New Year’s resolutions don’t work: 3 reasons why and 2 things to try

New Year’s resolutions don’t work.

new year's resolutions don't work
(c) / Wokandapix

When it comes to them, you are probably one of two types:

  • You religiously make them each year starting out with gusto. But by spring you find you’ve already forgotten about them.
  • You don’t believe they work, so you don’t bother to make them at all.

I used to fall into the first category, setting NYRs every year. Because the end of the semester or year-end holidays get hectic, I got into the habit of giving myself Lunar New Year as my deadline. That holiday (in 2022, it falls on February 1) always gave me an extra bit of time to reflect and figure out what I wanted to do.

Still, I was very lucky if by St. Patrick’s Day I could recall the resolutions I had made just a few weeks earlier.

Typical New Year’s Resolutions that Don’t Work

Let’s take a quick look at some common NYRs. A quick search led to this list:

  1. Losing weight/exercising more/eating right
  2. Paying off debt/spending less money
  3. Spending more time with family, friends, or both
  4. Learning something new
  5. Helping others/volunteering
  6. Getting organized/cleaning up a messy house
  7. Quitting smoking/drinking less
  8. Reducing stress
  9. Taking a trip

Have you ever set one of these NYRs? If so, what happened?

I don’t mean to sound like a pessimist or someone who doesn’t believe in your capabilities. If I were a betting person, I’d put money down that these resolutions didn’t do much for you.

If you’re a mom, it’s likely that you’ve given up on NYRs altogether.

Why New Year’s Resolutions Don’t Work

Over time, I have come to realize that NYRs don’t work for three reasons:

First, people tend to make resolutions that are too vague or too broad. I’m sure you’ve heard the following adage before: If you’re going to set a goal, you have to break it down into small, achievable steps. Most NYRs are just the opposite: they’re too big, too bold, and too broad. Even when you do break them down, however, it’s difficult to “get on a roll” for the remaining two reasons, detailed below.

Second, the timing of—or time frame for—the resolution does not provide motivation. While the new year brings a “clean slate” or an opportunity for a fresh start, one calendar year is not always a relevant time period for many goals. How do you measure “spending more time with family”? Even if you figure out the answer to that question, is it reasonable to expect that you can make progress in a linear fashion during exactly one calendar year?

Resolutions make more sense when their time frame or impetus is more meaningful: “My friend is getting married in Mexico next summer, and I’d like to learn a bit of conversational Spanish before I get on that plane.” Or, “Because I’m going to sell my house in August, I’m going to start getting rid of stuff I don’t need now so that I can stage it properly then.”

Finally, the main reason that NYRs don’t work is that, more often than not, they focus on trying to fix something that is going wrong or on filling a void in people’s lives. Through my research and my work as a coach, I’ve learned that when people focus on negative aspects of their lives, they don’t make much progress.

I’m not saying that change is impossible when you try to make a correction, overcome a deficit, or even close a gap in your life. It’s just when you operate from a stance of fear or scarcity, it often hurts you. And, these usually do not provide the sustenance real change requires.

Time and again in my own life, in my observations of others’ lives, and in my coaching practice, I have seen that the way to make significant, powerful change is to set a goal that strengthens a strength. When you magnify or multiply what is going right in our life rather than try to fix what is going wrong, you get the momentum and energy you need to get on a roll and stay on it.

Goal setting is not merely “thinking positively,” but rather focusing on and using what you’re already good at. You capitalize on your unique predispositions, talents, and personality–what you are already hard-wired to do. When you focus on your strengths, not only is the work easier, but more generative and creative.

What to Try Instead

So, where does all this leave you at the top of the year? How do you improve your own life … taking into account that times are tough and being a mother is never easy?

In both my workshops and private sessions, clients work on two areas with me:

  1. Expanding the positive: what already works, what you’re naturally good at, and what you enjoy doing
  2. Taking baby steps

Sometimes your mind can trick you into thinking that what you’re good at doesn’t matter, or that “what’s working is working,” so you can ignore it. You may have convinced yourself that what you “should” be doing is what you want to do and that what you want to do is not achievable.

Women seem to be good at playing these mind games; moms especially so.

So this year, instead of setting an NYR, tell yourself, “Rather than fix me, I’m going to intensify a strength.”

Your turn

What is a strength that you’d like to amplify in the coming year? What concrete steps can you take? How might you start with a tiny one right now?

I’d love to hear what you might like to focus on. Email it to me along with steps you’d like to take and I can let you know if there might be tweaks to make it more effective.

An older version of this article was first published in January 2009.