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  • Writer's pictureTOVI's Science Communicator, Ashley Miller-Dykeman, M.A.

Three Reasons New Year's Resolutions Fail

Young woman posting goals on a corkboard

If you are like the majority of people, you have set a New Year’s resolution or two for yourself in the past. You’ve marched into the New Year with your head held high and a plan to change your life for the better. Well, if you are like the majority of people, then it is also likely that you have set yourself up for failure.

Don’t worry. All hope is not lost. By learning some of the reasons we are typically destined for failure, you can go into the new year better equipped to make healthy choices and stick to them.

Reason resolutions fail #1: You have limited capacity for self-control.

All goal-directed behavior requires some degree of self-control or willpower. According to one of the leading researchers on willpower, Dr. Roy Baumeister, people have a finite amount of energy to expend throughout their days on activities that require self-control. All acts of self-control (for example, emotion regulation, making difficult decisions, controlling impulses) require energy that becomes depleted with continued use. This means that when you use it, you lose it – at least until you have time to recharge.

Think of your willpower as a muscle. The more you use a muscle throughout the day, the more tired it becomes.

If you have been lifting weights all day, your muscles will feel like spaghetti noodles by nightfall, and you will struggle to lift even a pencil. The same is true for your willpower.

This is why it is harder to regulate emotions, pay attention, or make difficult decisions in the evening. It is also why people are more likely to cheat on their diets, skip workouts, and altogether feel mentally pooped at the end of the day.

New Year's resolution tip #1

Engage in new self-control behaviors in the morning when you are recharged and fresh. You are more likely to be successful.

Just like your actual muscles, you can strengthen your willpower over time. Practice self-control in short bursts, and you will build that willpower muscle. With a little work each day, you become stronger and more resolute!

Research has also shown that the effects of depletion can be counteracted throughout the day with some simple acts:

  • Laughing or having fun

  • Experiencing positive emotions

  • Financial incentives

  • Creating “If..Then” plans (If I end up in rush hour traffic, then I will put on music to relax.)

  • Creating social goals (like to be a supportive partner or help others in need)

Reason resolutions fail #2: You are not really ready to change.

Taking steps to change requires motivation, intention, and action.

The space between intention and action is often filled with procrastination. According to some experts, New Year’s resolutions are a form of ‘cultural procrastination.’ As a culture, we have created a tradition in which we prescribe a future-oriented action: I will do X…days/weeks/months from now. Procrastination is built into the resolution. The greater the gap between intention and action, the less likely you will be to follow through.

People also often struggle to take action because they feel good after setting their resolutions. Why wouldn’t you want to linger in the warm fuzzies of the intention? On the other side of that procrastination gap is hard work and self-control, which may not look as appealing.

So, the question to ask yourself is, ‘Am I willing to take the leap?’

New Year’s resolution tip #2

Don’t wait! Take steps today towards your resolution. If you still find yourself procrastinating, don’t beat yourself up. Instead, dust yourself off and keep on moving.

Reason resolutions fail #3: Your goals are set up to fail.

Most people are not great at setting goals that will stand the test of time. Often people march into the New Year with a vague sense of what they will do differently.

I will eat less fast food. I will work out more. I will cut back on cigarettes.

More often than not, resolutions leave people unsure of what exactly what they will do and what they should expect from their efforts.

To increase the likelihood of success, you need to get SMART with your goal setting. SMART is an acronym that stands for making your goal specific, measurable, attainable, realistic, and time-bound.

New Year’s resolution tip #3

Put your New Year’s Resolution to the SMART test by answering the questions below:

  • Specific (what, where, when, who, how, and WHY?)

  • Measurable (how often, for how long, how will you measure success?)

  • Attainable (Do I have the skills/abilities/resources to carry this goal out? If not, what do I need to do to get there?)

  • Realistic (Is this goal realistic given my current life demands?)

  • Time-bound (When will I start and finish this goal?)*

*It is helpful to have an end date to work towards. You can always set a new goal after you have finished this one.

You don’t have to wait for a new year to set goals for yourself. Whenever you start your journey, remember these reasons for failure and the tips for success.

To sum it all up:

  • Know where you are headed (i.e., set SMART goals).

  • Build up your willpower (practice your self-control and start new, challenging tasks in the morning).

  • Get moving (don’t procrastinate).

  • Be prepared to get back on course should you get stuck (practice self-forgiveness).


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