Why Resolutions Don't Work — And What to Do Instead
New Year's resolutions feel exciting in the warm glow of December. But they start to lose their luster once the glitter has been swept from Times Square. A recent study found that 64% of resolutions don't last a month— it seems the surge of optimism of January 1st can only carry us so far.
If the odds are against us, is the answer giving up on resolutions altogether? It would be a shame not to harness all that “fresh start” energy. So we turned to experts for advice on creating healthy habits that last the whole year through.
First, What's a Resolution?
All year long, we set goals. Then suddenly, once December rolls around, we're busy crafting resolutions. It's unclear exactly when this tradition started, but mentions go back at least two hundred years. The practice can even be traced to ancient Rome, where they honored the god Janus on the first of the year with feasts and promises of better behavior.
While a resolution is defined as "a firm decision to do or not do something," a goal is "the result toward which effort is directed." Resolutions declare what you want to start, while goals take action toward a desired future. This distinction may be revealing — could a lack of foresight and planning be the resolution's fatal flaw?
Mindfulness and Setting Resolutions
Resolutions are about becoming aware of what we want to change. But the challenge comes with staying aware and not falling into old patterns. That's why mindfulness — the practice of present-moment awareness — can be a commitment game-changer.
"Mindfulness is the opposite of auto-pilot," says RoundGlass mindfulness coach Jay Vidyarthi, "it creates space for choice." Say you usually flip on the TV after work but have resolved to start going for a walk. Mindfulness helps you pause before reaching for the remote and instead make a conscious decision to lace up your shoes.
Try this: Learn how it feels to be mindfully aware with this mindful awareness discussion and practice for beginners.
Mindfulness encourages curiosity, so Vidyarthi recommends approaching new habits as an experiment. For example, when he and his wife decided to forgo their big-screen TV, they committed only to trying it out. With the pressure off, their lifestyle change ended up sticking.
5 Tips for Setting Goals That Go the Distance
Ready to make a mindful change? These expert tips will help strengthen your resolve.
Know Your Why
Understanding why your resolution matters to you will help you stay committed, says RoundGlass senior scientist Rebecca Acabchuk. If you connect your evening walk with higher goals like "spending quality time with a pet" or "connecting with nature," you're more likely to fight for your new habit on days when your motivation wanes.
"One of the main reasons people don't reach their goals isn't because they're not realistic enough — it's because the reward isn't big enough," says RoundGlass meditation teacher Palma Michel. "When we're excited by our goals, life will support us as we take steps toward them."
How we frame our resolutions can mean the difference between success and struggle. "A goal has to feel more like an aspiration and less like a chore," says Ayelet Fishbach, Ph.D., an award-winning psychologist and author of the best-selling book, Get It Done. She recommends creating "do" goals that pull us toward our desired state rather than "do not" goals, which push us away from unwanted habits. To understand why — do not think about a pink unicorn right now.
Can't get that magnificent image out of your head? The same is true for the reality TV show you're avoiding. Instead, try a "do" goal, like "read a book before bed."
Many professional basketball players spend hours visualizing a game-winning shot. "When I first learned this, it was a revelation," says RoundGlass meditation teacher Yael Shy, who says that the practice of visualization helps imprint a positive outcome on our bodies and minds, strengthening our belief in our ability to achieve success.
A 2004 study on mental training demonstrated the power of visualization when it compared people who completed physical exercises with those who did the same workouts in their minds. Researchers found that the mental exercisers increased their strength by 35 percent — not far off from the 53 percent achieved by the group who put in the physical effort.
To apply this technique to your resolutions, "visualize the effect your success has on your life and in your body in as much detail as possible," says Shy. "Try your best to actually feel it — as if the success [already] happened."
Try this: Walk through the visualization process with Yael Shy in this 10-minute guided meditation.
Set Goals Together
A partner can keep you motivated when you’re tempted to skip out on your goals. And time with a friend can make the prospect of a workout much more appealing. Acabchuck says that we naturally get closer to people who help us achieve our goals. So not only will we bolster our commitment, but we'll strengthen our relationships, too.
Celebrate Your Accomplishments
New Year’s Day sits at the tail end of the busy holiday season, during the darkest, coldest days of the year. It's a time when many of us need rest, not added pressure. Give yourself permission to pause and celebrate how far you've come over the past months. While it's nice to ride the wave of optimism that crests on January 1st, remember that resolutions only become habits when we focus on them all year long.
Try this meditation, Radical Self-Acceptance, by mindfulness teacher Grace Edmunds, to start the year by accepting yourself fully, just as you are right now.
- Practicing mindfulness will help you avoid lapsing into bad habits.
- Identify the deeper meaning behind your resolutions to boost your commitment.
- Set “do” goals rather than “do not” goals to stay focused on positive change.
- Visualization can be a powerful tool for success.
- Research suggests people go farther when they take on goals together.