We’re now just a few days into January as I write this. How are the resolutions going? Are you sticking to them or are your good intentions already losing the war with the miserable January weather?
Whether you’re cruising along or are already on the point of giving up, let’s look at why your New Year's resolutions sometimes fail. Then we'll explore some key strategies that'll teach you how to stick to your New Year resolutions.
Why Do New Year's Resolutions Fail?
If you're wondering "how long do New Year's resolutions last?" the answer for most of us is "not long."
The vast majority of people fail to stick to their resolutions. The number of people who fail to keep their resolutions varies depending on which statistics you're looking at. Somewhere between 8% (according to Forbes) and 20% (according to U.S. News & World Report) of us actually achieve them: that means that between 80% to 92% of people are willing to admit at year’s end that they didn’t achieve what they set out to do. I’d say the number is even higher when you factor in the people who won’t admit they failed or succeeded at a much lower goal.
This failure isn’t just an issue with New Year’s resolutions. It’s a general problem with goals. People are really bad at sticking to them once the initial flush of excitement wears off. A big part of the problem is that people are really really bad at making good New Year's resolutions. They decide to do things like:
- lose weight
- eat healthy
- go to the gym five days a week
- spend less time on Facebook
- run a marathon
- and countless other vague self-improvement ideas
While these all might sound like reasonable resolutions, each of them is actually pretty much doomed to failure for one simple reason: they’re not SMART goals.
As we looked at in our tutorial on setting goals and also our guide to good New Year’s resolutions, a good goal is SMART: specific, measurable, achievable, relevant, and time-constrained. So your goal should be:
- Specific. Your goal is well defined and clear. Lose weight isn’t very specific. How much weight? By when?
- Measurable. Can you keep track of how you’re doing? What does “eat healthily” even mean? Does it mean less calories, less sugar, or more protein? Or is it cutting out processed food and dairy? You need numbers.
- Achievable. Goals should be achievable for you now. If you aren’t in the habit of regularly exercising, don’t decide to go to the gym five times a week. You’ll burn yourself out before the first week is done. Instead, go with an achievable goal of two days a week in the gym plus one long walk at the weekends. As you get fitter you can go to the gym more.
- Relevant. Goals have to be relevant to your broader aims. “Spend less time on Facebook” isn’t much good if you just go to Instagram or YouTube instead. What’s your real goal here? To use your time better? Then try and read 20 pages a day instead: your social media time will fall automatically.
- Time-Constrained. Running a marathon is a worthy resolution. I’m going to run a half-marathon myself this year (I absolutely loath running so it’s a real test of my willpower). The thing is though, when are you going to do it? It’s all well and good to pledge to do a marathon at some point this year but, by the time it’s mid-summer, you’ll have realised that you don’t have enough time to train, and even if you did, you don’t want to run a marathon in cold, wet October, so maybe it’s better left for 2022, and then bam, another New Year's resolution bites the dust. The key is to pick a marathon now, at some point in the early summer, and sign up, pay the registration fee, and mark it in your calendar.
If you’re suddenly reevaluating your resolutions after reading this, good! We’re here to help. Let’s at some techniques to help you stick to your New Year's resolutions:
1. Reassess Your New Year’s Resolutions
The first step is to reassess all your New Year’s resolutions. It’s easy to get caught up in the “New Year, New Me” rush and pledge to do a million different vague things. Go through what you’ve resolved to do and compare them to the SMART criteria above. Are they specific? If not, make them specific. If they’re not measurable, come up with a way to track them. Are you sure you can do them? If not, settle for a smaller resolution for now. Is the resolution relevant? Is it really what you want to focus your energy on? If not, cut it. And finally, put some time-constraints in. The end of the year is way too far away to be a realistic time limit. If you want to lose weight, set yourself a target of 3lbs in January and go from there.
2. Build Slowly
While I’ve no data to back this up, my personal suspicion is that a huge number of people fail with their resolutions because they commit to something ludicrous, get totally disheartened when they fail within the first week or two, and then just stop trying. I know this has happened to me before.
Here's an example of a New Year's resolution that failed. I tried for years to keep a journal. Every time I restarted, I’d set myself a goal of writing 500 words before breakfast or journalling for thirty minutes or some other ridiculously difficult target. What worked for me was to step back and set the easiest goal possible: to write something—anything—in my journal every day. It could be a word, a sentence, or a 2,000-word screed about why Tom Cruise is the most underrated actor of a generation. It didn’t matter as long as, at some point that day, I opened my journal, picked up a pen, and wrote.
Now, I journal every day. I look forward to it. Normally, I write for about 20 minutes. Most of my entries are at least a few hundred words long. If I very occasionally miss a day because I’m travelling, it’s okay: I’m excited to journal the next day.
