At the outset of a new year, millions of people around the world engage in a time-honored tradition: setting New Year’s resolutions. It’s a way for us to motivate ourselves towards personal improvement. However, there’s growing evidence suggesting that New Year’s resolutions may be an outdated and even disempowering approach to personal growth.
Here, we’ll explore why New Year’s resolutions often fail, and propose a more sustainable, science-backed way to approach the new year through focused processes, environments, and mindsets.
“By focusing on the process, creating a supportive environment, cultivating a growth mindset, pursuing incremental changes, and engaging in continuous reflection and adaptation, we can make New Year’s resolutions real turning points in our lives.”
The pitfalls of New Year’s resolutions
The enthusiasm with which we greet each new year often fades as quickly as the holiday decorations come down. A study by the University of Scranton reveals a grim picture: a mere 8% of people actually achieve their New Year’s goals, with a significant number abandoning their resolutions by February. This alarming failure rate highlights a fundamental flaw in the traditional approach to setting and pursuing resolutions.
Here are some of the reasons why they so frequently falter:
Lack of specificity: many resolutions are too vague or broad. We often make resolutions like “get in shape” or “eat healthier,” but, without specific, measurable, and actionable goals, it’s challenging to track progress and stay motivated.
Unrealistic expectations: anticipating overnight success can set us up for disappointment. We often expect quick results, and become discouraged when we don’t see immediate changes.
Overemphasis on external factors: many New Year’s resolutions focus on external outcomes, like losing weight or making more money, without addressing the underlying habits, behaviors, and outlooks on life which contribute to these goals. This can lead to a superficial approach to personal development.
Lack of planning: deciding on a resolution is just the first step; creating a detailed plan to achieve it is equally important, if not more so. Many of us fail to establish a clear roadmap or prepare for potential obstacles along the way.
Peer pressure and social comparison: the cultural baggage that comes with New Year’s resolutions can burden us with disheartening peer pressure and cause us to compare ourselves to others in a self-deprecating way. Sometimes, we’ll even choose resolutions because others are pursuing them, no matter whether they’re goals we have any real interest in fulfilling.
All-or-nothing thinking: some of us fall prey to an all-or-nothing mentality, believing that if we slip up or deviate from our resolutions even once, we’ve failed completely. This defeatist mindset can cause us to give up prematurely.
Lack of accountability: without support systems and a shared sense of responsibility, it’s easy for us to lose motivation and commitment to our resolutions. Telling a trusted friend about our goals or seeking professional guidance can help mitigate this issue.
Neglecting self-care: in the pursuit of resolutions, we might inadvertently neglect our physical and mental well-being. Overcommitting to goals can lead to stress, burnout, and neglect of other important aspects of life.
Underestimating the willpower required: resolutions often call for a significant amount of willpower and self-discipline. Not readying ourselves for the challenges and temptations that threaten to knock us off course can lead to setbacks and ultimately push us to abandon our resolutions completely.
Limited self-reflection: setting New Year’s resolutions can become a ritualistic exercise if we don’t get a little introspective and check in on ourselves. We might not take the time to truly assess our values, priorities, and what really matters to us in the long term.
So, while New Year’s resolutions can certainly be a great starting point for accomplishing our goals, we must be aware of these risks if we want to have a better chance at succeeding. Understanding these challenges can help us decide upon and stick to our resolutions more thoughtfully and realistically.
How to achieve your New Year’s resolutions
The key to enduring change lies not in setting monumental goals, but in embracing process-oriented methods, built on habits and systems which nurture continuous improvement.
New Year’s resolutions thrive on supportive environments, measured outlooks, celebration of incremental progress, and consistent reflection and adaptation.
Favoring process over outcome
The traditional approach of fixating on specific outcomes can quickly lead to disappointment and a sense of failure. Conversely, focusing on the journey rather than the destination prompts us to break large, incomprehensible dreams into tangible actions, which can inform habit formation.
