Why Do New Year’s Resolutions Fail? Smarter Strategies for Lasting Change

Why Do New Year’s Resolutions Fail? Smarter Strategies for Lasting Change

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Why Do New Year’s Resolutions Fail? Smarter Strategies for Lasting Change

Posted 3 months ago

Brian Stanton

Brian Stanton


This article will reframe how you think about New Year's resolutions. If you read to the end, you'll be better positioned to improve your life.

You may believe New Year's resolutions are doomed to fail. But while it's true that many fail, the situation is less dire than most imagine. 

Unsuccessful resolutions fail because they focus on outcomes over process. If you resolve to lose weight without a daily routine that promotes weight loss, your resolution will be gasping for oxygen by mid-January. 

Today you'll learn how to avoid that problem. First, though, let's look at some science. 

What Research Actually Says About New Year's Resolutions

Many popular sources claim that 80% of New Year's resolutions self-destruct by February, but it's unclear where this figure originates. 

The bona fide research on this topic tells a different story. Consider these two results:

  • A 2002 study found that 46% of 159 resolvers successfully sustained their resolutions after six months.[*]
  • A 2020 study found that 55% of 1066 resolvers successfully sustained their resolutions after one year.[*] (By the way, most resolutions from both studies involved diet, fitness, and behavioral changes like weight loss or smoking cessation.) 

A 46–55% reported success rate is solid, especially compared with the "80% fail by February" meme. What might explain these success rates?

One answer is that participants had a system for sustaining their New Year's resolutions. That system was enrolling in a study program that contacted them several times annually like a schoolteacher checking homework assignments. 

The resolution got them started, but the system brought them across the finish line. Unfortunately, most resolutions lack a system to make them stick. 

Why Do New Year's Resolutions Fail?

You don't make a New Year's resolution to brush your teeth every day. Brushing your teeth is a habit, and surrounding it is a system that keeps it going. 

The system may include:

  • Keeping the toothbrush and paste within easy reach
  • A dedicated time and place each night to perform the sacred motions
  • A few seconds of licking your teeth afterward
  • The joy of not clearing a city block with your breath

Most resolutions, however, don't come with a system. They're ambitious goals without implementation plans. 

The problem with ambitious goals is that they create negative feedback loops. Every day you're short of your goal, you feel bad about it. 

Even if you accomplish the goal, it doesn't solve the problem. You feel good for a moment, then enter a directionless void state. You might even slide backward.

Systems, habits, and routines are the answer. Working your systems day after day provides easy wins and keeps you moving toward the outcomes you seek. 

For instance, if you seek to lose weight, your system might entail skipping dessert, walking five miles daily, avoiding alcohol, and keeping junk food out of the house. Focus on tweaking your system (not your goals) if you aren't getting results. 

Tactics to Make Your Resolutions Stick

To learn how to keep New Year's resolutions, you need methods to make that happen. Here are four tactics to get you started. 

#1: Pick reasonable goals

Pick resolutions that stretch your capacities but aren't too ambitious. If you shoot for the stars, you'll end up floating in deep space without a space suit. Some examples will help clarify. 

Overly ambitious goal: Lose 75 pounds by summer

Reasonable goal: Lose weight by summer

Overly ambitious goal: Marry Scarlett Johansson 

Reasonable goal: Go on more dates 

Overly ambitious goal: Look like Chris Hemsworth from Thor

Reasonable goal: Increase the number of push-ups you can do

You might be thinking these reasonable goals need to be more specific. (And you can play with that.) But keep in mind that flexible goals are more sustainable. 

#2: Track your progress

Once you have reasonable goals, track your progress towards them. What gets measured gets managed. 

Progress tracking likely explains the high success rates in New Year's resolution research.[*][*] Tracking keeps you accountable. 

More supporting evidence: a 2008 study found that those who kept a food journal lost double the weight of non-journaling controls.[*]  

The simplest way to track health and fitness goals? Carb Manager. 

#3: Involve others 

If you want to achieve a goal, tell others about it. Social pressure keeps you accountable.

Social support also keeps your spirits up. A few encouraging words from a loved one go a long way. 

Outsource some of this benefit by joining the Carb Manager community. And to turbocharge your results, try the Carb Manager Challenge.

#4: Control your environment

A wise life philosophy is to control what you can and accept the rest. Your environment falls into the controllable category. 

Here are some examples:

  • Control your kitchen by stocking it with healthy foods
  • Control your workspace by keeping it free of clutter
  • Control your basement by installing a home gym
  • Control your headspace by banning screens from your bedroom
  • And so on

Give this serious thought. Your environment dictates your behavior. 

What To Do Instead of New Year's Resolutions

The New Year is a fine time for resolutions. Since everyone is doing it, you gain momentum by riding the wave. 

But consider being more systematic about your self-improvement efforts. When you have a running system, you don't need to chain yourself to January 1st. 

The system should include both short and long-term plans. Your long-term plans—life vision, goals, etc.—should inform the actions detailed in your weekly and daily plans. Watch this video on multi-scale planning by bestselling productivity author Cal Newport for inspiration.

Comments 1

  • PivotYearChris

    PivotYearChris 2 months ago

    Thank you. Very helpful.