Experts tell us why it's so difficult to keep a New Year's resolution

The New Year brings with it a multitude of good intentions, with many of us determined to improve our lives one way or another. So why do the majority fail?

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Every year on or before January 1, many of us commit to a new beginning of sorts. Sadly, it takes but a few days, weeks, or months before the willpower fades. The time of year to make renewed promises to ourselves has rolled around again, be it to lose weight, start a new career or begin saving for that nest egg you will want some day.

New Year’s resolutions are a little like your first teenage love affair. They start with so much promise, hope and expectation, but after a short while – months if you have staying power, weeks if you’re like the rest of us – they lose their appeal and you become distracted and move on to new things.

Few stick their New Year’s resolutions out, with about 80 per cent of us unable to commit beyond February.

Why then, do we continue to make these annual promises to ourselves that we can’t seem to keep? Life coach Sophia Fromell, who is based in Fujairah, insists that the New Year’s resolution is more than just a contemporary fad. It’s deeply rooted in modern civilisation.

“The first New Year’s resolutions go back to 4,000 years ago when the Babylonians made promises to their gods in order to gain their favour,” says Fromell. “Later, Julius Caesar established the tradition of making resolutions by making January 1 the beginning of the New Year, circa 46BC.”

January, the month in which our New Year’s resolutions are most ardent, is actually named after the Roman God Janus, who had the ability to look back on the past and forward into the future with his two faces. About 2,000 years ago, Romans were offering promises they couldn’t keep to Janus, just as we do now to ourselves and anyone who will listen.

In the 18th and 19th centuries, the term “New Year’s resolution” was coined and used in popular literature. There’s no escaping the fact that regardless of how successful we are at them, we continue to make resolutions year after year.

“New year’s resolutions are great motivators,” says Fromell, explaining the science behind our cultural obsession with the “New Year, New Me” hype. “They activate our brain’s pleasure centres and give us a boost of positivity and happiness.”


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We actually feel better once we resolve to make a change for the better, she says. What’s more, research has actually proven that the success rates for those setting resolutions is about 10 times higher than the success rate of people who express a wish to change but who don’t make resolutions or set goals for themselves.

Perhaps then, it’s not the making of the resolution itself that sets us up for an inevitable failure – it’s the manner in which we make these promises to ourselves that may be contributing to our inability to remain on the proverbial path of righteousness.

January may be seen as a month for the renewal of vows to ourselves, but might there be a better time to get started on a project of self-improvement?

Tia Hall-Davis, a business development and marketing professional based in Dubai, isn’t so strict on setting her resolutions in January. “Long term goals shouldn’t be set as a result of another calendar year coming to a close. They should be set by where you are in life and by the means of which you are physically able to achieve them,” she says.  

Karla Moutran, co-founder of The Retreat Collection and general manager of Naya Yoga & Pilates in Motor City, agrees, saying “any day is a good day to start something different. I think what really matters is for the action to take place there and then when you feel you’re ready to really embrace it”.

What’s more important is to set a date that works for you. A new start in the new year may provide us with the initial momentum to set goals, but maintaining those goals often comes down to the state of mind we are in and our positioning at the time.

All the professionals we spoke to agree that the time to set goals and resolutions should not be determined by the month of January. Instead, we should look to change when we

Dubai personal trainer Rob Donker ( insists "the only time to even consider starting [a new fitness routine] is when you truly want to make changes in your life".

If January gives us a kick-start in getting going, that’s great, but maintaining these resolutions may take more than a verbal affirmation.

Part-time Dubai resident Lisa Stockham makes resolutions each year and believes she has cracked the code to sticking to them. “I think making your New Year goals more positive, simple and effective can only be a good thing,” she says. “When I was younger they would always be things like stopping a vice or losing weight. Now I try to be more positive and take on, try or learn something new. I’m still going to pilates now a year after setting 2017’s resolution to try that.”

There’s science behind Lisa’s New Year’s resolution success story. “We are more likely to maintain behaviours that we find intrinsically rewarding,” says psychotherapist Chasity O’Connell, adding that a resolution involving doing something interesting that feels good, or is satisfying and meaningful in and of itself, is likely to get you further than trying to restrict, stop or curb you.

O’Connell uses weight loss as a way to illustrate this point. “If someone is trying to lose 40 pounds [18kgs], it is more helpful to frame that goal in terms of one’s health, wellness and desire to feel stronger, as opposed to ‘being sick of being fat or wanting to look better in a bathing suit’,” she says. “It’s not to say that it’s wrong to choose those goals, but which set of goals is going to motivate your behaviour in a lasting and meaningful way?”

A positive view on our goals and targets for the year ahead could well be the answer to maintaining our resolutions this January (or February, or March…).