For instance, instead of saying “I want to lose 30 pounds,” one might say: “I’m going to incorporate a balanced diet into my daily routine, starting with a healthy breakfast tomorrow morning,” or “I’m going to establish a consistent exercise regimen, beginning with a 30-minute walk this afternoon.”
It’s about creating manageable routines that can be eased into our lives in such a way that they naturally become habits, in spite of life’s hurdles. For example, meal planning on Sundays to set ourselves up for a week of healthy eating, or earmarking a specific time for exercise each day.
How a supportive environment can help us achieve New Year’s resolutions
What we surround ourselves with significantly influences our behavior. Making small changes in the spaces where we spend most of our time can make it easier to build good habits and discourage bad ones.
This could, for example, involve rearranging your home to encourage healthy habits, like placing fruits and vegetables in plain sight or having your workout equipment readily accessible.
The same is true for quelling temptations: keep junk food out of the house, and use apps which limit your time on social media.
The right mindset for fulfilling New Year’s resolutions
Psychologist Carol Dweck’s research at Stanford University highlights that a growth mindset, characterized by the belief that abilities and intelligence can be developed with time and effort, helps us attain long-term success.
Instead of viewing setbacks as failures, see them as opportunities to learn and grow. Embrace challenges as a way to develop and strengthen skills.
The importance of celebrating the small wins
Gradual, incremental changes are more sustainable and less overwhelming than abrupt, drastic alterations. Celebrating these small victories is crucial, as it provides motivation and a sense of progress.
Setting mini-goals: divide your large goals into smaller, more manageable tasks. If your goal is to write a book, for instance, start by writing a page a day.
Acknowledging progress: be kind to yourself by appreciating every step you take in the right direction, no matter how insignificant it may seem, and share your micro-successes with friends or family.
Reflecting on and adapting your New Year’s resolutions
Self-improvement journeys are never linear. They demand regular check-ins and strategic re-adjustments, lest they fall out of sync with the shifting tides of life.
Set aside time every week or month to review your progress. What’s working? What isn’t? Be honest with yourself, and be prepared to try a different angle.
By focusing on the process, creating a supportive environment, cultivating a growth mindset, pursuing incremental changes, and engaging in continuous reflection and adaptation, we can make New Year’s resolutions real turning points in our lives.
These methods, grounded in psychological research and practical wisdom, offer a more realistic and fulfilling path to achieving our goals and aspirations.
And if February comes around and things haven’t started changing, don’t wait another 11 months. Any day is a good day to begin a journey of self-improvement, and the best goals are those that don’t need special occasions for a launchpad.
University of Scranton Journal of Clinical Psychology: Norcross, J.C., & Vangarelli, D.J. (1988). The resolution solution: Longitudinal examination of New Year’s change attempts. Journal of Substance Abuse, 1(2), 127-134. Link
American Psychological Association (APA): Making your New Year’s resolution stick.
Mindset Works (Carol Dweck’s Research): Dweck, C. (2006). Mindset: The New Psychology of Success. New York: Random House.
James Clear’s Research on Habit Formation: Clear, J. (2018). Atomic Habits: An Easy & Proven Way to Build Good Habits & Break Bad Ones. New York: Avery.
BJ Fogg’s Behavior Model: Fogg, B.J. (2019). Tiny Habits: The Small Changes That Change Everything. New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.
Charles Duhigg’s ‘The Power of Habit’: Duhigg, C. (2012). The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business. New York: Random House.
K. Anders Ericsson’s Research on Deliberate Practice: Ericsson, A., & Pool, R. (2016). Peak: Secrets from the New Science of Expertise. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.
About The Author
Dean Sherzai, MD, PhD
Dr. Dean Sherzai is co-director of the Alzheimer’s Prevention Program at Loma Linda University. Dean trained in Neurology at Georgetown University School of Medicine, and completed fellowships in neurodegenerative diseases and dementia at the National Institutes of Health and UC San Diego. He also holds a PhD in Healthcare Leadership with a focus on community health from Andrews University.
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