Why do New Year's resolutions fail? Experts weigh in on how to make them stick

Ditching the January 1 deadline and making your pledges on ‘psychological’ rather than calendar time might be the answer to achieving your new year promises

January is the traditional time to make New Year resolutions, but the argument can be made that it is more beneficial to switch to a method that reflects your personal time, rather than that of the global calendar. Hillary Black / Unsplash
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Symbolic of the fresh start the New Year presents, or a way of setting yourself up for failure the moment January gets going? Opinions on New Year’s resolutions are divided.

While some enjoy making a list of what they hope to achieve over the coming months and look forward to ticking off each achievement, others are convinced that a wish list of things that may or may not get done remains an unwanted nagging reminder of personal disappointment.

“A New Year may symbolise a turning point between the past and the future, an occasion we can call a ‘new beginning’,” says Dr Diana Cheaib Houry, psychotherapist at Thrive Wellbeing Centre. “We make resolutions to encourage ourselves to reach goals that are hard to achieve without a serious decision.”

Mandeep Jassal, a behavioural therapist at Priory Wellbeing Centre Abu Dhabi, says: “New Year resolutions help individuals to manifest their goals and create a vision for the year ahead, which provides both focus and direction. This is particularly useful at the start of the year to give a fresh outlook and purpose for the next 12 months.”

Resolutions differ from person to person and from culture to culture, but similarities often appear in the pledges made.

Weight loss, new jobs or promotions, healthier lifestyles and saving money tend to feature globally, alongside taking up new hobbies, self-care and environmental promises such as reducing waste or recycling more.

A recent survey of more than 2,000 adults in the UK by GoCompare found that two out of five people planned to make resolutions for 2022. Alongside the usual wishes, people also hoped to spend less on grocery shopping and cut back on food delivery.

Why do we make New Year’s resolutions?

The idea of putting together promises for the year ahead has its roots in religion. People used to make small promises to the gods they worshipped, for example, that they would return borrowed items or repay debts. The Romans made their promises to the god Janus, after whom January is named, inextricably linking the practice with the start of the year.

“When we want to change something in our life that makes us unhappy and discontent, we make resolutions to fix that issue,” says Taruna Karamchandani, therapist at Miracles Dubai. “New Year is usually a popular time when people want to press the reset button and give themselves a second chance to get in control of their lives. The New Year is the beginning of a new chapter – a chapter for many to create something new or get some things right.”

Why you should (and shouldn’t) make resolutions

There are benefits to making a list of things you would like to achieve within a set time frame. One that particularly resonates during these pandemic times is the hope that resolutions can offer, along with the ability to believe change is possible. Resolutions can also make the changes we wish to effect feel more concrete and therefore more achievable. The act of writing out them requires a certain amount of introspection and reflection, both on the year past and the one ahead.

“Resolutions can provide a sense of direction, for example, in an individual’s career, spiritual or social life – all of which help to create a growth mindset,” says Jassal. “As individuals learn and expand their mind, they often find this can help them to open up and create more opportunities in their life.”

Alternatively, making resolutions can force individuals into a cyclical rather than organic way of thinking. Much as a person might abandon their diet “until next Monday” if they break it mid-week, so too might resolution-makers be tempted to throw their pledges out the window if they break them by January 20.

More recently, the notion that adhering to a less rigid “resolutions must be made in January” way of thinking has been gaining traction, particularly in conversations around mental health.

“Many people go about attaining their goals from a ‘need’, ‘should’ and ‘want’ space,” says Karamchandani. “It almost gives a sense that if the goal isn’t achieved, their lives will come to a standstill. This ‘desperation energy’ puts unwanted pressure on them, which in turn impacts the momentum, so they are likely to give up.”

Why do resolutions fail?

Resolutions often become a list of unwavering, one-dimensional promises we make to ourselves – lose weight, get a pay rise, meet a partner – whereas the life goals most likely to succeed are ones that are built over years, a fact making them difficult to quantify in list form.

“Any change requires time,” says Houry. “Change is a process that needs to be respected: if we are not ready to eat healthy on December 31, nothing much will change on January 1 to make eating healthy more feasible. What we need to be aware of is that our ‘psychological time’ does not necessarily follow physical time.”

Houry adds: “Knowing that, rushing the process can put us under pressure and set us up for failure. We can start blaming and criticising ourselves, which can have an impact on our self-esteem. If this happens repetitively, we will believe less in our will and in the possibility of change. It can also make us abandon our goals, if not lose hope.”

An intrinsic problem with resolutions is that they are inherently self-critical. Pledges such as losing weight, joining a gym or attaining a promotion are mired in the suggestion that we, as we are now, are not good enough. That if we could only fix certain aspects of our lives, we would be happy. Such an approach to self-betterment leaves little room for nuance, such as factoring in our personal strengths or our worth before we attempt sweeping changes.

“For a lot of us, the resolutions stem from a space of seeking validation from others,” says Karamchandani. “It has barely anything to do with what we would like to feel by the end of the day or year, or how it might contribute to our surroundings.”

Making resolutions during a pandemic

With the global pandemic entering its third year, resolutions aren’t the only thing to have been relegated to the “things we used to care about” pile.

“The pandemic made us realise anything can happen anytime. In other words, things can be unpredictable and what we planned for can simply not happen,” says Houry.

The need for PCR testing, school closures and the novelty having worn off work-from-home – with so much uncertainty in the world, why resolve to do, well, anything?

“The work-from-home routine can make it difficult for many to build relationships with their peers and socialise,” says Jassal. “As a result, individuals are somewhat limited with their New Year’s resolutions and what they can achieve this year in particular.”

The enduring attraction of making resolutions lies in their whitewashing, redemptive appeal. Making a list of all the things you’ll do better this year can help lay to rest the ghosts of failures of the previous year, allowing you to start the next 365 days with a clean slate.

“Let’s not set many resolutions at once,” advises Houry. “Change is a hard process that needs adjustment and can be consuming.”

“With unprecedented circumstances around us, whereby everything is shifting and changing at the speed of light, the resolution that one should make is to be flexible and let go of resistance,” says Karamchandani. “The start of the year or the start of your journey within doesn’t have to begin on January 1. One can commence this journey at any given point during the year. What matters is that you start.”

Updated: May 31, 2023, 6:39 AM