Why Your New Year's Resolutions Will Fail

by Aaron Crowe on 27 December 2013 1 comment

For anyone who has made a New Year's resolution, setting the goal is the easy part. It's the part that fitness centers and diet programs, among others, depend on at the beginning of the year. (See also: 4 Tips for Making Resolutions Stick)

If your goal is to lose weight, many businesses are more than willing to offer their help for an upfront fee. That's why gyms are full in January but sparse in March.

Following through and succeeding at a New Year's resolution is doomed to fail from the start for most people, mainly because the human brain isn't designed to handle such resolutions with enough willpower. (See also: Why Big New Year’s Resolutions Are Pointless)

Old Habits Are Hard to Break

"The brain is wired to continue doing things like we've always done them," says Bruce Sanders, a consumer psychologist. "You're going to have to break through them if you're going to be successful at resolutions."

Resolving to change your life on the first day of the year can be overwhelming.

"A New Year's resolution is kind of an empty promise," says Paul Karoly, a psychology professor at Arizona State University.

Whether it's made while drunk on New Year's Eve or sober at a doctor's office after learning about a medical problem that requires a lifestyle change, half of the people who make such resolutions are unable to follow through, Karoly says.

One problem is that people assume succeeding at a resolution is a simple, straight-forward solution. "Your habits are very strong and not that easy to break," he says. (See also: How to Break Bad Habits)

Willpower Is a Muscle That Needs Fuel and Training

Just like the body, the brain can suffer mental fatigue when overworked, and it won't have enough energy through willpower to be successful at such long-term goals as resolutions.

The prefrontal cortex area of the brain — right behind the forehead — deals with willpower. It's also responsible for staying focused, short-term memory, and solving abstract tasks. (See also: Brain Hacks for Better Investment Decisions)

An experiment at Stanford University found that the brain can't generate the willpower needed to accomplish resolutions if too much is going on.

A group of undergraduate students were divided into two groups. One was given a two-digit number to remember. The other was given a seven-digit number to remember. After a short walk through the hall, they were offered the choice between two snacks: a slice of chocolate cake or a bowl of fruit. The students with seven-digit numbers to remember were twice as likely to pick the slice of chocolate compared to the students with the two-digits.

Professor Baba Shiv, who conducted the experiment, suggests that the "cognitive load" required to remember those seven-digits sapped the brain's energy for other tasks, such as resisting the allure of the cake.

Like many muscles, the prefrontal cortex needs to be trained, and willpower seems to be stronger with more use. This can happen by overcoming one of the central problems of New Year's resolutions: They're too vague.

How to Fix Vague Resolutions

"[Resolutions] tend to be too abstract and too big and too unachievable," says Ramani Durvasula, a clinical psychologist who has a private practice and teaches at California State University Los Angeles.

What's needed, Durvasula says, is breaking the goal into smaller, specific steps that can become habits. "Our brains are eminently distractible," she says.

Instead of resolving to lose weight, set a weekly goal and weigh yourself weekly. Instead of vowing not to eat junk food, eat fruit for breakfast. Don't just say you're going to lose weight — set aside 30 minutes at lunch to go for a walk. (See also: Small Resolutions You Can Start Today)

Having specific goals also works best for financial resolutions, Sanders says. Instead of resolving to save for a down payment for a house in the new year, put aside $500 to $1,500 each month for it.

"That range allows you to feel more successful," Sanders says.

Having too many resolutions on your plate can also be a hindrance. "You're more likely to persevere if you have one primary goal that you're saving for," he says.

January 1st Is the Wrong Day

Instead of starting resolutions on January 1st — after a hectic month when most people have been knocked off of their usual routines because of the holidays — start on February 1st, and shoot for a date every month to check progress, Durvasula says.

"I think January 1st is the worst possible day to make New Year's resolutions because everybody is doing it and out of their routine," she adds.

Trying to add something to your daily routine, such as exercising, can be difficult on January 1st because for the previous two weeks or so, most people are out of their normal routine anyway, and adding something else to it can lead to quick failure, Durvasula notes.

How do you intend to keep your resolutions this year?

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I don't actually make resolutions during New Year. Why plan to make changes only during new year when you can make resolutions and make them realize any time of the year? What is most important is that you are very much willing to make your resolutions become a reality.