Why New Year’s Resolutions Don’t Work

The end of Christmas and the realization that the year is ending brings in a new season for Americans- the season of New Years Resolutions. There's just something about the tick of midnight on January 1st that gives people permission to start fresh.

Did you know that 38.9% of Americans (and 59% of Young Adults 18-34 & 54% of parents) make New Year’s Resolutions each year (Via Mick @ Insideout Mastery)? 

I get it- the desire to start anew. To let go of all the mistakes in the past and say “this time I'll do it right.”

But year after year, we make these huge, lofty plans and set expectations for ourselves that are impossible to reach, and then get frustrated when we continually fall short.

And in that frustration, we give up. By end of January, most resolutions are long forgotten.

In the same article I referenced above, Mick goes on to explain that 23% of people tend to quit their Resolutions after the first week, and then about 65% have abandoned them by the end of January. 

And how many people actually achieve the Resolution they set at the beginning of the year? 

Less than 9%. 

Out of all those dreams for personal improvement, less than 10% of resolutions are actually kept for more than a few months.

That’s crazy, right? 

But it’s honestly not at all surprising to me. 

And it's not because people are lazy or lack a desire to change. It's natural for people to want to seek improvement! It's a core belief of mine that the purpose of human existence is to grow, develop and progress.

So what stops us from going after the things we say we want, even when we have the best of intentions?

Honestly, it's just that the process of New Year's Resolutions doesn't work.

You see, I'm all about goal setting. I believe in the power that making and working toward worthy life goals can bring you in achieving the life you want. I really believe that's why we're here- to work toward something important.

So how come setting goals works but making New Year's Resolutions doesn't?

Over the years (and as I’ve studied and coached on Productivity, Time Management & Goal Achieving) I’ve come to find out that there are two big problems when it comes to New Year’s Resolutions. 

Problem #1: They're just too big.

New Year's Resolutions are based on making big, general hopes for the entire year. Honestly, most of the time they seem like “wishes” to me, because they lack the structure of an actual plan written out to achieve them. And without this plan, like a traveller setting out on a road trip without a map fixed on their desired destination, you’re literally setting yourself up for failure. You simply won’t get there. 

Think about it- the draw of “New Year’s Resolutions” comes from the excitement of new beginnings and gives us a chance at a fresh start, so we have great intentions and start out strong. But as time wears on, distractions set in, our motivation thins, and we find ourselves losing steam. Like the kid who takes three big pieces of pie but only eats half of one, our “eyes” are often bigger than our “stomachs”. We just bite off more than we can chew. We can't keep up with the big, rigorous and demanding resolutions we so ambitiously set while we're trying to work challenging jobs and facilitate everyday life.

What Is Goal-Setting Really Is

On the other hand, (productive) goal setting is precisely about laying out a specific set of steps to get you closer to achieving the things you want. You don't just make a general statement about “I'd like to…” and leave it at that, hoping for the best. You figure out what it'll take to get there, break it down into smaller pieces, and then prioritize your time and energy towards that thing over a specific period of time, re-evaluating along the way. Then, you set up habits and routines supporting that goal and find people and resources to help keep you accountable and motivated to continue, even through challenges and a temptation to quit.

How many Resolutions have you set that have that kind of structure in place? 

This is why goal setting works when New Year’s Resolutions don’t. Not because you “hope” something will come into your life, but because you continually work toward bringing it there (and regularly adjust that plan as needed).

Ok, so “goal setting good” “Resolutions bad”. Got that part down. 

Do you know the best way to set goals? It's definitely not looking ahead at the whole year at once. Anyone would get overwhelmed at that. I'm a completely different person now than I was last January, and this time last year I was a brand new parent, trying to keep a tiny human alive, not making goals on how to teach him fine motor skills or trying to get him to eat vegetables. 

Last year (with the exception of feeding a newborn and changing a million diapers), I really only had myself and my husband to think about (from a goal setting viewpoint anyway), and if I'd stuck with just my January vision of my life throughout the whole year… none of us would’ve seen much personal growth. Becoming a parent and watching him grow changed everything. Every single day I learned new things about who I was, what I was capable of, and what my role as his mother was all about. 

Throughout the year I’ve had to completely re-evaluate every single thing in my life. Over and over again. I constantly revisited my goals, tactics, routines, and even priorities. 

My path was forever altered when that sweet boy came into our lives, and altered again with every new stage of babyhood he reached. Whatever goals and plans I had made for my life before he arrived had to be weighed against the child I was now responsible for raising. I couldn't just stick with the personal goals I made for myself in January, and if I only made year-long goals, I'd be stuck, wasting most of the year until the NEXT “New Year” came along and I had “permission” to make new ones.

The system just doesn’t work. We simply cannot plan for an entire year ahead of time- not with any specifics anyway. 

Sure, we can set an overall vision of what we’d generally like to focus on or would like our life to look like, but we can’t stop there and just “will” it to happen. We’ve got to take the extra steps to break it down and turn it into a series of actual goals. 

So what’s the solution? 

If Resolutions (or Year-Long goals) don't work, what does?

