Why are New Year's resolutions so easy to break?

If you find yourself making the same resolutions year after year but rarely achieving them, you’re not alone. See more U.S. holiday pictures.
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Thirty-five percent of us who make New Year's resolutions break them by the end of January. And only 23 percent of everyone who makes a resolution will see it through to completion [source: FranklinCovey].

Are you part of the 77 percent who make resolutions only to find you've given up before you ever really got started? Let's break down how that happens.

One of the most common reasons we break our New Year's resolutions is that we get a little overzealous when we make them and we over-commit. And as a result, 40 percent of us blame our busy schedules for our lack of follow-through [source: FranklinCovey]. It's easier to keep just one resolution rather than several.

Another part of the problem is that we often make the wrong resolution (or more than one wrong resolution). The key to successful goal-making is not to be hasty when you do it. Make resolutions you've thought through and are willing to dedicate your time and energy to. Don't make a resolution on the fly after too many toasts at a New Year's party. If you're not 100 percent committed to your goal, the odds of staying motivated are not in your favor.

Who are we kidding? It can be difficult to stay motivated even when you've chosen one well-reasoned goal. Many of us lack motivation and accountability, despite our best intentions. Remove an easy way out by sharing your plans with friends and family -- the more who know your goal, the less likely you'll talk yourself out of sticking with your new habits (and despite what you might have heard it can take longer than just 21 days for a lot of us to change a habit -- one study found it took anywhere between 18 and 245 days) [source: Burkeman]. Sharing your goals with those close to you not only adds accountability -- which many of us need to motivate ourselves -- but it also gives you a support system.

Next, let's talk about how to make a New Year's resolution that you just might be able to make stick.

Plan to make your New Year's resolution a success

In the end, whether or not we keep our New Year's resolutions comes down to whether or not we give ourselves a resolution we can stick to. Resolutions that are small in scope with specific and realistic goals help, especially for those of us who make goals like "get in shape" (the number one resolution for 2013) without then planning how we'll go about achieving the goal [source: FranklinCovey].

Not only are we not specific or realistic with ourselves, we don't give ourselves deadlines, and we don't track our progress. Yes, promising yourself this is the year you'll lose weight is a great goal -- and a popular one [source: Time]. But how will you do it? More than 30 percent of us who make this New Year's resolution break it [source: FC Organizational Products]. If you want to stack the odds that you will lose weight, define what your specific weight loss goals are and give yourself a deadline within which to meet those goals. Make the goal reasonable enough that you're not intimidated by it, and the deadline realistic: Resolve to lose 10 pounds by Memorial Day, and keep yourself honest with daily progress reports.

If you want to get in shape, make it your resolution to, for instance, always take the stairs (it's a good start). Keep a journal of your progress -- the good and the bad (including those days when you took the elevator because you were running late) -- to help keep yourself focused and on task.

Progress reports are a good way to keep yourself motivated and moving in the right direction toward your goal; without them -- and sometimes despite them -- we can become discouraged. And when we're discouraged we tend to give up on the goal. But don't! Researchers have found that a few off-days from time to time doesn't have much, if any, effect on your overall success [source: Burkeman]. Instead of giving up on your goal when you have a setback, take things one day at a time.

Researchers are also examining a phenomenon called decision fatigue that plays a part in how likely we are to keep resolutions [source: Tierney]. The more decisions, even small ones, that you have to make in a day (including deciding to go for a walk or run, selecting healthy foods, and putting away cash for a rainy day), the more depleted your willpower and self-control will be as the day wears on. So think about how you can incorporate small steps to your goal in your daily life so they'll be automatic and require little or no decision effort. Making tough decisions related to your resolution early in the day (for example, get your workout in early or pay bills and handle finances before you leave for work) could help ensure a successful outcome.

Author's note: Why are New Year's resolutions so easy to break?

I fall into the category of people who don't make New Year's resolutions. I know you might be wondering what's wrong with me. Why or why not, who's to say, but I can't remember a time when I considered New Year's resolutions to be for me. But just because I don't make it a habit of pledging to change my habits at the beginning of each year, it doesn't mean I'm not interested in self improvement -- and in regard to that, isn't it refreshing to learn that it's not realistic to expect you can break a habit in less than a month?

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Sources

  • American Psychological Association. "Making your New Year's resolution stick." (Nov. 27, 2012) http://www.apa.org/helpcenter/resolution.aspx
  • Burkeman, Oliver. "This column will change your life: How long does it really take to change a habit?" The Guardian. 2009. (Nov. 27, 2012) http://www.guardian.co.uk/lifeandstyle/2009/oct/10/change-your-life-habit-28-day-rule
  • FranklinCovey. "FranklinCovey Survey Reveals Top 3 New Year's Resolutions for 2008." 2007. (Nov. 27, 2012) http://www.reuters.com/article/2007/12/18/idUS132935+18-Dec-2007+BW20071218
  • FranklinCovey. "New Year's Resolutions -- For 2013." 2012. (Nov. 27, 2012) http://www.slideshare.net/FCOPslideshare/2013-new-years-resolutions-results-from-franklinplanner
  • LeTrent, Sarah. "The psychology of resolutions." CNN Living. 2012. (Nov. 27, 2012) http://www.cnn.com/2012/01/03/living/resolution-psychology/index.html
  • Tierney, John. "Do You Suffer From Decision Fatigue?" New York Times. Aug. 17, 2011. (Dec. 7, 2012) http://www.nytimes.com/2011/08/21/magazine/do-you-suffer-from-decision-fatigue.html
  • Time -- Lists. "Top 10 Commonly Broken New Year's Resolutions." (Nov. 27, 2012) http://www.time.com/time/specials/packages/completelist/0,29569,2040218,00.html
  • Williams, Ray B. "Why New Year's Resolutions Fail." Psychology Today. 2010. (Nov. 27, 2012) http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/wired-success/201012/why-new-years-resolutions-fail