The Psychology Behind New Year's Resolutions

Medically Reviewed by Brunilda Nazario, MD on January 03, 2022
7 min read

In a time as rocky and uncertain as the COVID-19 era, there is at least one thing that is almost guaranteed right now: those New Year’s resolutions we made for 2022 may be looking a little shaky already. 

People love to set goals, and setting objectives can lead to meaningful change. But let's face it: We aren’t necessarily great at sticking to those goals -- especially New Year’s resolutions. A recent study found that about 64% (or two-thirds) of people abandon their New Year's resolutions within a month.

What gives? Why do we even bother if the resolutions are going to fade by February? And what’s going to make it different this year -- for real, this time?

It’s part aspiration and part tradition.

"We tend to set resolutions because the New Year serves as a cyclical marker of time during which we reevaluate and take inventory on our lives,” says Sabrina Romanoff, PsyD, clinical psychologist and professor at Yeshiva University in New York City. “The drive for making resolutions is motivated by this punctuation in time, like a yearly college graduation, activates hope and expectations for what we hope to achieve going forward.”

You crack open a new calendar and imagine what could be.

“New Year’s gives us a sense of renewal, which causes us to think about areas in our life we want to improve [or] change and the start and stop of a clock always feels like the natural time,” says psychologist Mariana Strongin, PsyD.

But that excitement is also part of the problem.

Maybe you had your rose-colored glasses on last year.

“Often people do not map out or think about what it will take to accomplish a goal or make a resolution and instead rely on the excitement of the new year as the thing that will push them to accomplish their goal,” says Amanda E. White. She’s a therapist, speaker, and the author of Not Drinking Tonight.

Then the buzz wears off. Or perhaps you didn’t give yourself enough time to reach your goal.

“We often fail in achieving and keeping them because they focus on a specific outcome (e.g., a precise body weight),” Romanoff says. “When focus is placed on a specific outcome, it can be challenging to persevere in your efforts toward it if results are not immediate. Goals take time, and many folks become discouraged and eventually relent before attaining the goal.”

If you find yourself making the same resolution each time January rolls around, take a closer look at what’s going on.

The cycle of making and breaking resolutions boils down to one core issue: honesty. So says Britt Frank, a trauma specialist and author of The Science of Stuck.

“We often set lofty goals for the future without honestly assessing why we’ve struggled in the past,” Frank says. “Without examining where we are resistant to change ... the cycle of resolve, relapse, repeat continues year after year.”

Change is possible. Check on what’s holding you back. “Breaking behavioral cycles requires a rigorous commitment to honesty at all costs,” Frank says.

Use these tips to avoid getting sidetracked so you can stick with your goals.

“Divide your goals between those that can be accomplished either in the long or short term,” Romanoff says. Short-term goals are quick wins. Long-term goals are going to take time.

“Creating an action plan which links the long-term goal with near-term achievable and realistic goals will ensure success,” Romanoff says.

You’ve probably heard that you should break big goals into smaller ones. But do you know why?

“As humans we are driven by the feeling of mastery,” Strongin says. "So rather than making a goal of ‘becoming fit,’ I would make the goal of ‘working out three times a week for at least 45 minutes each time.’ By breaking down the goal into quantifiable measures, we are more likely to feel good about ourselves and even more likely to continue.”

White agrees. “We only achieve goals by taking small steps daily or weekly. If we want to eat healthier, we must change our eating choices daily. If we want to run a marathon, we must commit to running a certain number of miles every week.

In general, breaking a goal into the smallest step possible makes it more likely that you will follow through. We tend to get overwhelmed and give up when a goal is too lofty.

Research shows that you’re more likely to accomplish a goal that is specific and based on doing something instead of avoiding something.

For example, if you want to complain less in the new year, you are more likely to accomplish it if you phrase it as, "I will create a gratitude list and write down three things I am grateful for every day" because this resolution speaks to something specific you can do instead of something you want to stop doing.

Are your resolutions in conflict? That will make one or the other tougher, or impossible, to keep.

