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Why New Year’s Resolutions Fail

As the clock strikes midnight on December 31, many around the world will embark on new resolutions, the first step to improve their lives—or so they think.

Unfortunately, most resolutions don’t work out. According to John Norcross, arguably the foremost researcher on resolutions, 81% of New Year’s resolutions fail. Even more shockingly, 29% of them fail within the first two weeks. Why?

Resolutions fail when we set too many of them at once

While it’s wonderful to aspire and set goals, too many goals may set us up for failure. The key to setting goals is understanding willpower. Researchers have found that willpower is a limited resource that can be depleted. In one study, participants were tempted with delicious cookies, but were instructed to eat a radish instead. When those participants were given an impossibly hard puzzle to solve later in the study, those who had to fend off their inner cookie monster gave up twice as early as those who didn’t have to fight temptation earlier.

How we spend willpower matters. Instead of spreading willpower across several different goals, focus on a single goal.

Resolutions fail when they are vague and long-term

Vague resolutions like “Go to the gym more often this year!” lose steam when we have trouble answering the question: “Am I succeeding?” In a comprehensive review of goal-setting research, 90% of studies conducted over a decade confirm that specific, near-term goals consistently lead to higher performance than vague goals with no set time limit.

When we choose vague resolutions, we stack the odds against us. Tuning goals to be more specific can make a big difference and impact success. For example, instead of setting the goal  “Go to the gym more often this year!” try something more specific like: “Go to the gym every Monday morning until President’s Day!”

Unlock successful goal-setting with these 3 tips:

  1. Channel Goldilocks when goal-setting. Goldilocks tasks are tasks that aren’t too easy and aren’t too hard, but just right. Striking the right balance has been shown in goal-attainment research to have a considerable, positive impact on performance. To find that right balance, we should think hard about what is actually in our control. For example, weight loss is a consequence of many different inputs—some of which are out of our control. However, adhering to a gym schedule is something we can directly impact.
  2. Set immediate rewards. Saving for retirement is good. But what makes it hard is that we don’t see the benefit until years down the line. As humans, our brains are wired to overly discount future benefit—a phenomenon that behavioral economists call ‘hyperbolic discounting’. Famed Duke Psychology professor, Dan Ariely, proposes hacking this phenomenon with something that he calls ‘reward substitution’. If our brains minimize the benefit we get down the line, then give our brains something it can appreciate—a reward now. Try saving that latest episode of Suits for a weekly elliptical session. Even if our brains neglect the benefit of a healthy heart for our older selves, the allure of Harvey Specter’s witty batter may be just enough to get us into the gym.
  3. Expect to fail (sometimes). Resolutions don’t have to be (and actually shouldn’t be) absolutes. Even if we do everything else right, the unexpected may keep us from our perfectly reasonable goal of hitting the gym on Monday morning. The key is to not hold ourselves to absolutes. By focusing on factors within our control, we set ourselves up to get back on the horse after a fall.

At Jawbone, we use science and data to help build products that improve lives. By understanding the science of how we make decisions and adhere to goals, we can set ourselves up for success and break free of a vicious cycle of missed resolutions. It turns out that the answer is not in a magic formula, but simply in the wiring of our brains.

Happy Goal-Setting!Oat Spectrum_UP2 by Jawbone

About The Author

Kelvin Kwong
  • Kelvin Kwong
  • Director of Product Management, Head of Behavior Change

Kelvin leads a cross-functional team building experiences to facilitate behavior change to improve health outcomes. At Jawbone, he takes the learnings from behavioral science out of textbooks and into the hands of the UP community. Kelvin previously spent time at Amazon, as an investor and as a professional magician for nearly a decade -- and no, we’re not playing two truths and a lie. Follow him at @kelvinskwong if your heart desires.