Instead of setting goals to “quit smoking” or “lose weight”, a resolution “to become stronger, healthier and more active” may well have a more lasting and positive effect on our lifestyles. Similarly, “quit my job” may not be as motivational as “make a new career move that excites and fulfils me”.

“Asking yourself, ‘What do I value and what is important to me?’ is a great way to start,” advises O’Connell. “If there is a ‘should’ in the answer, then it will be more difficult to work toward lasting change.”

Approaching our resolutions from a new, less punitive angle may well be the answer to sticking to our guns this year. Life coaches and psychotherapists use the ‘Smart’ acronym to define exactly how we should be setting goals for ourselves. Is your New Year’s resolution: Specific, measurable, achievable, realistic and time-driven? If it isn’t, then you may be less likely to achieve your goals for the year ahead.

Setting the bar too high and then punishing ourselves for not achieving what was near impossible in the first place is a major pitfall of the New Year’s resolution, say both Donker
and Fromell.

“Do not overcommit or set unrealistic goals for yourself,” advises Fromell. “Don’t commit to going to the gym daily. Real life will take hold and you won’t follow your resolution. Instead, commit to going to the gym twice a week.”

The “New Year, New Me” adage needn’t be just hype, if only we did it right – 2018 could be the year of the new New Year’s resolution. A realistic, positive target that is put into action and worked towards at a time that’s exactly right for us as individuals.

But what if we fail? “Failure is part of the process,” says O’Connell. “Recovery or restarting from failure is a wonderful skill to learn, grow and develop from.”

Besides, falling off the wagon in January is a great reason to get back onto it again in February (and in March, April, May… )

Expert tips on how to stick to your goals

The benefits of making New Year’s resolutions are many, if only we did it right. From the offset, resolving to make a change sets off the brain’s pleasure centres and activates feelings of happiness within us. Post that, the resolutions we make only serve to further improve our quality of life and state of being. Using the New Year as a catalyst to try something new and approach life differently can really work. Here, the experts provide their insights into making and sticking by your 2018 resolutions.

Look back to look forward

"Instead of looking at all the things you failed to do last year, set some time aside to review the past 12 months and focus instead on the things you have achieved. Where were you on January 1 last year and where are you now? Looking at what you have achieved is a great motivator; it will demonstrate how you have moved forward and put you in a creative mindset. So when you are thinking about the coming year, you are
more likely to feel encouraged and driven to achieve more."

Sophia Fromell, life coach

Visualise your success

“I personally choose three areas of my life I’d like to focus on, say family, personal and community. I then set a couple of things I’d like to see happen, visualise it and ultimately plan for it, with the freedom of knowing that this may happen or manifest itself in other forms and shapes. In that way I do not get disappointed if things do not necessarily happen the way I’d expected it.”

Karla Moutran, yoga retreat founder 

"Never set goals in a notebook or on your phone. Set them on a board and keep them where you can see them often. Don't let them drift out of sight and out of mind."

Toleen Badawi, life coach 

Fulfil, don’t deprive

“New Year’s resolutions often tend be focused on things we are going to give up. But that in itself can move us into a ‘deprivation’ mindset, which often only makes us crave what we’re giving up even more. The new idea is to form goals with a clear focus on the ‘Why?’”

Zeta Yarwood, life coach

Stress less

“Stress decreases your ability to commit to making new neural pathways in the brain. When you are stressed, you go back to your ‘default’ habits. Introduce stress-reducing elements to your environment [aromatherapy, greenery, candles, staying away from toxic people, turning off the Wi-Fi]. In order to stay conscious and on course, we have to manage our stress and our time.”

Saliha Afridi, clinical psychologist

Set realistic goals

"In order to have long-term success with your resolutions, don't implement too many or too difficult changes. For example, to change your nutrition habits, start week one with drinking at least two litres of water per day; week two, swap unhealthy snacking with fruit or nuts; week three, remove sugar from coffee and so on, and so forth. After a few small changes each week, over three months there will be big changes in total." Rob Donker, personal trainer  

Know what it will take

“The Smart [Specific, measurable, achievable, realistic and time-driven] acronym is a great one for goal-setting. Realistic goals are crucial, otherwise you are setting yourself up for something unachievable. It can be helpful to include not just the goal, but how hard you plan on working towards that goal. Goal striving can be an important part of the puzzle.”

Chasity O’Connell, psychotherapist


"Plan for the obstacles before you start. When was the last time you tried to stop or change this habit and what got in the way? It's also good to have a bounce-back plan. What will happen if you get off-track? What will you do to get back on the right track rather than give up?"

Saliha Afridi, clinical psychologist