Why New Year’s Resolutions Fail and How to Make Them Stick in 2016


It is called “The Fresh Start Effect.” People are more likely to ramp up efforts toward a goal at the start of a calendar cycle. The word “diet” is Googled most often at the beginning of a new week, month or year; gym attendance spikes following the turn of a calendar page. In a December 2014 Marist survey, 44 percent of poll respondents said they would likely make New Year’s resolutions for 2015.

Why the New Year brings fresh resolve

Researchers at University of Pennsylvania Wharton School suggest that two psychological processes may underlie this phenomenon. First, we mentally use a landmark date, such as New Year’s Day, to separate our less-than-perfect past from an envisioned bright future. With renewed vigor, we attempt to align our behavior with a positive self-image. Second, notable dates interrupt daily routines, allowing us to lift our noses from the grindstone and view the bigger picture. Unfortunately, the Fresh Start Effect wears thin as the days, weeks and months pass by. Only 59 percent of those surveyed by Marist kept their 2014 resolutions for at least part of the year. What happened?

Why New Year’s resolutions fail

If you are among the millions that set goals each New Year’s Day, you are familiar with the hope and energy that comes with them. You may also have experienced the waning strength of your resolve as January became February. What are the most common reasons resolutions fail?

Over estimating your abilities

Your goals must be attainable. If your plan is to end your sedentary habits on New Year’s Eve and jump into an intensive program of exercise on January 1, you may quickly be discouraged when you are flat out on the mat after five push-ups. Over-ambitious weight-loss goals may have you tossing in the towel and picking up the bag of cookies while the scent of your Christmas tree still lingers in the air.

Under estimating the effort involved

Perhaps your resolution is to build an emergency savings account. You figure by bargain shopping, clipping coupons and tackling home projects yourself rather than hiring help, you can save enough to sock away an extra $100 a month.  This is not a bad plan, but you need to realize you are trading your time for money. Do you have the time to trade?

Failure to plan

It’s New Year’s Eve. You watch the ball drop in Times Square. When the crystal sphere lights up to herald in the new year, you shred the remaining cigarettes in your pack and drop them in the trash. Congratulations! You’ve made the first step towards a longer, healthier life, but throwing out your tobacco usually isn’t enough to make you a non-smoker. While some may be able to go cold turkey, most people need to create a smoking cessation plan. Without putting effort into planning and preparation, the physical and psychological pull of smoking may stymie your resolve.

 How to bullet-proof your New Year’s Resolutions

If you have failed at keeping your resolutions in the past, you may think, “Why bother?” If you aren’t motivated and committed, you won’t succeed. However, if you really want to lose that weight, cut yourself free from tobacco or make some other change to be the person you really want to be, you can tilt the odds of success in your favor. In the days leading up to January 1, create a battle plan with these steps:

  • Make your goals specific, measurable and attainable — rather than say, “I want to lose weight,” make your resolution to reduce your calorie intake by 500 calories a week and increase physical activity to at least 30 minutes a day. If your goal is to be a better person, plan to say or do one kind thing for another each day. Statements such as, “I want to eat healthier,” are too vague. Instead, set a goal of eating two servings of fruit and three servings of vegetables a day.
  • Develop a routine — we act out of habit. To change a habit, new behaviors must become routine. If your resolution is to work out at the gym five nights a week, make it a habit by setting out your gym clothes each night to remind you of your new behavior. Go to the gym at the same time each day, even if you aren’t in the mood. You will get in the mood once you start working out. By the end of the month, it will be part of your day.
  • Think process over results — it is good to keep your final goal in mind, but focus on the daily processing of moving towards that goal. If you’ve resolved to get your house de-cluttered and organized, put your full attention to one room, or one closet, at a time. Working towards six-pack abs? It may be a while before they appear, but as you crunch and plank, focus on the muscles you are training.
  • Change your environment — we associate physical locations with particular behaviors. If you always drink your morning coffee at the kitchen table with a cigarette, it will be hard to sit in your usual spot without your smoke. Try drinking your coffee in the living room instead. You need to identify your triggers, avoid them if you can and plan how to handle them when they can’t be avoided.
  • Plan to backslide — did you mess up one day? Ate a piece of cake you shouldn’t have? It’s easy to say “to heck with it” and finish off the rest of the cake, but that is not rational. Recognize that you will backslide. Don’t make the damage any worse. Get back on track as quickly as possible.
  • Prepare for bad days — you know there will be days that test your resolve. A stressful day at the office could push you back into your old habits. Plan how you will deal with these events. For example, if your old habit was to light a cigarette when stressed, plan instead to head out the front door and down the street at a brisk pace until the tension lifts.
  • Monitor your progress — a new study released by the American Psychological Association found that people who regularly monitor their progress tend to be more successful at attaining their goals than those who don’t. The effect is even greater when you write down your progress. With a weight-loss goal, hop on the scale at regular intervals and record your weight in a journal. If you have quit smoking, hang a calendar in a prominent place and at the end of each smoke-free day, mark that day with a large red X.

Changing habits is hard. Your brain is wired to perform entrenched behaviors. However, your brain can restructure itself, create new neural pathways that support new behaviors. Old dogs can learn new tricks. Over time, these pathways strengthen and become new habits. Commit to a goal, make a plan, stick with it and have a happy and healthy new year.