The Psychology Behind Why New Year’s Resolutions Fail

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When the clock strikes midnight signaling the start of a new year, many adults will have committed themselves to a New Year’s resolution.

According to our reader poll on resolutions in December 2020, at least 44% of respondents planned to make resolutions for 2021 while Statista's Global Consumer Survey shows that 39% of U.S. adults will have made New Year's resolutions for 2022.

Whether it’s to lose weight, get out of debt, pursue a coveted hobby, socialize more, or something else, for many, making New Year's resolutions is part of the festivities. And with so many people committing to goals for the new year, the hope and optimism that change can happen is in the air. The reality is, however, that over 90% of New Year’s resolutions will be abandoned within just a few months.

Why aren’t we more successful at keeping our New Year’s resolutions? Some reasons include the idea that we're thinking too big, we're not considering the 'why' behind them, and the fact that we may not be ready for change. This article will further explain those ideas, including why we make New Year’s resolutions in the first place, the many reasons it’s difficult for us to follow through on them, and what we should do instead to create lasting change.

Why Do We Make New Year’s Resolutions?

In many ways, the ritual of making resolutions on New Year’s is arbitrary. After all, we can set goals at any time. What is it about the turning of the calendar year that makes us especially likely to commit to big goals? “The New Year [is] an opportunity for reflection,” observes licensed clinical psychologist Terri Bly of Ellie Mental Health in Mendota Heights, MN.

As a result, the coming of the new year may lead many of us to consider the changes we want to make or have been told to make in our lives. Then the ritual of making resolutions can serve as a motivator for us to commit to making those changes.

Jennifer Kowalski, a licensed professional counselor at Thriveworks in Cheshire, CT, agrees with this assessment. “A new year represents a fresh start, and people need something to signal a moment to refresh...” Kowalski notes, “…when something comes to an end, it's an opening to a new beginning.” And since everyone in the world experiences the new year on the same day, it’s a moment where many of the people around us are looking back on the old year and thinking about how to improve their lives in the new year. Consequently, the desire to make resolutions can be especially strong.

Yet, even though so many of us make New Year’s resolutions, we also regularly fail to keep them. So why do we even bother if we know our chances of success are slim? According to Bly, “As humans, we do tend to be optimistic in the face of evidence.” So even if we know the success rate of resolutions is low or we’ve failed to keep a New Year’s resolution in the past, each new year offers hope that this time our resolutions will finally stick.

Why Resolutions Fail

Unfortunately, optimism alone won’t result in the change we want. The reality is there are a number of things about the way we make New Year’s resolutions that set us up for failure before we’ve even started.

We’re Thinking Too Big

One of the biggest issues with New Year’s resolutions is that they often revolve around huge changes like adjusting our eating habits, getting more sleep, or becoming fluent in a new language. “Where we go wrong with New Year's resolutions is there's this idea that it's supposed to be some big, sweeping change, because that sounds kind of sexy,” Bly explained. “[But] as humans we’re not wired to make big, sweeping changes.”

Kowalski concurs, sharing, “In order to change a behavior, you have to be uncomfortable and nobody wants to be uncomfortable. So in order to see a lasting change, you have to be in a state of discomfort for a really long period of time…. People tend to set [New Year’s resolution] that are really big, and they might be achievable, but there are probably 30 steps they needed to take before they get to that place. And so they make it unattainable by not setting smaller, more immediate goals.”

Where we go wrong with New Year's resolutions is there's this idea that it's supposed to be some big, sweeping change, because that sounds kind of sexy. [But] as humans we’re not wired to make big, sweeping changes.

As a result, if we want to be able to meet our goal of, say, learning a language, we need to set smaller goals along the way to be successful, like devoting five minutes a day to learning a new word or phrase. That way we can ease ourselves into the change, instead of making an overwhelming change that we probably can’t sustain like planning to be fluent in the new language in four months.

We Aren't Asking Why

Change is hard, and as a result, Bly says, “the pain of not changing has to be greater than the pain of changing for us to really… change.” However, many of our resolutions tend to involve things we feel we should do. But when we focus on what we should do, we’re not focusing on what’s in it for us. One way we're more likely to change is to get at the heart of our internal reason for wanting to.

“Usually New Year's resolutions are optional things," Bly notes, “and so if we hate doing it, any goal we set is just pain and we're not really sure what the reward is going to be, we’re not going to do it.” For example, if our resolution is to go to the gym three times a week but we hate going to the gym, we won’t meet our goal. 

The pain of not changing has to be greater than the pain of changing for us to really… change.

TERRI BLY, LICENSED CLINICAL PSYCHOLOGIST

Instead, Bly explains, we need to know our personal reasons for our goal. If that's to go to the gym, we need to dig deeper and ask ourselves why. For instance, if we want to go to the gym, is it because we want to get in shape, because we want to feel healthier, or something else?

If we know the reason we're making a particular resolution, we may find there are other routes to achieving it that will be more enjoyable and satisfying for us and, therefore, make us more likely to stick with it over the long term. “[We need to have an] understanding of… what is the thing I want for myself? How might I get that?” Bly observes. “That is going to be way better than a ‘should.’”

We Aren’t Ready to Change

Another reason we can’t commit to our New Year’s resolutions long-term is that we aren’t ready to change. Bly points to the Stages of Change model as a way to understand the process people go through before they're psychologically ready to change. The model consists of the following stages:

  • Precontemplation: You’re starting to become aware that there may be something to change
  • Contemplation: You’re thinking about making a change
  • Preparation: You start putting a plan together to make a change
  • Action: You make the change
  • Maintenance: You determine how to maintain the change

Bly posits that the people who stick with their New Year’s resolutions are likely at the Action stage when they make their resolution, while those that fail are not. This indicates that people who make New Year's resolutions on a whim are unlikely to succeed. Instead, a certain amount of thought and psychological—and possibly physical—preparation and planning has to go into a New Year's resolution in order to sustain it.

Creating Lasting Change

Kowalski notes that we often stay the same out of habit, but change can become a habit too—if we stick with it. However, when we set big, overwhelming New Year's resolutions, we also set up the expectation that we’re going to turn over an entirely new leaf on January 1. But real change requires incremental changes so we can make ourselves comfortable with the change and ensure the change becomes habitual. 

“If you go all in and you only do it for the month of January, that doesn't create a habit,” Kowalski says. “It's about getting yourself in the habit of doing [new things].” But that only works if you’ve created a New Year’s resolution that isn’t too uncomfortable and makes you believe you can keep at it.

As a result, instead of setting one big New Year's resolution that people may quickly come to believe is unattainable, Bly suggests that New Year’s might be a good time to create a timeline for the next year that sets a variety of small milestones that will help us get to a bigger goal over time. While it’s not as sexy as a traditional New Year's resolution, this will work better with our psychology and make it far more likely that the changes we make actually last.

2 Sources
Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Statista. Global Consumer Survey.

  2. Griffiths M. The psychology of New Year's resolutions. The Conversation. 2016.

By Cynthia Vinney
Cynthia Vinney, PhD is an expert in media psychology and a published scholar whose work has been published in peer-reviewed psychology journals.