Why New Year’s Resolutions Don’t Work And What You Should Be Doing Instead

The New Year is just around the corner and I am already dreading the hordes of people that will inevitably be at the gym after January 1, 2018.

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Don’t get me wrong, I appreciate the interest in getting fit and the conviction to get the year started off right, but as a consistently active gym goer, I’m a little put off by the sudden long lines for machines and packed group classes.

On the other hand, I know that this will not last long because by the end of the second week of January there is a noticeable decline of the crowd and by February, all the newbies are pretty much gone. It’s like it didn’t even happen.

According to a study by John Norcross and his colleagues, published in the Journal of Clinical Psychology, about 40% of the American population will make a New Year’s Resolution.

However, only about 8% of these folks will actually achieve their goals.

It’s true that most will start off really well for the first few weeks, but only about half of those will make it past one month.

Why do so many people end up forgoing their New Year’s Resolutions? Well, too put it simply, resolutions just don’t work (for most).

But listen, I really do want you to meet your goals, even if it means I have to wait a little longer for that treadmill.

So, do it! I double dog dare you to make that resolution and stick to it. AND I will help you get there….

Let’s look at why resolutions don’t work and alternatives that will work to get closer to your goals…

1. Get Connected To Your Values

Let’s face it, a New Year Resolution without a plan is as useful as a destination without a compass or a map. And how you get from Point A to Point B, makes all the difference.

In Acceptance and Commitment Therapy, we use the Compass Metaphor to identify and describe meaningful values that propel us in a certain direction.

You can move north, east, south or west, or some combination of these and each direction gets you to a different destination.

For many of us, it’s easier to identify the destination, but much harder to identify the underlying value.

No matter what your New Year’s Resolution, you must identify the underlying value.

For example, if your destination this New Year is the gym, ask yourself “why?” and keep asking why until you get to the heart of the matter.

Why do you want to exercise more? What does it mean to you? What will exercise bring to your life? Values such as, “I want to be thin” or “I want to fit into that dress” are much less useful than, “I want to be able to play with my kids without running out of breath” or “I want to feel proud of myself and trust my body.”

The key here is to find values that are deeply meaningful.

2. Make A Clear Plan And Follow Through

After you identify your values, then you need to create a plan to help you succeed in getting to your destination.

First, your plan must be realistic, specific, objective, and measurable. Second, you need to stick with it.

James Prochaska’s Transtheoretical Model of Behavior Change demonstrates that behavior change is not linear, but rather individuals tend to move back and forth through certain cycles until new neuronal pathways can be laid down in the brain, leading to lasting behavior change.

In addition, this is where you get to be creative and add depth to your New Year’s Resolution.

If you created a resolution to get fit and identified a value to play with your kids, there are many ways in which to successfully meet your goal outside of going to the gym.

Make a plan for each day of the week, and specifically list what you will do, including time and frequency, and how that tasks will lead you to your goals. Here’s a sample Resolution Plan to get you started:


Repeat your Resolution Plan each day. It may seem like a daunting task, but setting objective and measurable goals such as this is a sure fire way to behavioral change. Don’t forget to mix it up each week and challenge yourself along the way.

Keep yourself interested in remembering your compass, or the reason why this particular resolution is important to you. And no matter what, stick with it!

Phillippa Lally and colleagues, researchers who published their study in the European Journal of Social Psychology, found that it takes about 2 months to create lasting behaviors. The longer you stick with it, the better chance you have of meeting your goals.

3. Considered The Barriers Or Limitations

True behavior change is challenging and time-consuming. Successful New Year’s Resolutions are no easy feat. We can expect that there will be many barriers that derail your plans and get in the way of progress.

Common barriers include:

  • Little willingness
  • Poor time management
  • Poor sleep hygiene
  • Poor diet
  • Low motivation
  • Poor social supports
  • Lack of perceived improvement
  • Emotional distress
  • Relapse

Your Resolution Plan must take into consideration these barriers and plan for them accordingly.

Try creating a list of barriers and associated coping skills that you can use as needed.
Using the resolution example above (i.e. Increase fitness so I can play with my kids more often), here’s a sample Barriers & Coping Skills List:

4. Respect The Process

As noted above, change is not linear. Rather, you are much more likely to take some steps forward and some steps backward.

You may even entirely fall off course, but the good news is that you can always get back on track.

It’s important to remember that messing up or falling off course is entirely natural and to be expected.

So rather than beating yourself up about it, try instead to respect the process, appreciate the journey, honor the privilege of choice and the ability to manifest the life of your dreams.

Happy New Year!
See you at the gym!

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