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Why Most People Ditch Their New Year’s Resolutions by February

You don’t have to be one of them.

Key points

  • Research suggests many people will ditch their resolutions by February.
  • To persist, people should focus on the fun aspects of a goal even if the goal is more important than fun.
  • Enjoyment is critical because humans respond more strongly to immediate outcomes.

I’m not trying to be negative, but chances are that you’ll ditch your New Year’s resolutions by February. I know this based on the data behavioral scientists collect about goal adherence: people go to the gym and buy loads of healthy food when January begins, but those behaviors dwindle after a few weeks. Other resolutions similarly fail to survive beyond the New Year’s confetti. But it doesn’t have to be this way.

One big reason resolutions fail is that our intuitions lead us astray. Most of us intuitively plan to put the fun aside so we can get serious about our goals. But the latest research from my lab and others’ tells us this is the wrong approach. People who set resolutions that are immediately rewarding, and not only in the long run, are more likely to stick to them many months later.

Recently, Kaitlin Woolley and I invited people to choose between two paid tasks: listening to the song “Hey Jude” by The Beatles in return for a small payment or listening to a loud alarm clock going off in return for a larger payment. Most people chose to listen to the alarm clock to maximize their earnings, which may have seemed sensible, yet they underestimated how much less fun it is to listen to an alarm clock than Paul McCartney. After completing the task, people who chose the alarm clock option regretted their choice more than those who listened to the song. In a subsequent study, people predicted they would persist longer on reading a dense computer manual than reading jokes, when reading the manual paid more. They were wrong. Those assigned to read jokes persisted longer—how much the task paid had no effect.

Armed with this knowledge, we tested what predicts adherence to New Year’s resolutions. We asked people about their resolutions in January and followed up in March to see if they were still working toward their goals. We found that the importance of the resolution didn’t predict adherence, instead what mattered was the extent to which that person found it enjoyable. For example, whether people were still eating healthier food in March depended not on whether eating well was important for them, only on how much they liked those foods.

Enjoyment is critical for following through with resolutions because humans and animals alike respond strongly to immediate outcomes. If doing something makes you feel good while you do it, you’re more likely to persist than if you think it’ll make you feel good in the future. You’ll be less excited about getting $100 in a year than right now (which is why saving is so hard). You’ll be similarly less enthusiastic about exercising if you expect it will make you feel good next month than if it makes you feel good immediately.

When you enjoy what you do, you’re intrinsically motivated. You pursue the activity for its own sake. You might even find it strange to answer what you get from it, because the main purpose for engaging in the task is simply to be able to. In your mind, there’s a perceptual fusion between the activity and its purpose; these two are one.

Yet, many people end up neglecting the importance of intrinsic motivation when setting resolutions, in part because of what motivational scientists call the “empathy gap.” The empathy gap is the tendency to underestimate the strength of an experience that you’re not currently having. When you get behind the wheel first thing in the morning for a long drive, you feel fresh and find it hard to imagine how you’ll feel once the fatigue sets in, so you plan to drive for too many hours. And when setting a resolution, you don’t pay enough attention to how it’ll feel a month or two later. In planning a resolution that allows for no immediate enjoyment, you show little empathy to your future self who will be miserable and therefore much more likely to give up. Instead, to make your future-self more likely to follow through, set your resolutions when you’re in a similar state and therefore, sympathetic to the person you’ll be when pursuing them. Plan your career transition when you’re at work and your morning workouts early in the morning.

This doesn’t mean we should set only fun resolutions. Setting a resolution implies that you’re not too excited to follow through with that goal. Clearly, sports fans can watch game after game for hours and ice cream lovers can get through gallons of ice cream. But these aren’t anyone’s resolutions. A resolution is inherently not something you already love to do. So how can you make it fun?

Start by looking for the fun path. When choosing a workout, consider playing sports instead of treadmilling. When choosing healthy food, select something that tastes amazing. When we instructed gym-goers to select a weight-lifting exercise that they most enjoyed, instead of the one that they believed was most effective, they completed approximately 50% more repetitions. The former group persisted longer, even though they chose similarly difficult workouts.

Another strategy is to make the activity fun. One study found that when people resolved to listen to an audiobook they enjoyed only when they exercised, they exercised more. The researchers called it “temptation bundling” because it involves adding a temptation, like an addictive book or a trashy TV show to something you ought to do.

Alternatively, you can reframe your resolution to help you see the fun. For instance, across several campus cafeterias, presenting foods as tasty increased consumption more than presenting them as healthy. College students were more excited about eating “Herb ’n’ Honey Balsamic Glazed Turnips” than “Healthy Choice Turnips,” even though they were the same turnips presented with different descriptions.

Finally, as long as the outcome is immediate, it doesn’t even need to be pleasurable. For example, learning can be a long process and progress can be imperceptible, but if you experience self-growth, intrinsic motivation rises. When we invited students at the learning center of Chicago’s Second City improvisation club to seek discomfort, they became more engaged in learning. Literally encouraging them to “feel awkward and uncomfortable as a sign that the exercise is working” increased their engagement more than telling them to “see if the exercise is working.” Improvising in front of an audience can feel awkward, but when people experienced the immediate discomfort as a signal of self-growth, it felt motivating.

Your New Year’s resolutions aren’t destined to fail; you just have to set them wisely. Don’t mistake the absence of fun for wisdom: The wisest approach is to recognize that you’re most likely to stick to resolutions you actually enjoy.

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