6 reasons New Year’s resolutions fail – and what to do instead

Picture of a January calendar with 'Go!' written on the 1st of JanuaryMany people spend the last days of one year making great plans for the next – and then spend the first few weeks of the new year beating themselves up for failing again. But never fear! Here’s some of the science behind broken resolutions, along with better strategies for making positive, lasting changes – at any time.

1. You’re relying on willpower alone

One of the main reasons resolutions – or other change efforts – fail is because people often attempt to use willpower alone, and willpower is weak. It’s weak, and it’s limited, and it diminishes as ‘cognitive load’ increases – in other words, the more mental work you’re doing, the more your willpower gets drained1. This is why when you spend time wrestling with decisions (“Should I get up now and get to the gym before work, or would I better going tomorrow after work?” etc), you often end up doing nothing. Willpower is a finite resource, and not the best thing to rest your change efforts on.

SOLUTION: Create healthy, supportive habits and routines. That conversation about whether you should go to the gym this morning or tomorrow after work is unnecessary when you know that Tuesday morning is the time you go, and you’ve got into a pattern of going. Change requires rewiring of the brain, and forming new habits – mental and physical – does the rewiring. (More on habits – and a series of posts on habits for learning – coming soon. Subscribe on the right hand side if you don’t want to miss those!)


2. Your resolutions are too vague

The vaguer a goal, the harder it is to achieve – goals like ‘lose weight’ or ‘find a new job’ don’t inspire you to take specific actions at specific times and get you moving.

SOLUTION: Get specific about what exactly you want to do, how much, on what day, at what time and by when. Change “I’m going to find a new job by spring” into “I’m going to update my CV and LinkedIn profile on Saturday, between 2 and 4pm. On Sunday at 7pm I’m going to make a list of companies I’d like to work for and their contact details. On Monday after dinner (7:30pm) I’m going to write an on-spec cover letter for my top 3 picks. At lunchtime on Tuesday I’m going to post them.” And so on.


3. Your goals are too big and/or too many

Now, this one’s a bit of a grey area. Often people take on too much at one time, in an effort to reinvent themselves or turn their life around, setting unrealistic goals for themselves about what they can achieve in a certain timeframe. Some gurus will tell you to focus on one or two goal at a time. BUT: history is full of people who set themselves goals that other people thought were unrealistic, or juggled multiple roles or projects for a time whilst other people shook their heads saying “I don’t know where you find the time”. What’s unrealistic for one person is totally achievable for another with a plan and with big motivation. How will you decide what’s achievable for you?

SOLUTION: Do your research about time and costs involved with particular goals or projects. Do an audit of your time – where do you currently spend it, what could be cut back to focus on your goals, what can’t? What are your priorities? Make sure you’re making time for some rest and renewal, and for important relationships. Once you’ve gathered that info, make your own decisions about how many goals you want to work towards, and how big they should be to be realistic for you. Identify habits that will have a positive effect on multiple goals (e.g. regularly going to bed at 11pm instead of staying up late could help with health goals, productivity goals and relationship goals).


4.  You’ve got poor or no social support

It’s hard to succeed if you’re not supported – or worse – are being sabotaged, by people around you. There are many reasons why people might not be supportive of your goals: jealousy, fear of being left behind, projected beliefs about what’s achievable or realistic, a desire to prevent you from being hurt or disappointed.

SOLUTION: Be choosy about who you share your goals with. Accountability partners – people who you check in with to share your progress and challenges with – are a great support; people who roll their eyes or tell you all the reasons you’re going to fail aren’t. Avoid or minimise bad influences: be clear with them about your commitment to change, and make changes to your social habits if need be to avoid temptation. Build supportive relationships with people in your existing networks or find new ones. (See this post for ideas, and of course, consider working with a coach to help you progress faster.)


5. You can’t see yourself succeeding

In order to be successful at changing habits, you have to be able to see yourself succeeding. If you’re saying things like “I’m going to go to the gym three times a week and be more confident at work” but your self-image is of being lazy or a slob and being timid at work, there’s too much of a gap or conflict between the two for change to stick.

SOLUTION: Mentally rehearse your new behaviours before and while doing them for real, and use the verbal and body language of a person already succeeding at what you’re doing. Find role models and copy what they’re doing, until it becomes second nature to you, or you develop your own style. If you can’t see yourself in your mind’s eye carrying out these new behaviours, ask yourself if this is a change you really want to make. Remember that’s it’s less about what you want than how you want to be.


6. You give up too soon

For many people, the first failure is enough to make them give up. It’s become a popular belief that it takes 28 days to form a new habit, but in reality, it’s not so simple. A study by health researcher Philippa Lally and her team at University College London examined the habits of 96 volunteers over a 12-week period. They found that the time taken for habits to form ranged from 18 to 254 days, with participants taking on average 66 days to form a new habit2.

SOLUTION: If you slip up, get straight back into your new habit. Set yourself milestones to aim towards. When I quit smoking back in ’99, I set myself increasing goals for being smoke-free – one week, a fortnight, a month, three months, sixth months, a year. These milestones made it easier to make change last. Think about what might derail your changes, and how you’ll prevent, avoid or deal with those traps. Lally’s study also found that missing one opportunity to practice the new habit didn’t derail the process. So if you slip up, don’t tell yourself “that’s blown it”, and give up. Take the advice of that wise man Homer J. Simpson: blame yourself once, and move on.


There are two habits I really recommend everyone make a part of their everyday life: Mindfulness meditation and daily gratitude exercises. Click the links for more info about the how-to and massive benefits of both.

Enjoy the process, and Happy New Year!

*If you would like to work with me to help you achieve your goals, book a free taster session.*


1Fedorikhin, & Shiv, B. (1999). Heart and mind in conflict: The interplay of affect and cognition in consumer decision making. Journal of Consumer Science, 26(3), 278-292.

2Lally, P. et al. (2009). How are habits formed: Modelling habit formation in the real world. European Journal of Social Psychology.

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