You need to do the same with your resolutions. Start slow and work from there. Starting is often the hardest part. Once you get the ball rolling, you’ll find it hard to stop. Get into a habit of going to the gym two days a week and, after a few weeks, you’ll be restless on the days you don’t go. That’s when to add that third day, then the fourth day, then finally, the fifth day.
3. Don’t Try to Do Them All at Once
There's only so much you can do at once. If your list of New Year’s resolutions is longer than your grocery shopping list, then you’ve got a problem. It’s just not possible to lose weight, gain muscle, train for a marathon, stop smoking, go vegan, read a book a week, and write your novel at once. You need to prioritize.
Rather than using New Year resolutions as a strict list of activities that must commence on January 1st, I prefer to use them as a way to set guidelines for the year ahead. If you want to lose weight, gain muscle, and train for a marathon, then the best way to probably do it is to train for a marathon in the early-summer (which will help you lose weight), then spend the second half of the year working on strength training. You won’t be able to massively up your level of exercise at the same time as radically altering your diet, so maybe instead of going full vegan all at once, you work to cut down your meat intake over time.
Look at your list of New Year's resolutions and decide what you want to accomplish now and what is perhaps better addressed later in the year. Now, this isn’t permission to kick things down the line: you still need to set goals and have a solid plan for achieving that resolution later on, preferably backed up by calendar reminders.
4. Get an Accountabilibuddy and Review Monthly
Another reason I suspect that many people fail at their New Year’s resolutions is that they simply forget they made them. I know when I sat down this year to look back at how I’d done last year I was surprised to see that, oh yeah, I had decided to climb Ireland’s highest mountain. That was obviously a summer thing but, by the time it was actually summer, I’d totally forgotten about it. I could easily have booked the train and gone and done it over a weekend—it’s a hill walk not a climb—but it just didn’t cross my mind to do that.
This is why two related things are important:
- monthly reviews
An accountabilibuddy is simply what it sounds like: a buddy who keeps you accountable. Normally, you find a close friend, each tell each other your resolutions and pledge to keep each other on the straight and narrow. It’s much harder to mess up when you've got to admit it to someone else. You can even use services like Stickk to help.
Monthly reviews are similar. At the end of every month you should step back, look at what your New Year resolutions were, and see how well you did at achieving them. Did you lose weight this month? Did you make it to the gym as much as you wanted to? If not, then you need to assess what went wrong and look at how to fix it for next month.
5. Fail, and Move On
Most people who don’t stick to their resolutions fail out by February. They hit a couple of setbacks and just give up. It’s hard to get to the gym when you’re tired, you’ve got work to do, and it’s dark out. There will always be days when something unexpected comes up—maybe you’re sick or your daughter is—and, despite all your good intentions, things don’t line up right. And you know what? That’s okay.
It’s super important to recognise that. It’s okay to fail. What’s important is what you do next. If you get caught in a downwards spiral because you missed the gym a few times this week, then you’ll just never go back. Instead, you need to think about why you failed, forgive yourself, and keep going. If your resolutions are really too hard, reassess them and make them more achievable.
6. It’s Never Too Late To Start
Okay it’s June now, you haven’t thought about your New Year’s resolutions in months; so what? New Year is just a somewhat convenient time to take stock of things, but it's far from the only time of year when you can start building good habits. Just because it’s June and you’ve ignored your resolutions for a few months, it doesn’t mean you need to wait until the next New Year before deciding to better yourself.
Instead, take stock, set yourself some SMART goals, and start today. Not tomorrow, not next Monday, not next month: today.
Learn More About Productivity
Leaning how to keep New Year's resolutions can help you to be more productive. If you want to learn more about how to improve your productive, we've got more articles on Envato Tuts+ to help you. Here are just a few of them:
- Why Most Productivity Tips Fail (And How to Overcome That)Andrew Blackman15 Jan 2021
- 4 Important Personal Habits for a More Productive LifeAnnie Mueller17 Dec 2020
- 7 Habits of Highly Creative MindsAntoinette Seaman23 Jul 2021
Choose Good New Year's Resolutions This Year
I love using the New Year as a time to look back, reflect, and set out goals and lots of other people do too. The thing is, it’s important to keep that positive, self-improvement attitude throughout the whole year. New Year's resolutions are for life, not just for the Holidays.
You've just learned how to stick to New Year resolutions. The biggest takeaway is that resolutions are just goals. You can set them any time. Just make sure they’re SMART: specific, measurable, achievable, realistic, and time-constrained. Review them monthly and you’ll be surprised at how much progress you start to make.
Editorial Note: This content was originally published in January of 2019. We're sharing it again because our editors have determined that this information is still accurate and relevant.