4 Simple Reasons Resolutions Fail (and Why Yours Won't)

How do you keep your New Years resolutions on track through February and beyond? Dr. Ellen Hendriksen busts 4 of the most common resolution roadblocks.

Ellen Hendriksen, PhD
5-minute read
Episode #182

Resolution Roadblock #3: Your resolution sucks.

The problem: It's not fun. Whatever you’re doing—cutting out your favorite foods to lose weight, forcing yourself to do exercise you hate, sacrificing big and small pleasures to save money—is no picnic. It takes a lot of effort, it’s not rewarding, or both. You’re grinding your way through and, after a few weeks, start to wonder why you ever thought this was a good idea.

You need more than sheer force of will to sustain lasting change. As a behavioral psychologist, I really believe that behaviors persist because they’re reinforced. You need to get something out of your resolution: enjoyment, satisfaction, pride, even just avoiding something unpleasant. You’re not a rat pushing a lever to get food pellets, but you do need some kind of reward.

The fix: Make sure you’re getting something out of it. Sometimes simply tracking your success can be a reward—watching a row of checkmarks grow on a calendar can be motivating. Colloquially known as “don’t break the chain,” building an unbroken run of daily salad-eating, money-saving, or getting to bed before midnight can crank your motivation because the stakes get higher as you rack up the days.

Another alternative is to build in a more immediate reward. Dr. Katherine Milkman is a Wharton professor who coined the term “temptation bundling,” which involves pairing a “should,” like a resolution, with a “want” as a reward. For instance, decide that you can only listen to that racy romance audiobook when you’re on the treadmill. Or treat yourself to that peppermint mocha only when you’re polishing your resume and writing cover letters to finally switch jobs.

Changing habits is a lot of work—you have to figure out the logistics, endure discomfort, and feel incompetent at first—so make sure to build in rewards, especially at the outset.

Changing habits is a lot of work, so make sure to build in rewards, especially at the outset.

Resolution Roadblock #4: You start out gangbusters and then give up.

The problem: You go all out for awhile, but then your willpower (not to mention your interest) fades and life gets in the way. Before you know it you’re using your new treadmill to hang-dry laundry.

The fix: Go easy on the perfectionism. While don’t-break-the-chain consistency can be motivating, don’t make breaking it a tragedy. Just begin again. With few exceptions (like joining AA or taking birth control) a healthy habit doesn’t have to be perfectly consistent. It can exist in fits and starts. For example, according to the American Cancer Society, the average smoker tries to quit 8-10 times before finally succeeding in being smoke-free for a year. After all, in the long run, success isn’t achieved by maintaining your new habit perfectly, it’s achieved by minimizing the downtime between inevitable setbacks.

No matter your roadblock, consider building the roadblock into your resolution. Use a method originated by Dr. Gabrielle Oettingen of NYU called mental contrasting, the steps of which make the nifty acronym WOOP: wish, outcome, obstacle, plan.

To try it, first make a wish (this means your resolution, not an actual wish like being invisible or able to fly). Then visualize the outcome. What benefits would you enjoy? If you’re trying to get fit, picture your clothes fitting better, having more energy, or being able to wrestle with your kids without getting winded. But then—and this is key—picture an obstacle. Visualize not having time to get to the gym, being too tired, or having life get in the way. What will you do? Make a plan to overcome the obstacle and you’ve WOOP-ed your way closer to your goal.

To wrap up, specify your resolution, make it as brainless as possible by automating it, make sure you’re getting something out of it, and simply begin again without drama or self-criticism when you find yourself dusting donut crumbs off that bosu ball. Remember, zero judgment.

how to be yourself ellen hendriksen book

Pre-order Ellen's forthcoming book HOW TO BE YOURSELF: Quiet Your Inner Critic and Rise Above Social Anxiety. Get even more savvy tips to be happier and healthier by subscribing to the podcast on iTunes or Stitcher, or get each episode delivered straight to your inbox by signing up for the newsletter. Follow on Facebook and Twitter.

For free, helpful downloads to fight social anxiety and be your authentic self, visit EllenHendriksen.com.

Image of New Year's Resolutions © Shutterstock


All content here is for informational purposes only. This content does not replace the professional judgment of your own mental health provider. Please consult a licensed mental health professional for all individual questions and issues.

About the Author

Ellen Hendriksen, PhD

Dr. Ellen Hendriksen was the host of the Savvy Psychologist podcast from 2014 to 2019. She is a clinical psychologist at Boston University's Center for Anxiety and Related Disorders (CARD). She earned her Ph.D. at UCLA and completed her training at Harvard Medical School. Her scientifically-based, zero-judgment approach is regularly featured in Psychology Today, Scientific American, The Huffington Post, and many other media outlets. Her debut book, HOW TO BE YOURSELF: Quiet Your Inner Critic and Rise Above Social Anxiety, was published in March 2018.