January 11, 2024

Why New Year’s Resolutions Fail & What We Can Do About It

This article explores why most New Year's resolutions fail and offers insight into how we can change that.

Christina Mengert
Post-it notes with goals written on them.

Why New Year’s Resolutions Fail and What We Can Do About It

Someone once quipped, “many people look forward to the New Year for a new start on old habits.” I think most of us recognize ourselves at least a little bit in this notion. Change is hard. And despite the best intentions, we often find ourselves falling back into old behaviors and patterns that we once swore we would change, come hell or high water.

I’m going to lose ten pounds this year.

I’m going to make more time for my family.

I’m going to stop binge-watching TV.

I’m going to make better decisions in my romantic life.

I’m going to stop drinking so much.

I’m going to find a better work/life balance.


New Year’s resolutions have been around for thousands of years. We know, for example, that the ancient Babylonians would make promises to the gods on the New Year, and believed if they kept their word, the gods would bless them. And the ancient Romans made sacrifices to Janus (after which the month of January was named), promising good behavior in the coming year. And my guess is, the ancient Romans and Babylonians had the same problems we have! Best of intentions, not the most impressive results.

A resolution is, by definition, a firm decision to do or not do something. And according to research, about 88% of people who make New Year’s resolutions fail, despite 52% of them feeling confident they will follow through with their resolve. So what’s going on here? Why is this the case, and how can we put ourselves in the best position to truly change what we want to in our lives?

Well, one big problem is that our resolutions are often born of regret. We’ve made mistakes, we’ve done things or lived in ways we feel badly about, and those heavy feelings of guilt and regret drive the resolution. But one thing we know about change is that we have to accept ourselves as we are before we can change anything. Regret is not a true engine of transformation. It traps us in self-condemnation, which keeps us from asking ourselves what is really driving us in those behaviors, what is blocking us from making the change we deeply want to make. It keeps us from the awareness that is the true engine of change.

Notebook with lofty goals.

Another problem is that our goals are often very lofty and a bit out of touch. They are based on some ideal we have, rather than the reality of where we are in our lives. And to be clear: ideals, like values, are very important (more on this in a moment). They orient us in a direction, but they don’t actually tell us how to get there. Too often we make resolutions naïvely hoping for the best, but we don’t understand what it will really take to accomplish these goals. In other words, intentions are not enough. We have to follow through with solid goals, behaviors, and action plans.

So what makes a good goal? Well, we have to start by distinguishing outcome goals from behavioral goals. Outcome goals, as the name suggests, are oriented towards results. They’re about what we want to happen, not how we’ll get there. Behavioral goals are more concrete. For example, an outcome goal might be, “get fit,” but a behavioral goal might be, “Lift weights for 30 minutes after work three times a week.” It’s often the case that our resolutions fail because they take the form of an outcome goal rather than a behavioral goal. We’re focused on the destination, but not the path we’ll take to get there.

And to be sure, destination is really important. One way we can clarify our destination is by thinking deeply about what we really value. Take a moment and ask yourself: what do you most value in your life? Is it family, friendship, physical health, spiritual well-being? Holding a specific value is like walking towards a sunset; we are headed west, but the landscape in front of us, the mountains and rivers we have to cross, are like the specific goals and actions we need to take in order to get there. Values only tell us about the destination, not the specific terrain we need to traverse in order to get there.

So we have to first understand what we value, and then start to make a plan. And we have to be patient with ourselves. Change takes time! We don’t arrive at our destination overnight. To go back to the landscape metaphor, we have to grow in awareness of the terrain we need to cross to reach our destination. That awareness might include old habits and momentums, old ways of thinking that keep us from crossing the river we need to cross, or climbing the mountain we need to climb. We need to take stock of and really accept where we are now, have a clear idea of where we want to go, and then make a plan for how we’re going to get there.

This is a personal work, of course, but sometimes we need help getting to where we want to go. After all, if these things were easy, we would have done them already! The help or support we need may come in the form of a friend or partner or (of course!) even a coach.

Anthropedia coaches are trained to help you make the meaningful changes you really want to make in your life, from the process of identifying your values and goals, to making an action plan to help you reach your destination. And of course, we do this always with great hope and confidence in our potential as human beings. So let’s enter 2024 with hope and a firm resolve to change our lives for the better, perhaps with a little help from our coach.

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