Why we make (and break) New Year’s resolutions, and 4 tips to help you achieve your goals

Western Connecticut Health Network
New Year's Resolutions 2021

By Dr. Charles Herrick, Chair of Psychiatry, Nuvance Health

Summary:

  • Research shows that as many as 50 percent of adults in the United States make New Year’s resolutions, but fewer than 10 percent keep them for more than a few months.
  • Giving up on New Year’s resolutions is often related to three issues: difficulty breaking old habits, focusing on specific outcomes, and problems with purpose.
  • Uncertainty and hardship related to COVID-19 may make it especially difficult to prioritize New Year’s resolutions in 2021.
  • You can increase your chances of achieving your New Year’s resolutions by setting realistic and achievable process goals that will help you form new habits, as well as following other steps for success.

Do you feel excited about making New Year’s resolutions on January 1 each year, but find yourself losing enthusiasm as the weeks go by, and giving up entirely by March? If so, you’re not alone.

Research shows that as many as 50 percent of adults in the United States make New Year’s resolutions, but fewer than 10 percent actually keep them for more than a few months. For many people, 2020 has been an especially difficult year due to forced changes and uncertainty resulting from the COVID-19 pandemic. Stress and hardship related to COVID-19 may make it even more difficult to prioritize New Year’s resolutions in 2021.

Whether your goal is to lose weight, get more exercise, quit smoking, save money, or something else entirely, the truth is that there are some common psychology-based reasons why New Year’s resolutions fall flat. Before you put your goals on the shelf until next year, here’s what you need to know about why we make and break New Year’s resolutions, and tips you can use to give yourself the best chance of making your resolutions stick.

Why do people make New Year’s resolutions?

It’s human nature to set goals at the start of something new, making the start of the New Year a popular time to set new goals and expectations for the year ahead.

Why do I break my New Year’s resolutions?

There are many reasons why people may not keep New Year’s resolutions, but instances of New Year’s resolution burnout can be narrowed down to three psychology-related issues: difficulty breaking old habits, focusing on specific outcomes, and problems with purpose.

Difficulty breaking old habits

Meeting new goals usually requires creating new habits and breaking old ones — and old habits are hard to break. For example, quitting smoking will require you to eliminate smoking from your daily activities, and losing weight will require you to change your diet and exercise routine.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, many people may cling to old, familiar, comfortable habits in an attempt to maintain some degree of stability in these uncertain times.

Our habits are ingrained and embedded in our implicit memory, which is also called our automatic memory or unconscious memory. Implicit memory uses our past experiences to help us remember things without actively thinking about them, making it easy for us to stick to similar routines and challenging for us to make changes.

Habits are also multi-faceted, meaning that many elements reinforce our habits and make them more challenging to break. For example, a smoking habit may be embedded in an environment of reinforcement that is influenced by your lifestyle, the places you go, the people you interact with when you smoke, physical sensations associated with smoking, and other rituals such as drinking alcohol. Your feelings, thoughts, and emotions related to smoking can also contribute to making the habit satisfying even before you actually smoke.

Focusing on specific outcomes

Another reason people have trouble keeping New Year’s resolutions is that they focus on a specific outcome, such as reaching a certain body weight. Focusing on a specific outcome can be defeating if you don’t achieve your goal quickly. In most cases, it takes time to achieve a specific outcome, and many people become frustrated and eventually give up before reaching their goal.

Problems with purpose

If you’re like most people, you’re busy — and you probably don’t have a lot of time left over at the end of the day to devote to accomplishing things that aren’t interesting or important to you. You will be more likely to give up if you don’t feel connected to your resolution, it isn’t meaningful to you, or you aren’t motivated to make the changes required to achieve your goal.

Related article: How to celebrate New Year’s during the pandemic

How can I keep my New Year’s resolution?

Developing a new habit as part of your New Year’s resolution means that you will need to consciously think about the changes you need to make, at least until the new habit becomes embedded in your implicit memory. The process of developing a new habit uses a lot of declarative, or episodic, memory and working memory — and requires a lot more mental effort.

