Why New Year’s resolutions are setting you up for failure


Written by In Sight

If you promised yourself that this would be the year you’d finally commit to the gym, start journalling, or escape debt, you’re not alone. Like millions of others, you may already be preparing to throw yourself headfirst into big changes, thinking that sheer determination alone will empower you to achieve your goals from January 1st.

Yet, we have some bad news… Most resolutions are destined to fail! Research has consistently shown that most people rarely last until the Summer, with the majority giving up by mid-January.

But why? Is it truly a lack of willpower, or are you setting yourself up to fail? 

It’s easy to pin the blame of a broken resolution to insufficient willpower. It seems logical; resisting unhealthy snacks, hitting the gym every day, or saving money demands strong willpower, or so we’re led to believe.

However, the real issue with failed resolutions isn’t usually a lack of willpower. Rather, it’s the whole notion of New Year’s resolutions that’s the problem.

In this article we’ll be discussing why New Year’s Resolutions are doomed from the outset, and more importantly how to make a meaningful change in a way that doesn’t deprive you or shame you.

A notepad with handriwting covering the page, of various new year's resolutions

What do you want to change and why?

We’re forever told that “bad habits” are exactly that – bad. What isn’t widely talked about is what the “bad habit” or behaviour actually does for you. For example, you may want to stop smoking, but first it’s important to recognise that the ritual and act of smoking is benefitting you in some way, which is why you continue it! So we encourage you to look at the ‘pros and cons’ of changing the behaviour. Really think about the impact of changing it. How is it helping you right now, and why?

In our smoking example, for some people smoking is a mental and physical break, a moment to step away and ground themselves. For others, it’s a way of forming connections – if you’re a shy person, having the shared activity of smoking removes a social barrier somewhat. The thing you want to change can make you feel safe, and secure, and that’s not an easy feeling to break! On the flip side, the health and financial cost of smoking can quickly outweigh these benefits, but you must first acknowledge and process them. Try listing all of the pros and cons of the behaviour – think about what it would look like if you changed it, or if you kept it the same.

A solid first step to sustainable change is knowing it inside out. Look at the bad AND the good, and this in turn will help you change it. You can apply this to whatever change you’re trying to make, feel free to use this helpful grid as a guide.

A grid containing space to write pros and cons of changing a behaviour and not changing a behaviour

Change can’t be forced

If you’ve been listening to our podcast for a while, you’ll have heard us talk about how genuine change can only occur when individuals are ready.

It’s no different to therapy: the biggest factor in successful therapeutic work is willingness to engage and ‘do the work’. We’re not saying it’s easy, it’s immensely difficult but without recognising the need to change, you’ll likely fall at the first hurdle.

Once you’ve recognised the change you wish to make and the impact it has from your pros and cons list above, the next step is equally important. You must believe that the benefits of changing outweigh the disadvantages of remaining the same.

Why January 1st isn’t a magic fix

Many people kick off their resolutions on January 1st, because that’s when everyone does it, right? You’ll see packed gyms and emptier pubs in January for this reason, but if you’re honest with yourself, what are the odds you’ll be receptive, ready and prepared precisely as the new year begins? They’re quite low.

The key message here is to make a change when you’re ready to do it, not because everyone else is seemingly doing it, or because magazines and social media are bombarding you with messages about all the things you need to change this year. You deserve to give yourself time and grace, so do it when you feel ready, and not a moment before.

So how do I actually make a change?

We’ve explored how to fully understand how changing a behaviour can impact us, why a January 1st commital is likely to fail, and why.

A flock of white origami cranes are flying, with one yellow crane set apart from the rest,

1. Understand the change and the power/ritual/help it offers you

The ultimate goal, once you have recognised what the behaviour is doing for you, is to find a way to replace it. Are you reaching for alcohol/cigarettes/sugary foods because you’re stressed, bored, seeking a dopamine hit? Awareness is the first step in the process, and knowing how changing the behaviour helps and hinders you is key.

You could even go a step further and ask yourself: What do you want to achieve? How will you get there? What does success look like to you? 

2. Set goals that work for you, not just deprive you

Whatever your goal is, try to avoid hard and fast targets. Research shows that smaller, manageable goals are much more likely to succeed, but we would like to take that a step further, and ask you to focus on satisfying whatever it is that the habit is doing for you, NOT just depriving yourself.

For example, if you’re seeking weight loss, remind yourself what eating does for you that makes it something you want to change. Do you eat for comfort? Do you eat out of boredom? 

What could you do that nourishes you, makes you feel good and allows you to make meaningful change? Why not set a goal to be kinder to yourself instead? Try new nutritious recipes you’ve been too afraid to try, have a go at a sport or hobby you’ve always fancied. If you’re finding the emotions difficult, write them down in a journal or call a friend. Psst.. if you’re interested, we had an amazing podcast episode with fatphobia experts Cat and Jo, who break down weight stigma in society and therapy, and it’s a must-listen!

Perhaps look for a mindfulness or grounding technique to try, or a distraction by doing something you enjoy like a puzzle to give you a dopamine hit in another way. Really take the time to explore and try things, without punishing yourself.

Reframing your goals to something that uplifts you instead of punishing you will make you far more likely to want to meet them.

3. Find your crowd

Once ready, take action. Surround yourself with positive, encouraging people that truly value you for who you are and will uplift you when you need it. You’ll likely feel more prepared, and the knowledge that making mistakes is part of the process means you’re more likely to succeed.

It can be helpful to think of your brain as a field or a jungle with paths across it to get you where you need to be, such as relaxed, happy, fulfilled. There will be some well-trodden paths to get you across the field and these might include some unhealthy coping mechanisms or habits you’d rather break. These paths have been walked so many times, they’re the easiest way for your brain to get from A to B, so it makes total sense for this to be the default route. Feeling sad? Comfort eating or drinking may have helped with this in the past for example. 

However, there are less obvious paths that might be more difficult initially, and take your brain longer to navigate. This might be choosing something that brings you joy or dealing with a stressor head-on. Perhaps this is calling a friend, working on a hobby, or exercising. You can forge these new paths, clear of the habit you wish to break (or with less of it, we’re only human after all!). Over time and with repetition, these paths can become just as well-trodden.

A field with two paths visible, one with a cloudy sky overhead and the other leading to sunshine.

Why change is never black and white

We’ve all been in a situation where a minor setback can turn into giving up altogether. For example, let’s say you want to start journaling, and you fill in your journal every day for two solid weeks, but then one day you work late and fall asleep before finishing that day’s reflection. That one day doesn’t undo all of the good things you achieved in the previous two weeks! We’re all human, and a core aspect of being human is making mistakes. 

Nobody is perfect, and it’s okay if you’re only 80% of the way there (and some days it might only be 5%, but it’s still valid and meaningful!). How you react to perceived failures is so important, and practising compassion for yourself in these moments will be infinitely helpful when trying to make a change. 

Take care here if you’re neurodivergent – people with autism and/or ADHD are often more affected by “all or nothing” thinking, where one minor blip in the setting of a new habit can spiral into self-loathing and shame, and it’s essential to recognise this shame spiral where possible. If this sounds like you, look for small dopamine hits in the goals you make – puzzles, music, games and getting outside are worth exploring!

With all of this in mind, we want to remind you that making meaningful change is rarely as easy as waking up on January 1st a completely transformed person. Humans are complex, with physical and psychological barriers to contend with, and that’s not even taking into account history or trauma. Be kind to yourself if you’re setting resolutions this year, and make sure that your goals are for you, and not for anyone else.

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