For me, it's all about Quarterly (Or “90 Day”) goals. I swear by them. It's the perfect length of time for me. It's long enough to be working on something somewhat long-term, but short enough that you can regularly stop and evaluate that you're on the right track. Thinking just three months ahead gives you enough time to try new things and see what's working, while giving you four times in a year to re-adjust whatever's needed.

It also gives you a few more “fresh starts” in a year, so the beauty of January 1st doesn't feel quite so rare.

And the best part? Because you're thinking of your life in 3 month (90 day) terms, it doesn't have to be solely tied to a calendar. You can jump in any time you like. Feeling ready to start something new on November 3rd or May 29th? Nobody's stopping you! You do what's right for you- this is your life!

Ready to dive in and start setting some 90 Day goals? Grab the free printable here and let me briefly walk you through it: 

Click to download your free Quarterly Planning sheets and start mapping out your 90 Day goals.
  1. Toss the idea of “New Year's Resolutions” out the door. Remember: it doesn’t work, so we're not going to do that. Instead, divide your year into four different “quarters”. Four three-month periods of time. Three months is long enough to allow for measurable growth and progress, while still being short enough to be manageable and inspiring. These four quarters will be our main measurement of time.
  2. On the sheet for 1st quarter, write down the goal you'd like to work on first. I recommend starting small- don't be too ambitious until you've successfully established some patterns. What's your “ideal” in this area? What would you like to see happen in your life?
  3. Think about your “why”. What is important about this goal? Why chose this one to work on over other possibilities? What impact will this have in your life, if you achieve it?
  4. What do you need to do each month to ensure you're on the right track? How can you track your progress?
  5. What routines do you need to instill into your day to be successful in this change? Is there something you need to do daily? Or will a few times a week suffice?

At the bottom of the printable I've included some self-reflection questions you can ask yourself if you need help thinking of goals to pursue. But remember:

Don't tie yourself down to goals that are too large. If it can't be done in three months or less, break it down until you can.

Reason #2 that New Year’s Resolutions don’t work: 

Even if they’re not too big, they’re usually far too vague. 

The most popular New Year’s resolution is to “lose weight” or “get healthier”. But with no plan in place, this sounds more like a lofty dream to me than an actual goal. 

If you’ve ever heard of SMART Goals, this one will sound familiar. 

Goals need to be specific to be achievable. They need to be something you can measure and say “yep! I’ve accomplished that!” 

“Be healthier” is not something you can quantify. How will you know if you’ve ever done it? 

I suppose “Be healthier” counts if you decide to pass on just one cookie, but it’s simply not motivating. Hooray, you’ve “achieved” that goal on January 1st and you’re “done” for the year. What’s next? 

It doesn’t push you to be better or to improve your life in the slightest. 

Knowing if Your Goal Will Work

Here are some questions you can ask yourself when considering if a goal is specific enough and sufficiently measurable: 

Specific: What exactly do you want to accomplish? Be as detailed as possible. Write it as if you were to share it with a stranger. Picture it in your mind and then write it out. Make it personal to you. What skills, knowledge and resources will you need to accomplish this goal? How will your life change when you reach this goal?

Measurable: How will you know if you are making progress? How will you know you're still on track? How will you know when you've reached your goal? Use numbers or values you can count and record.  

As soon as you've recorded your quarterly goals from the last step, look them over to make sure they are both properly specific and measurable. If they’re not, make adjustments as needed.

Stalling on writing out your 90 Day goals and still need help thinking them through? Check out my 90 Day Goal Planner. It's bright and fun, super detailed, and incredibly helpful in providing you with prompts and ways to think through where you currently are and where you want the next 90 days to take you. Plus, it's printable- so you can reuse it quarter after quarter. Win, win! 

A Word on Motivation: 

Even if your goals are manageable and your plan is solid, you might still find yourself losing focus and your motivation waning as time goes on. This is completely normal, but it’s something I can actually help with! 

I've wrestled with my own “motivation demons” plenty over the years. If you’re feeling like this, please know you're definitely not alone. This is exactly why I created the “Motivation Booster” printable- to help you gain clarity on why you’re dragging your feet, as well as determining the tools you already have access to that can help snap you out of your rut. Grab it for free here, and be sure to pull it out and use it if you're starting to feel your motivation waning.

Need Accountability & Support?

If you need more than resources to help you stay on track and think you could use an accountability buddy with regular check-ins and encouragement/support, check out my monthly membership: The Mindful Productivity Tribe for regular 1:1 support & coaching with me every week (plus additional workshops and resources to help you get more done and actually start accomplishing your goals) at a super affordable price. Check it out here for more information, or use the chat box at the bottom of the page if you have questions. 

Now get out there and start making some small, manageable (but still motivating) goals for the New Year! 

You can totally do this, but if you need support, don’t hesitate to reach out. 

Want to share? Comment below and let me know what you're working on! What goal(s) are important to you right now in this phase of your life? How can I (and the Vibrance & Bliss community) help?

Don’t forget your freebies mentioned in this post! You can grab them here: 

  1. Quarterly planning sheets to help you sketch out your goals for the next 90 days & then determine a plan to make them happen.
  2. “Motivation Booster” printable, aimed to help you think through your mental blocks & create a plan to get back on track when you “just don’t feel like it”. 
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