Why New Year’s Resolutions Fail And How To Succeed

Read time: 5 minutes.

“Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.” ― Viktor E. Frankl

News Years Resolutions - Fireworks sketch
News Years Resolutions - Fireworks sketch

New Year’s resolutions fail because you are trying to do something new without changing the old underlying behaviours.

You are not alone if you made a New Year’s resolution this year. The ancient Babylonians are speculated to be the first people to make them 4,000 years ago. Their new year began in mid-March, but nevertheless the concept was still similar. They would make promises to the Gods to pay their debts while affirming loyalty to the reigning king. If they kept their word then the Gods would grant favour on them for the year and if not they’d fall out of favour. Western society has a similar tradition where we affirm our desire to do something different in the next year and will tell others about it.

There is something about a New Year’s resolution that feels different. Perhaps, it is the “Fresh Start Effect”. The journal of Organizational Behaviour and Human Decision Process in a 2017 published article defining the effect as any time your past performance metric is disassociated from your current performance metric. Basically, there is some anchor point in your mind that you now feel like you can move on from to something new. This is typically seen as using important dates as a way to hit the reset button. Hence, a New Year beginning is a strong date for this effect. Other examples that can bring on the Fresh Start Effect include big life events like starting a new job, moving places, or getting married.

The Fresh Start Effect can help be a catalyst for taking action to achieve your desired New Year’s resolution. It’s no guarantee but there is a window of time where this effect can provide you that little bit of extra motivation. But as we’ve heard time and again people don’t stick to their resolutions. Relying on any form of motivation alone is not enough without some kind of behaviour change. Hoping for change is not a strategy. Nothing about who you are fundamentally changes between one year and the next without active effort.

Think about your New Year’s resolution right now. It could be eating healthier, walking your dog more, calling your parents weekly, or anything at all. These resolutions are set because you have the desire to do something differently. It is something you want to accomplish. We generally don’t set resolutions with the intention of failing, so you do have an underlying motivation to change. But somehow, come the end of January, you’ve fallen off the track to accomplish your resolution. It’s because behaviour change is hard. You’re asking yourself to take different actions and swim upstream from your usual normal.

New Year’s resolutions succeed because you are consistently implementing the new behaviours you want while monitoring for the old.

The first step towards achieving your resolution is taking note of the new behaviours needed to achieve your goal. Be sure to also take note of the current behaviours that are not supportive of this resolution. Let’s take one of the most common resolutions - weight loss. In order to lose weight, at the simplest level, there is a basic requirement to be in a calorie deficient. There will be current behaviours that are not supportive of this requirement such as snacking on high calorie foods or drinking sugar loaded drinks. Perhaps you also have a desk job and are relatively sedentary. You can make all the resolutions in the world but if these behaviours don’t change to support the resolution then it’s not going to happen. The old behaviours need to be substituted with new ones aligned with the resolution.

Now that you’ve taken inventory on the old behaviours that are not supportive of the resolution, it is time to pay attention to them. Monitor your actions for these old behaviours. You need to make space between the stimulus that leads to the undesirable behaviour and the response you choose. The response should be to not engage in the old behaviour. In order to make this easier it would be helpful to have a new behaviour that can take its place that is rewarding. Perhaps a lower calories snack or drink if the old desired behaviour is choosing a high calorie item. The old behaviours must be stopped and this is where most resolutions will fail. In the beginning it seems easier because the resolution is fresh and top of your mind. But as time moves forward the resolution gets stale and your old behaviours slip back in.

Once the old behaviours that are not supportive of the resolution are monitored and stopped you can begin to incorporate positive new behaviours. The new behaviours are what help drive the success of a resolution. Taking the example of weight loss, the new behaviours could include going for a walk every day or getting a personal trainer to keep you accountable. It is important to stay consistent with these new behaviours and turn them into new habits. Make the behaviours a part of your fresh start and really identify with them.

This pathway to success for your resolutions is simplified and easier said that done. The path to achieving your resolution is hard work and you are rewiring your brain to remove old behaviours while adding in new supportive behaviours. The key to this is consistency over time. Find strategies that work for you to stick with the new behaviours and the resolutions will take care of themselves. Process first and the outcome you want will follow.

I appreciate you.


My thoughts are subject to change and I will get some things wrong. I promise to keep learning and strive to keep doing better. I'm by no means an expert on any topic I may write or make videos about so always do your own research as well. I try to keep an open mind. If I can teach you something and also learn something from you then I'm doing what I set out to do. Thanks for reading. These are just some thoughts.

“Do the best you can until you know better. Then when you know better, do better.” - Maya Angelou

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