Setting New Year’s resolutions proves unconducive to personal growth, progress


“New year, new me!” is a common phrase thrown around on Jan. 1. People reflect upon the past year (including the New Year’s resolutions they failed to keep last year) and devise a checklist filled with goals they want to achieve in the year ahead. Some want to start going to the gym every day, while others want to have better time management. These plans might go swimmingly at first, but they all eventually fall apart. According to a U.S. News and World Report survey, 80 percent of New Year’s resolutions fail by the second week of February. “New year, new me” slowly turns into “Maybe next year.” This begs the question: Why are New Year’s resolutions so ineffective?

One reason is that the goals do not offer immediate results. A study published in the Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin discussed the role of rewards in maintaining long-term goals. The study, led by Kaitlin Woolley from Cornell University and Ayelet Fishbach from the University of Chicago, found that “the presence of immediate rewards is a stronger predictor of persistence in goal-related activities than the presence of delayed rewards.” In other words, people are more likely to continue working towards fulfilling their goals when they can quickly see results. Unfortunately, most New Year’s resolutions, such as losing weight or attaining higher grades, do not offer immediate returns. For example, a person needs to work out for months in order to see results in weight loss or muscle gain. A student trying to raise his or her grade has to work diligently for weeks or months to see a change in the grade book. When tangible changes are not imminent, people are more likely to lose their original visions and stop putting in the effort needed to achieve those goals.

People may also experience the “false hope syndrome,” or the tendency to have unrealistic beliefs about what is required to change habits. The term was coined by University of Toronto professors Janet Polivy and C. Peter Herman, whose research showed that people frequently underestimate the effort and time they need to meet their self-improvement goals. The study further explained that people tend to expect an unrealistic payoff from achieving a goal. Overconfidence leads to higher expectations of success, so people are more likely to be discouraged when they see that they have to put in way more effort than they initially anticipated. For example, some students choose to drop out of classes when the curriculum difficulty and the time demanded are beyond their expectations. Failing to realize that changing even one habit can already be extremely difficult, some people make a checklist of items. They fail to dedicate the energy and discipline required for all of them, so they become discouraged and give up on all their goals.

Additionally, bad habits that are already formed are difficult to alter. Dr. Russell Poldrack, a neurobiologist at the University of Texas at Austin, explained in an article from News in Health how routines are hardwired into the brain. He stated that the brain releases the chemical dopamine when people are doing enjoyable behaviors. When they are not doing the behavior, a lack of dopamine makes them crave doing again. Many resolutions involve breaking some type of a bad habit, such as giving up binge-watching Netflix shows for better time management and earlier bedtimes.

Some people also lack the accountability needed to persevere through their goals. It is comparable to how some students do not do the homework when they hear that the teacher does not check it, even if they are aware that the homework will help them learn. One way to find accountability is to ask a friend or family member to track progress; by forcing themselves to report to someone else, people are more likely to be motivated to get things done.

Habits are difficult to change, and each new year doesn’t change that fact. Even though there are many psychological reasons why New Year’s resolutions are difficult to maintain, the right strategies and mindset will help people persevere. Be realistic. Start small. Grab partners. Take steady steps, and the result will follow.