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7 New Year's Resolutions Bound to Fail

Here's how to tweak your resolutions to find success.

A ritual that keeps repeating every late December, New Years Resolutions are now a frequent topic of conversation. Perhaps we have the most noble intentions to improve our lives, or perhaps we can just no longer zip up any of our jeans: for many, the temptation to resolve and resolve some more is strong. And the idea of a fresh new year often comes with a desire to start totally anew and revise our lives. But most of us barely make it into February with our goals intact.

What would it take to make our resolutions stick? Research on goal-setting and achievement has a lot to teach us: our resolutions need to strike the right balance of being challenging but not unrealistic, and we also have to have extremely specific road maps and methods spelled out to meet those goals. We need to focus on the process rather than the outcome. And we'll fare much better if we focus on only one or two resolutions rather than an extreme makeover of our entire selves. Here are some of the most common (and failing) resolutions, and how you can clean them up to make them much more likely to become habits.

1. Lose 15 Pounds: Though a common urge after your 7th gallon of eggnog, making a goal of losing weight-- even with a specific number of pounds-- is not nearly specific enough. First, you've got to map out the tiny, daily steps that could actually achieve weight loss, and focus on the consistent meeting of those, rather than the all-or-none swoop of a major change. The former type of thinking will allow you to start each day-- and each buffet-- fresh, rather than being thrown off by a few days off track. Use some of the more specific steps outlined below in terms of eating and exercise to get you on your way.

2. Quit Smoking: This is a very healthy goal, of course— but it can also be a frustrating one. After all, when can you actually say that you've met it? After a month? A year? When your obituary comes out? Spell out exactly the steps you’ll use to cut down gradually, and give yourself plenty of positive reinforcement for mini-milestones along the way. Here's a made-over goal that's much more likely to stick: "Use the patch and an online support group to have a smoke-free week by St. Patrick's Day, when I'll treat myself to a spa treatment."

3. Spend Less: This can be extremely difficult not only because of it's lack of specificity, but because it's an avoidance goal rather than an approach goal, which is the same problem with "Get Out of Debt" and "Stop Wasting Money." Focus on the positive, not the negative. Come up with a weekly dollar amount to sock away or pay off, or a specific item or service that you’ll find a way to do more cheaply (automating a few dollars out of every paycheck to be diverted into a savings account, or even just vowing to switch your daily coffee indulgence to a drink that is 2 dollars cheaper, is a great way to make the habit do the work for you.) Then track your results weekly, if not daily. Make your original goal for only the month of January, so as not to overwhelm yourself, and reup the challenge every week.

4. Buckle Down and Get Organized: First you must streamline the goal itself, and realize that if you're not a naturally organized person, you will be much better off starting small and in ways that aren't about personality but about action. “Donate, recycle or trash three things each night” is far better than “Get the house under control.” Similarly, "Develop a habitual home for my crumpled junk mail, old takeout menus and sunglasses" is much more bound for success than "Minimize clutter."

5. Be a Better Person: One big problem with this goal is that it lacks accountability. Who will you recruit to assess your progress on this: the next eight people you meet on the subway? Instead, pick a particular behavior you can measure, yourself. “Volunteer in February at the Humane Society." "Do a random act of kindness on the first day of every month." "Do a gratitude meditation at least three times a week before bed." Even something as simple as "Make eye contact and smile when you say thank you to the cashier at the grocery store" or "Wait a half-second longer before beeping the horn when the light turns green" is something that is better than nothing.

6. Join a Gym: We all know that gym memberships skyrocket after the holidays, even if the vast majority of those new exercisers clear out by Valentine's Day. Instead, you need a much better behavioral yardstick, so that you can build consistency in the habit and even reward yourself when you measure up. In fact, why give your money to the gym at all if it's not particularly convenient or realistic? Start smaller with what you've got. “Take the stairs to my office on Friday,” or “Park in that way-off spot on Monday,” will jumpstart far more tangible progress. And if you choose a daily goal, keep it small-- and know that doing it for two or three weeks straight will help the habit solidify.

7. Eat Healthier: Vagueness, once again, is the downfall of this resolution. "Eat Healthier" also implies an overly aspirational rehaul of the type of person you are: after all, how we eat is a pretty big part of our being. Stay yourself, but just with a few small actions. How about starting to do Meatless Mondays? Or replacing the pasta you make most often with whole wheat? Or learning how to cook one new healthy meal by the 15th of each month? These changes allow for you to pat yourself on the back as you go, and they significantly reduce the possibility that you'll go "all-or-none" and feel like you've "failed" before the holiday decorations even come down.

Andrea Bonior, Ph.D., is a licensed clinical psychologist and media commentator. She is the author of The Friendship Fix, and Baggage Check, the longtime mental health column in the Washington Post Express. She serves on the faculty of Georgetown University.

Photo credit: Carol Van Hook