Do New Year's Resolutions Really Work?

History shows New Year’s resolutions have been around since the Babylonian days, so why are they so hard to keep?

Mar 8, 2022 UPDATED
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“The new year stands before us, like a chapter in a book, waiting to be written.” Melody Beattie

It’s that time again! 

It’s the end of the year and I am more than willing to let go of 2021! Time to start carefully constructing my New Year’s resolutions for 2022…or should I? 

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

After having persevered through 2 years of the COVID-19 pandemic, is it even worth it to set new goals when I have no idea what is going to happen in the coming months? 

The answer to that question 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 I can make New Year’s resolutions. I’m not so sure about keeping them!

History of resolutions 

New Year’s resolutions date 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, spending less money, and improving spending habits.   

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 make resolutions have good intentions when they make them. But what is behind the astonishing number of goals that fail so quickly after the New Year?

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

The answer might be found in  “false hope”. Specifically, the false hope that we can change something about ourselves and that these changes will bring all sorts of rewards.   

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 2 resolutions for most people are losing weight and improving fitness. 

Think about someone you know (maybe you) who set a resolution to lose 20lbs 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?

So, setting New Year’s resolutions isn’t the problem. The problem is our insufficient estimate of the process of self-change. Real hope of changing requires that we assess our skills to ensure that we set ourselves up for success . 

monarch butterflies

How, you may ask? Consider these tips:

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 New Year, consider being practical. If you resolve to hit the gym more often, start with going one day a week, rather than hitting the gym every day. 

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 thing at a time

Setting too many resolutions can set you up for failure. If your goals are to go to the gym, stop drinking and save more money, start with going to the gym. Once you are in a comfortable place with one goal, move on to the next. Remember, this isn’t a race!

Expect setbacks

Nothing worth achieving is ever easy; so expect some obstacles while you are changing. Knowing that the pink cloud (feelings of euphoria and excitement) of resolutions will dissipate during your 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 10 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.

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Article originally published Jan 3, 2022. Updated Mar 8, 2022.

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