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Why New Year’s Resolutions Don’t Work

It’s that time of year again where people realize they need to make changes in order to be more successful, happier, or just better in general. It is natural to think of the new year as a chance to start over. It is a different year and the next digit in the year column is worthy of reflection and overhaul. In fact, for those who recognize the changes that need to be made, you have successfully gotten past the first step. Unfortunately, resolutions do not work because people have conflicting desires and there is scientific evidence that proves this.

Conflicting Desires and Resolutions

One of the most common New Year’s resolutions involves losing weight, which is why gym memberships swell in January by up to 30% in some urban areas. People look at themselves throughout the year and see weight they wish could be lost. The new year signifies a time to break from their old habits and take the step in the right direction.

However, the biggest problem is that people do not want to break from their old habits. In the large majority of people who make weight loss resolutions, the abrupt change in year is not the catalyst for change. Rather, it is usually weeks or months prior to the new year that people recognize their physical flaws. Despite recognizing their flaws, they do nothing about it, but instead wait for a fresh start. The reason most people wait is because they enjoy the refined sugar, pizza, pasta, soda, and all other unhealthy foods while at the same time they want to lose weight. These conflicting desires prevent instant action and make success for a New Year’s resolution a distant allusion. According to a survey of 3,000 people by Richard Wiseman in 2007, of all resolutions, 88% end in failure so the odds are against you.

If you feel as though there is something wrong with your body, your career, or any other part of yourself, make the change the instant you recognize that is the case. “Oh, I’ll wait until tomorrow” is not good enough if you want to have any real success. Recognize why it is that you are conflicted about your desires and then be absolute in your resolve one way or the other.

The Science of New Year’s Resolutions

There is also scientific evidence that shows why maintaining resolutions is so difficult within the brain. The less developed pre-frontal cortex takes on such tasks as abstract problem solving, short-term memory, and maintaining focus. When preoccupied with a new task of sticking to your New Year’s exercise resolution, for example, the prefrontal cortex cannot cope for long.

One experiment performed at Stanford University divided subjects into two groups. Group A was given a two digit number while Group B was given a seven digit number. Subjects in both groups were told to walk to the end of the hall and choose between chocolate cake or fruit salad. The subjects in Group B were almost twice as likely to choose chocolate cake due to what Baba Shiv calls the additional “cognitive load” that the larger number presented. Numerous other studies met with similar results.

Making the Change Stick

Like any other muscle, the willpower muscle in your brain has to be exercised constantly. Even though it is nice to think of the new year as a fresh start to make the change, you probably will not succeed in this endeavor. Indeed, even if you can reconcile your conflicting desires, without practice strengthening willpower, you will most likely fail anyway. My recommendation, and goal for myself, is to make frequent, immediate, and unyielding changes to willpower every time I realize a flaw that can be corrected. Lucky for me, there are plenty.

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by Connor Kozlov

Thanks for reading! I hope you enjoyed my article. I'm Austin, TX based and I love the Paleo diet, meditation, proper fitness, and entrepreneurship. But I'm really about PLAY!

11 comments… add one

  1. I have thought very carefully about my ‘resolutions’ this year. Really as soon as I decide that I want to make a change in my life, I do it then and there, without waiting for a new year, new month, or new week to start.

    But I decided to step up my game and set some achievable new year resolutions. I’ve set some ongoing habits that I would like to gain, such as flossing my teeth, meditating daily and going to the gym. However, most people do this for a few days or weeks, and then miss a day, and give up. I’ve decided to track my progress on paper and with a phone app, and focus on increasing the quantity of times that I succeed at this new habit. So, if one night I forget to floss my teeth, I just won’t give myself a tick. At the end of each week and each month, I’ll tally up how many times I achieved my goal, and aim to try and increase this amount month by month, so that by the end of the year, I shall be flossing, meditating, and exercising more often than if I hadn’t have put in the conscious effort to try.
    I’ve also set some one-off goals, such as graduating uni with a first, and getting a job, and with these I focus on doing my best each month to contribute to this one-off goal.

    I don’t necessarily think that new year resolutions don’t work. It just depends on the way that you approach the situation. Say for example, you have the resolution to “eat healthier”, it’s such a vague yet vast goal to have, it’s not going to be something that you can track your progress with, or know if you’re doing well or not. If you want a resolution to work, it requires a lot of thought and planning to be serious about it. You can’t quit smoking by saying to yourself “yeah I think I might maybe quit or something, I dunno”. You have to work hard and use a lot of willpower to make it happen. Same with resolutions.

    I just hope that everyone continues on their journey of improving their self discipline and becoming happier, more well-rounded people!

