Why people make New Year's resolutions they can’t keep — and how to actually stick to them

Why people make New Year's resolutions
When people realize it takes time, commitment and discipline to stick to a New Year's resolution, they often give up. (Photo illustration: Aïda Amer for Yahoo News; photos: Getty Images)

You’re familiar with New Year’s Day — the annual event that offers a fresh slate for anyone who wants it. (See also: “New year, new me!”) However, you’re less likely to have heard of the little devil to its angel known as Ditch New Year’s Resolution Day. It falls on January 17 and invites people — who, just 16 short days earlier, had such promise in their eyes — to recklessly abandon goals of weight loss, saving money or other lofty forms of existential renewal in favor of returning to their regular ole selves.

Yes, blowing New Year’s resolutions is so common that there’s a holiday for it. The question is: Why make resolutions in the first place if failure seems so inevitable? This repeat offense can be explained by the “fresh-start effect” — and Yahoo Life spoke to experts to better understand it.

Why do people make New Year’s resolutions in the first place?

In the same way people perceive Mondays as an opportunity to make a new week better than the last, they do so with New Year’s Day but on a macro level, Gina Moffa, therapist and author of Moving On Doesn't Mean Letting Go: A Modern Guide to Navigating Loss, tells Yahoo Life. Both are examples of the fresh-start effect, a term coined by researcher Katy Milkman to describe the phenomenon of significant dates like New Year’s serving as a prompt to make new goals and change your behaviors, says Nicole Siegfried, a clinical psychologist and chief clinical officer at Lightfully Behavioral Health.

“These points in time spark motivation, energy and optimism, which results in setting new goals and commitments,” Siegfried tells Yahoo Life. People are especially susceptible to the effect on New Year's because — well, it’s kind of in the name. The holiday calls on people to reflect and “take inventory of [their] lives” and then make changes where they see fit, says Siegfried. She also says the peer pressure around resolutions is real: Some people make them simply because everyone else is doing it.

That mix of motivations is enough for the same cycle to run its course year after year, despite what may have happened in the past, adds Moffa.

Why do resolutions so often fail?

“Approximately 40% of us make New Year’s resolutions, with almost 60% of young adults making resolutions,” says Siegfried. “At the same time, almost 90% of New Year’s resolutions are abandoned.”

The biggest perpetrator of that statistical gap is simply blind optimism, says Siegfried. All too often, resolutions are unrealistic or immeasurable, meaning they can’t be broken down into achievable small steps that lead to success. That gets even more complicated when goals are physical-appearance-related, which is very common, Siegfried adds.

For example, Moffa cites the common goal of working out more, which might come with a gym membership. “People don't take into account concrete planning and the motivation behind the gym membership,” Moffa explains. “Is it just to lose weight? Is it just to get into shape?” When concrete intentions or smaller in-between goals aren’t set, a desire for instant gratification takes over. “Most people tend to want a more immediate outcome, and when it's proven that it can take time, commitment and discipline, they tend to give up,” she adds.

How to set realistic goals you’ll actually reach

Now for the good news. Just because your New Year’s resolutions have failed in the past doesn’t mean you can’t ever achieve them. Try these tips for setting realistic ones, according to experts.

1. Try the S.M.A.R.T. technique

Siegfried has a handy acronym for making sure your goals are measurable and therefore achievable, which “results in better outcomes,” she says. It’s as simple as S.M.A.R.T.: “Goals should be Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant and Time-bound."

An example: “I want to improve my health” is not a S.M.A.R.T. goal. To be S.M.A.R.T., it needs to be more specific. Instead, “I am going to reduce my cholesterol to below 200 by November” is much S.M.A.R.T.-er, Siegfried says.

2. Try approach-oriented goals

Similarly, a 2020 study found that people with approach-oriented goals, meaning those motivated by what they can do — i.e., “I can walk every morning before work” — were significantly more successful than those with avoidance-oriented goals, those motivated by what they can’t do or have — i.e., “I can’t have sugar for six months.” Making sure your resolution is focused on specific actions you can actually take is a good start.

3. Focus on behaviors or habits rather than an outcome

“I recommend focusing on behavior change rather than outcome,” says Siegfried. For example, instead of aiming to get in shape via running, simply set out to change your running habits. Example: “I am going to run a mile three times a week for the next three months.”

4. Map out specific milestones and reward yourself for meeting them

You can break down a goal into the smallest of small steps if that’s what you need to be successful. “Most people forget that goals have to have milestones that we reach along the way,” says Moffa. “This comes from making a plan and going step by step in the direction of the goal.” And when you reach each one, no matter how insignificant it may seem, Moffa says a prize is in order. “When you have a good day or feel really positive about reaching one of the steps, reward yourself and also ask yourself what you did or what things helped to make that successful,” she says. “Keep doing those things that have worked along the way.”

5. Find accountability

It’s a good idea to share your goal with at least one other person — ideally someone who also has goals to reach — so you can hold each other accountable. This way, reaching goals becomes about camaraderie and community. “People might be more apt to stick with it, as there is more motivation to continue on with the goal,” explains Moffa. “When we set goals alone, it can be harder.” Your accountability peers, or even a therapist, can also help talk you through any obstacles you may approach, Moffa adds.

“We won't always feel motivated, but if we can remain committed to what has worked for us, share the struggles and the fears along the way with others and allow in creative solutions when we feel stuck, we are more likely to reach the outcome we are looking for,” says Moffa. “Or maybe even something better.”