely to succeed at these goals? 

The problem of false hope

A key answer why most New Year's resolutions fail may be found in  “false hope syndrome.”  

False hope is a problem of unrealistic expectations. When we set New Year’s goals, are we realistically weighing what changes we need to make to get our desired outcome? 

For example, the top two resolutions, shared by over 50% of Americans in 2021, according to Statista, are improving fitness and losing weight.

Think about someone you know (maybe it's you!) who set a resolution to lose ten or twenty pounds in the new year. 

  • How much work do you think they (or you) will put into achieving this goal? 

  • How quickly do they (or you) expect the weight to fall off? 

  • How easy will it be and how will their life (or yours) be changed while trying to achieve this goal?

An essential issue here is our insufficient estimate of the process of self-change. 

Enacting real change requires that we assess our ability to change our behaviors to the extent needed to achieve our goals. 

monarch butterflies

Is there a way that we can get better at creating New Year's resolutions we can actually achieve?  Consider these tips...

How to set realistic, measurable New Year's resolutions

Remember, Rome wasn’t built in a day.

Although you may get excited about all the possibilities for the year ahead, consider being practical and creating a SMART New Year's resolution.

SMART is an acronym for goals that stands for:

  • Specific

  • Measurable

  • Realistic

  • Achievable

  • Time-bound.

Consider whether your resolution checks all five of those boxes.

For example, if your New Year's resolution is to "get into better shape," it is actually too non-specific and vague to be measurable.

Instead you might say: "I'd like to be able to run one mile by February 10." Then you have something you can work up to week-by-week, and measure your progress. Or perhaps your New Year's resolution is "to hit the gym more often." This is also a bit too vague.

How often were you actually going to the gym in the previous year?

If it's two times per week, perhaps you make a resolution to increase to three or four times per week.

If you were going to the gym, in reality, zero times per week this past year, perhaps your New Year's resolution is to start going to the gym one day a week each week starting in January and February.

Focus on more attainable short-term goals and accept that the change won’t be comfortable—some days it may be downright hard.

Work on one goal at a time

Setting too many New Year's resolutions can set you up for failure.

If your goals are to go to the gym, stop drinking alcohol, and spend less time on your mobile phone, start with whichever you believe is most essential.

Once you are in a comfortable place with one goal, move on to the next. Remember, this isn’t a race.

Expect and plan for setbacks

Nothing worth achieving is ever easy, and it's crucial to expect some obstacles while you are doing the difficult work to change your habits and behaviors. 

Knowing that the pink cloud (feelings of euphoria and excitement) of creating New Year's resolutions will dissipate during your daily journey is half the battle.

Make sure to elicit support from your friends and family during your voyage of change. 

It may not be easy, but research suggests that people who set New Year’s resolutions are ten times more likely to keep other goals that they set. 

Last but not least, remember that change doesn’t have to be restricted to the New Year.

Any day of the year is a perfect day to start the process of self-change, self-development, and to establish healthy self-care routines, including starting counseling or therapy.

READ NEXT: How to Build Your Self-Esteem

Find a therapist near you. Check out the Monarch Directory by SimplePractice to  find licensed therapists  with availability and online booking.

Article originally published Jan 3, 2022. Updated Aug 23, 2022.

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