And just as the Chinese symbol for crisis is also the symbol for opportunity, you may view 2021 as an opportunity to incorporate new habits and jettison old ones. For example, you may find that being forced to stop some social activity due to COVID-19 may actually present an opportunity to stop bad habits that were reinforced by your social activities. You may even feel compelled to create new, healthier habits, such as meeting friends for an outdoor activity instead of over dinner and drinks.

To make it easier to keep your New Year’s resolution, you need to take a multi-faceted approach. Here are a few tips that may help:

1: Find your purpose, but avoid focusing on a specific outcome

If you want to lose weight, avoid focusing on achieving a specific weight. Instead, ask yourself why you want to lose weight and use that as the basis for your goal. Asking “why” will help you find your real purpose, which will help to improve your motivation. Setting a goal of achieving better health so you can have more energy for your hobbies, for example, takes the focus off of a specific outcome, such as getting to 150 pounds.

Also, it’s important to remember that early success will motivate you to do more, and better health and an increase in energy is an outcome you will likely be able to achieve quickly by being more active or eating a healthier diet.

By focusing on being healthier rather than achieving a specific weight, you will also be more likely to maintain your healthy habits. If you set a goal of getting to 150 pounds and achieve it, you may be more likely to eventually fall back into old habits and not sustain long-term weight loss.

2: Break your goal into components, and set realistic and achievable process goals

If your goal is to achieve better health, you need to figure out exactly what you need to change to make it happen. For example, you might identify two components that will help you achieve your goal: more exercise and a healthier diet.

Identifying the components is just the first step. You must also set realistic and achievable process goals for each component that make you feel excited and motivated. The more excited you are about your process goals, the more likely you will be to find the time to focus on achieving them. Some examples of process goals include:

  • “I intend to exercise for 30 minutes, four days a week, to achieve better health.”
  • “I intend to eat three plant-based dinners each week to achieve better health.”
  • “I intend to eat one-half of my normal portion of dessert after dinner every night to achieve better health.”

Part of goal setting should also include making a plan to achieve your goals. For example, with winter coming, it may be more challenging to exercise outdoors and going to the gym may not be an option during the pandemic. Investing in warmer outdoor exercise clothing and taking advantage of balmy days can help you stay on track.

It’s also important to remember that these goals shouldn’t require a huge sacrifice, and they shouldn’t make you feel deprived. However, they should require some effort — you want to feel good when you achieve them, after all.

3: Make a public commitment

Human beings are inherently social, and we want to connect with and feel accepted by others. We also want to avoid experiencing feelings of shame and embarrassment that can sometimes be associated with letting people down.

Making a public commitment to achieving your goal can help you hold yourself accountable and ultimately follow through. Many people find that their desire to avoid letting people down — and thereby avoid feelings of shame and embarrassment — is a powerful motivator to help them deliver on their commitment.

Examples of making a public commitment include telling family or friends about your goal, signing up for a virtual weight loss program, or joining an online fitness program with a group of co-workers.

4: Engage with likeminded people

People tend to be more successful at achieving their goals when they connect with other likeminded people. Also, we tend to model the behavior of the people we like and admire, so it’s important to surround yourself with people who reinforce habits that will help you achieve your goals.

Finding a group of likeminded people who you admire will help you stay motivated — especially during the cold, dark months of January, February, and March, when New Year’s resolutions often hit the skids. Some people may find success and accountability by being part of a larger group, while others may prefer to pair up or join a smaller group. Thankfully, there are now ways to connect with others even during the pandemic, such as virtual support groups and group fitness classes. Whatever size group you choose and whether it’s in-person or online, engaging with others will keep you connected to your goals and make you more likely to be successful.

The bottom line: Finding your purpose, changing your focus, setting the right goals, making a public commitment, and engaging with likeminded people can help you achieve your New Year’s resolutions.

Dr. Charles Herrick, Chair of Psychiatry, Nuvance Health

Dr. Charles Herrick is a board certified psychiatrist, and the chair of psychiatry at Nuvance Health’s Danbury Hospital, New Milford Hospital, and Norwalk Hospital.

CONTACT
Amy Forni, Manager, Public Relations
(203) 739 7478 | Amy.Forni@nuvancehealth.org