Why New Year Resolutions Typically Fail


Making New Year's resolutions is an old tradition. Over the next year we are going to stop smoking, lose weight, save money, exercise more, drink less and be nicer to our family members. Overwhelmingly such resolutions lead nowhere-until they are made again the next year with the same lack of results.

What's missing? Consider Tom who was 75 pounds overweight when I met him. When I saw him again a year later, I was shocked. The 75 extra pounds were gone. "Tom," I said, "How did you do it?" He replied, "It was easy!" "Easy?" I gasped in disbelief. "Everyone knows losing weight is one of the hardest things you can do." Tom answered, "But you see, I really, really wanted to."

What did Tom mean by this? He meant he had had total commitment. Goals, specifically difficult goals, do not affect action unless you are committed to them. But what does commitment involve?

Here are the keys to success:

  • You need to consciously consider the goal to be personally important. You need to examine your subconscious for contradictory beliefs, such as, "Well actually, I really love, pizza, beer and ice cream and I could not bear to give them up."
  • You can't have commitment if you have unresolved conflicts. You need to convince your subconscious your goal is important and the reasons why. For example, "Smoking drastically increases my risk of many types of cancer as well as heart disease and stroke, so I am committing slow suicide if I continue. I really want to live a long and healthy life."
  • Combine all long term, such as yearly goals, with short term (daily or weekly) goals so your goals stay fresh in your mind.
  • Be prepared for setbacks. Conflict does not go away overnight especially if you are attached to a strong habit. What will do you if you slip up? "Next time I am tempted I'll flush my cigarettes down the toilet." "When I go to the store next I will buy healthier foods." "I will remind myself my life depends on living better." I will be more sexually attractive if my breath does not smell bad and I am slimmer."
  • Have a specific plan. "I will go to the gym or take a two mile walk every other day."
  • Keep a written record to make what you are doing objective, such as number of miles walked, number of days with no smokes, number of calories consumed, or number of pounds lost (e.g., per week). This makes it hard to fool yourself.
  • Write a letter to your spouse and/or to one or more friends announcing what you plan to do. This makes keeping to your plan a matter of public integrity.
  • Practice thought control; when you are tempted to relapse, figure out things you can tell yourself to strengthen your commitment. "Uncle Joe died a horrible death from lung cancer; I don't want to go like that." "My partner does not want to make love to me because I am unattractive. I need to control what my body looks like."
  • Reward yourself for progress, say once a month. Maybe a new shirt or blouse, a special movie outing, one small piece of chocolate-something you value and can afford.

If you want your New Year's resolutions to be completed, take the steps needed to really commit to it. Instead of feeling shame at the end of the year you will feel pride.

Edwin Locke, PhD is a world-renowned psychologist. Ellen Kenner, PhD, is a clinical psychologist and host of the nationally-syndicated radio talk show, The Rational Basis of Happiness®