For instance, if you set a goal to save money and another to travel more, those goals could collide.

“Make sure you are not twisting yourself in a pretzel and that your goals have a synergistic effect so that working on one does not lead to the detriment of another,” Romanoff says.

Know what success will also mean. If you’re picturing all positive things if you achieve a big goal, you might get caught off guard.

“It is crucial to understand that achieving ‘big goals’ is going to involve a degree of grief and loss,” Frank says. “Why? When we get healthier, happier and more successful, our relationships change, pressure increases, and the familiarity and comfort ... is challenged.”

That’s not to say you shouldn’t go for it. Just be aware that success can have its challenges. You’ll want to be ready for those.

“If we focus only on the benefits and deny the costs of behavioral change, we are unlikely to stick to our resolutions,” Frank says.

Exactly what your obstacles will be are unique to you. But they are 100% going to come up. 

It might be the too-cold (or too-hot) day when you dread dragging yourself out for a walk or a run. Or the time you’re feeling low and are tempted to spend, eat, or drink more than you planned. It could be the shame you feel if you’re facing your debt. Or just the boredom of trudging along when any goal isn’t shiny and new.

What’s your plan to be ready for those challenges?

“Make sure you consider the things that could get in the way of accomplishing your goal and then build in ways to overcome those obstacles in your goal,” Romanoff says.

“‘SMART’ goals are Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Realistic, and Timebound,” says Matt Glowiak, PhD, licensed clinical professional counselor and author of A Year of Finding Your Callings: Daily Practices to Uncover Your Passion and Purpose.

He sees them as the ticket to lasting behavior change.

For instance, if your resolution is to quit smoking, Glowiak says it looks like this:

  • Specific: You identify one specific goal. In this case, it’s “I want to quit smoking.”
  • Measurable: You put a number on your goal. Is it to have smoked 0 times this week, or a specific number of cigarettes less than the day or week before? You need a measurable way to track your progress.
  • Attainable: Do a reality check. For instance, is quitting smoking cold turkey practical for you or would you do better gradually cutting down until you’ve quit?
  • Time bound: Decide when you aim to reach each milestone and your final goal. You may also want to celebrate each step along the way, which can help you stay motivated.

With health goals such as quitting smoking, changing your diet, or improving your fitness, your doctor can help you know what’s realistic and what will help. You don’t have to figure it all out on your own.

Your values are like a compass. They constantly inform and guide behavior, Romanoff says. And they can help you remember why you set your resolution in the first place.

For instance, Romanoff recommends avoiding a goal like reaching a certain weight. Instead, consider the value behind it, such as if wanting to be healthier is your motivation.

“Channel those values as incentive for your goal,” Romanoff says. “The ‘why’ behind your goal will ground it in purpose and contextualize the resolution in a meaningful way.”

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The International Association of Applied Psychology: “Making New Year's Resolutions that Stick: Exploring how Superordinate and Subordinate Goals Motivate Goal Pursuit.”

International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health: “Self-Regulatory Goal Motivational Processes in Sustained New Year Resolution Pursuit and Mental Wellbeing.”

Journal of Religion and Health: “Be Happy, Be Honest: The Role of Self-Control, Self-Beliefs, and Satisfaction with Life in Honest Behavior.”

Health Psychology Review: “Theoretical explanations for maintenance of behaviour change: a systematic review of behaviour theories.”

Stanford Graduate School of Business: “Focus on Small Steps First, Then Shift to the Larger Goal.”

PLoS One: “A large-scale experiment on New Year’s resolutions: Approach-oriented goals are more successful than avoidance-oriented goals.”

Britt Frank, MSW, LSCSW, SEP, clinician; educator; trauma specialist; author.

Matt Glowiak, PhD, LCPC, national certified counselor; certified advanced alcohol and drug counselor.

Sabrina Romanoff, PsyD, clinical psychologist; professor,Yeshiva University, New York.

Marianna Strongin, PsyD, licensed clinical psychologist, New York.

Amanda E. White, LPC, therapist; speaker; author, Philadelphia.

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