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Why New Year's Resolutions Fail

Updated on January 1, 2016
Sydney | Source

We see the end of the year as a time of reflection; the beginning of the next an opportunity to turn over a new leaf. But most of us… are doing it wrong.

The New Year’s Resolution has long been seen as a chance to set goals and change our behavior. Last year, 45% of Americans said they usually make a resolution. And they’re mostly about losing weight, doing regular exercise or saving money. But only 8% of those people actually achieved their resolution.

American psychologist Amy Cuddy writes that New Year’s Resolutions are "riddled with psychological traps that work against us."

First of all, most resolutions are too ambitious. Say you resolve to “go to the gym three times a week.” It sounds okay, I mean I could easily watch Netflix three times a week, so why not make that gym time? But it’s totally different and more of a commitment than you may realize, especially if it’s a new behavior. We often fall victim to the planning fallacy, where we underestimate the time it takes to complete a task. Sooner or later, but probably sooner, you’ll miss a gym visit and then you’ve failed. Repeated failure makes us lose confidence and it becomes more likely that we’ll stop.

new years day
new years day | Source

Typical New Year’s Resolutions are too results orientated. They focus on a lofty ambition – like “Quit smoking”, without considering the process, the steps we need to take to get there.

They’re also too long term, which makes goals difficult to imagine and relate to. Sometimes it’s hard to imagine what life will be like in one year’s time. We’ll have finished a whole new season of Game of Thrones by then. And often, resolutions are too negatively focused. We want to get rid of things – bad habits or weight, rather than build upon things that we’re good at.

This is why New Year’s Resolutions can be bad for us. Setting goals like this can lead to learned helplessness - where we give up what we’re capable of doing after we repeatedly fail.

Satterfield cartoon on New Year's Resolutions (1904)
Satterfield cartoon on New Year's Resolutions (1904) | Source

So… should we still make New Year’s Resolutions? Sure, just do it smartly. Back in the 1920s, Bluma Zeigarnik found that people have a better memory for tasks they haven’t yet completed; it’s now called the Zeigarnik effect.

So make your resolution a series of short-term tasks - with a positive focus - that you can keep tweaking towards your larger goal. Start a to-do list, figure out your approach, and it’s much more likely you’ll feel a niggling urge to complete the little things. And once you do, Richard Wiseman writes that planning a reward gives you a sense of achievement and keeps you on track. This way you can look back and feel accomplished about everything you’ve done and you can look forward towards your goal; all until next January rolls around.

In which category does your New Year's resolution lie?

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