Why do we feel compelled to set New Year's resolutions? What about ‘January 1st’ gives us the motivation to change? Studies have shown 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. This is called the Fresh Start Effect. Just as physical landmarks mark distances along a road trip, temporal landmarks mark the passage of time. These timely landmarks serve as mental ‘accounting periods,’ encouraging us to take a big-picture view of our lives.
These 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 in early January. Dedicated gym-goers complain about the rush of ‘resolutioners’ using the gym every January, only to taper off as the weeks roll by. Google searches for diets, gym visits, and goal-setting increase as a new year dawns. Many of us, reflecting on a less-than-ideal 2021, strive to become completely different people in 2022, embodying the saying, ‘new year, new me.’ However, 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 that humans have been partaking in for over 4000 years.
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 on the science behind New Year's resolutions for decades. Amongst his research that spans from 1978-2020, Norcross has found that of those who make a New Year’s resolution:
- 75% are still successful in keeping it after one week.
- After two weeks, the number drops to 71%.
- After one month, the number drops again to 64%.
- And after six months, 46% of people who make a resolution are still successful in keeping it.
- Compared to those with similar goals but no set resolution, only 8% are still successful after six months.
The Most Popular Resolutions
Professor Norcross has identified patterns amongst the thousand New Year’s resolutions he has encountered in his research over the years. The most popular resolution among the participants concerned physical health (33%). The second most popular category was weight loss (20%). The third most popular category was the desire to change one’s eating habits (13%), followed by resolutions regarding personal growth (9%) and mental health/sleep (5%) as the fourth- and fifth-most popular categories, respectively. The remaining participants (20%) made resolutions regarding work, studies, tobacco and other habits.
Why Do Resolutions Fail?
In his book, Be Fearless: Change Your Life in 28, Psychotherapist Jonathan Alpert breaks down three of the biggest reasons people fail to complete their resolutions each year. Here's what he has to say:
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’ are easy ways to set yourself up for failure, as they lack ways to mark progress and are unlikely to keep you motivated throughout the year.
Instead, 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 when making resolutions is framing them with negative language. When people resolve to stop wasting money or stop eating junk food, for example, it often backfires because it makes them think about the very thing they're trying to avoid.
Try framing your goal in positive language instead. So much of how we talk to ourselves impacts our actions and our behavior. Instead of telling ourselves 'Don't eat junk food,' we should be telling ourselves the behavior we desire, like 'Eat carrots and peanut butter as a healthy snack.' 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 it 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 for the individual. Often, people seem to be influenced by their friends, their family, and what they see in society. People need to set goals that are for themselves and unique to themselves. Goals based on existing skills and circumstances have a higher chance of being completed because they are grounded in reality. Be true to yourself when setting up your New Year’s resolution, and you’ll have a more enjoyable and successful change journey.
We Want to Hear From You
Did you set your own New Year's resolution this year? Was it health or career-oriented? Let us know what you plan on working on in 2022 in the comment section below. Feel free to share any tips and resources to help others reach their goals.