Resolving to Resolve

Why New Year’s resolutions are often doomed to fail—and why they don’t have to be

There is, perhaps, no more popular or clichéd annual tradition than the New Year’s resolution. 

Pen and notepad with a cup of coffee to write down new years’ resolutions.

On the one hand, it’s an admirable collective effort to make ourselves better—quit smoking, get in the ocean more often, exercise more, spend less time stressing and more time with loved ones. 

On the other hand, these annual self-pledges are frequently doomed to fail. We’ve all been there, when a pre-January promise fizzled into failure and regret.

Multiple studies have shown that at least three-quarters of New Year’s resolutions fall by the wayside before March. We are often not as resolute as we’d like to be. That’s not an indictment of anyone’s character; it’s a universal truth. But, then, the guilt seeps in.

COVID-19 exacerbated this. People were isolated—from their jobs, their friends, and the healthy, social activities that made them happy—and driven toward more unhealthy habits. 

Per Johns Hopkins University, “the mental health implications of the pandemic may continue long after the physical health consequences have resolved.” This, obviously, makes it harder to stick to resolutions. When your mind isn’t right, it’s much more difficult to follow through on goals.

All of this paints a bleak picture, we understand. But! There is hope. 

“The problem is that we put such a heavy, ‘pull-yourself-up-by-the-bootstraps’ burden on ourselves with New Year’s resolutions,” said Jelena Obradovic, an assistant professor at Stanford University. “External obstacles are often the primary culprits. Maybe someone doesn’t have access to affordable childcare to follow through on those Pilates promises, or work demands become all-consuming. There are all these other barriers around us. To really change, and to have it persist, sometimes those barriers have to change as well.”

Daniel Schwartz, the dean of Stanford’s graduate school, added, “People change all the time, at any age. But it’s not a question of willpower. The key to maintaining your resolutions is to use your environment in creative ways to support you.”

There’s the lesson: change comes from within. Another cliché, though clichés are generally born from truth. But change also comes from the people, places, and experiences you choose. Be strong, yet don’t shy away from accepting help from your ʻohana.

“If you do it out of the sense of self-hate or remorse or a strong passion in that moment, it doesn’t usually last long,” psychiatrist and self-help author Michael Bennett told the New York Times. “But if you build up a process where you’re thinking harder about what’s good for you, you’re changing the structure of your life, you’re bringing people into your life who will reinforce that resolution, then I think you have a fighting chance.” 

In the end, resolving—and renewing—is never a bad thing.

Image courtesy Pexels / breakingpic

Tips for Making Your New Year’s Resolution Stick

Be Specific: Rather than resolving to “lose weight,” set a target goal and come up with a manageable diet and exercise plan to reach it.

Be Realistic: Be honest with yourself: can you reasonably accomplish this given the realities and constraints of your life? If the answer is “no,” or even “maybe,” downsize your resolution. No shame.

Be a Planner: Lay out a roadmap of how you intend to get where you want to go. Put it in writing, or in a spreadsheet. 

Get Support: Find family, friends, or professionals who want to support you in your goal and will keep you on task with compassion.

Take it Slow: Don’t rush in headlong and burn out. Any change—small or large—is a marathon, not a sprint. 

Forgive Yourself: Whatever your resolution, if you lapse, take a breath. Don’t let a setback completely derail you. It’s always OK to start again.

Jacob Shafer