Why do we feel compelled to set New Year's resolutions? What is it about January 1st that gives us the motivation to change? Studies show that we are more likely to tackle new goals when a significant milestone passes, such as the outset of a new week, month or year due to the “Fresh Start Effect”. Just as physical landmarks indicate distances along a road, culturally important dates, like the changing of the seasons, mark the passage of time. These moments serve as mental accounting periods, encouraging us to take a big-picture view of our lives
Our goals often take shape in the form of New Year’s resolutions. Despite their cultural importance, resolutions — let’s face it — have become the butt of many jokes. Dedicated gym-goers complain about the rush of ‘resolutioners’ using the gym every January, only to taper off as the weeks roll by. Meanwhile, Google searches for diets, gym visits and goal-setting increase as a new year dawns. Many of us, reflecting on a less-than-ideal previous year, strive to become completely different people when the ball drops, embodying the old saying, “new year, new me!” Unfortunately, statistics show that only about 8-10% of people achieve their goals each year.
Why is this?
This week's blog considers the science and psychology behind New Year’s resolutions and explores why humans often fail to keep their yearly goals. Looking at the findings of prominent psychologists and recent research studies, we dive into the annual cultural tradition to find out what’s going on.
Success and Failure Rates: Keeping Resolutions Over the First 6 Months
Professor & Chair of Psychology at the University of Scranton, John C. Norcross, has written about the science behind New Year's resolutions for decades. His research, conducted between 1978-2020, shows that of those of us who make a New Year’s resolution:
- After one week, 75% are still successful.
- After two weeks, the number drops to 71%.
- After one month, the number drops again to 64%.
- After six months, 46% of people who make a resolution are still keeping it.
Comparatively, only 8% of those with similar goals but no set resolution are still successful after six months.
The Most Popular Resolutions
Professor Norcross has identified several patterns throughout the thousands of New Year’s resolutions he’s studied over the years. Here’s what he’s found:
- The most popular resolution is around physical health, with 33% of participants wanting to improve theirs.
- The second most popular category is for weight loss, with 20% of participants wanting to slim down.
- The third resolution is the desire to change one’s eating habits, with 13% of participants thinking they need more greens.
- The remaining resolutions cover personal growth (9%) and improving one’s mental health and sleep (5%).
- Another 20% of the remaining participants made resolutions about work, school, tobacco and other habits.
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Why Do Resolutions Fail?
In his book, Be Fearless: Change Your Life in 28 Days, Psychotherapist Jonathan Alpert breaks down three of the biggest reasons people fail to complete their resolutions each year.
Your resolution wasn't specific enough
One of the biggest reasons people fail to keep their New Year's resolutions is because they're not specific enough. For example, resolving to “exercise more” or “lose weight” is an easy way to set yourself up for failure. Both of these resolutions lack a way to mark progress and are unlikely to keep you motivated throughout the year.
Try making your goal specific, like running a particular race you have circled on the calendar or losing 10 pounds by a particular date. Having a timeline on your resolution is helpful, so think of short-term, medium-term, and long-term benchmarks that will let you know you're on track to achieving your goal.
You didn’t frame your resolution positively
Another problem people face is they frame the resolution in negative language. When people resolve to “stop wasting money” or stop eating “junk” food, it often backfires because the resolution itself makes them think about the actual thing they're trying to avoid
Try framing your goal in positive language instead. Instead of telling yourself, “don't eat junk food!” try telling yourself to do a behavior you want to take up, like, “eat carrots and peanut butter as a healthy snack.” How you talk about yourself and your goals will impact your actions. Language has a powerful effect on your overall motivation and self-perception.
Your resolution isn't about you
Another major obstacle people face is making New Year's resolutions that don't reflect what they actually want. The biggest culprits are dieting and exercise trends, but this can apply to any number of goals, like a career-related goal inspired by what you think other people expect of you.
Goals need to be made specific to the individual. Often, people seem to be influenced by their friends, their family, and what they see in society. People generally need to set goals that are unique to them. Goals based on existing skills and circumstances have a higher chance of success, because they’re grounded in reality.
Be true to yourself as you come up with your New Year’s resolution and you’ll have a more enjoyable and successful change journey.
Did you resolve to improve your business outcomes this year?
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