    1. Wow, great one! I’m glad you have gotten into flossing, meditation and the gym. Flossing is supposed to be even more important than brushing they say.

      Also, congrats on using paper and a phone app to track your progress. I bet you will find that over time you are much more inclined to make it a habit and stick to things better.

      I’m sure there are people that can be successful with new Year’s resolutions, but I just think that it shows a fundamental lack of drive / desire that some people really need.

  2. Nice read. Within our culture there’s no expectation for anyone to keep their New Years resolutions. If they do happen to keep to them, its almost as if they’ve beaten the odds and succeeded. Maybe having smaller, more realistic goals which create less dissonance with the inertia of existing lifestyle is the way to achieve more sustainable goals.

    1. Great idea, c-type. Being realistic with your goals can be a huge issue when it comes to succeeding. If I say my goal is to make billions this year, I have no “buy-in” because the goal isn’t even realistic.

      This doesn’t mean set the bar low, just that you should keep in mind your own limitations so that you believe in it enough.

      Also, it is a shame, but you are absolutely right. Actually succeeding with your New Year’s resolutions is beating the odds. Gyms love that this is the case, but it does little for the average person, unfortunately.

  3. This year I’m doing monthly resolutions. This month is 3 things:

    1) stop biting my nails (i bought this bitter nail polish which is helping a lot actually… i have some nail!)
    2) Drink a gallon of water a day
    3) Salad everyday for lunch (esp. work days)

    And so far it’s working. I think I can keep it up for a month. I will try to continue them into the next months, but if not its ok because I’ll be challenging myself with some other useful resolutions..

    1. Nice work!

      1) I had to do that too! I actually thought braces would work, but after I got them off I started doing it again. Somehow I just matured past it and decided to quit one day. I haven’t done it since (no idea what clicked, though!)

      2) Wow, that is a serious goal! I drink about 3 liters and that feels like quite a bit.

      3) Not sure your body type, but it is healthy. Get some healthy olive oil and lean protein in there!

      Hope you have been able to maintain these goals :)

  4. Yeah, if you can’t start right away, starting on January 1st isn’t going to work.

  5. New Year’s resolutions, and other date based resolutions have worked really well for me for the last 10 years or so. I find that having a specific date to start my goals helps me to get prepared to actually succeed and gives some structure to my goals.

    I also never make vague, open ended “wish” type resolutions (like “lose weight” or “get fit”), my resolutions are very specific (this years include doing 30 minutes of yoga 4 times a week and 60 minutes twice a week, and following a rotating house cleaning schedule that lays out exactly what I do on each day per month.) Or my resolutions are specific things to improve my relationships–a permanent one is to listen more than I talk, still working on that one, but I’m definitely getting better at shutting up.

    I think the main reason why most people fail at their resolution is that they try to do too many things at once or their goals are too big (lose 100lbs, find my soul mate, learn Spanish), or too vague (what exactly does getting fit mean? It probably means something different to everyone.) Another huge mistake is they don’t set themselves up to succeed. Trying to diet, quit smoking and run 5K alone is pretty well guaranteed to fail. Find a support system. I’m not particularly social, but I’m an inverterate planner and list writer, so I plan out my resolutions pretty extensively. If I want to change how I eat, I identify all the foods I want to include in my diet (instead of what I need to cut out), make lists of recipes that are easy to throw together and a meal plan for the week. This is why I like to have a start date, I plan and prepare for the chosen date, then when it comes, it’s usually way easier to follow the resolution than not.

    So, anyway, don’t really want to say “no, you’re wrong”, but it’s always annoying to me when these “New Years Resolutions don’t work” posts crop up, because I can tell you I’ve found some really great success with them and there are probably others who will too. For me, the “just do it” approach has never worked, while advance planning and goals have.

    1. Great comment. A few points from me:

      1) I definitely think specificity can go a long way to helping you achieve your goals. Without having a specific desire, there is no way to succeed in my opinion. There are plenty of studies showing this.

      2) I never thought about it from the perspective of preparing yourself, growing anticipation and then actually taking the leap. That is a good point. As I have always said, different things work for different people.

      Foremost, I am glad you have found something that has worked for the entire past decade! Wow! Congrats

  6. I have achieved my goals in the past,the problem i have now is age.Once i
    have reached 50 i slack and make excuses more.At this age the body goes
    through its own changes and it all seems downhill from here how do i get
    over this mental block and stay with my goals in a positive way?

    1. Hi Vince, my first suggestion is to try not to define yourself based on your age. Do not allow age to become an excuse. Instead, embrace the age and utilize the wisdom in order to achieve your goals. Best of luck!


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