Why Your New Year's Resolutions Fail (and How You Can Change the Pattern)

There are 3 kinds of New Year’s resolutions.  Will yours make it to February?  Savvy Psychologist Dr. Ellen Hendriksen reveals what type of resolution survives, what fails, and why.

Ellen Hendriksen, PhD
6-minute read
Episode #4

Four weeks into the new year and you may be a model of New Year’s resolution virtue—breaking in those running shoes, gamely working through Proust or Joyce, sticking to your budget, and giving the evil eye to the candy bowl on the receptionist’s desk. .

But most of us are back on the couch, watching cat videos on YouTube, or using the new treadmill to hang-dry pantyhose.

If you’re among the latter, but want to give your New Year’s resolution another shot, may I suggest some tips for a fail-safe Resolution 2.0?

But first, we need to know what we're dealing with.  We can sort resolutions into 3 categories:

Category #1: Result Resolution, meaning you're trying to reach a specific goal.   Resolutions that fall into this category are aspirations like “Lose 10 pounds,” “Start a retirement fund,” or “Do my gym’s 12-week fitness challenge.”  You know you have a Result Resolution if it can be checked off a list when it’s done.  These are the easiest to stick to, because you have a specific goal in mind and can measure your progress, which is, in and of itself, motivating. 

Category #2: Habit Resolution, which, like practicing yoga or piano, is an ongoing process and never really finishes.  There may not be a true end goal, but the satisfaction is in the progression itself.   The difficulty in keeping a Habit Resolution is frontloaded because it takes substantial effort and patience to set up a new system, remember to do it, and tweak it until it works.  The bright side?  Once the habit is changed, it runs itself.  For example, how often do you think about brushing your teeth or putting on a seat belt?  Right, because these are well-established habits.   Once your new habit is integrated into your routine, you can reap the results without much effort or stress.  Resolutions from this bucket include “Sleep at least 7 hours a night,” “Go vegetarian,” or “Read more.”

Category #3: Holistic Resolution is a broad, whole-person resolution such as “Be a better person,” “Be happier,” or “Take more risks.”   The Holistic Resolution, despite its loftiness, is often the first to be cast aside.  The reason lies in its vagueness.  A resolution that can’t be defined, much less measured, can’t be achieved. 

The challenge with a Cessation Resolution is that it can be difficult to feel motivated and energized about not doing something; plus it’s hard to track the progress of a non-event.

A final, bonus genre is the Cessation Resolution, which is trying to stop doing something.   A Cessation Resolution can fall under any of the first three categories.  It can be a Result Resolution like “Quit smoking,” a Habit Resolution like “Stop wasting time on Facebook when I’m supposed to be working” (not that any of us actually do that), or a Holistic Resolution like “Stop being cheap.”  The challenge with a Cessation Resolution is that it can be difficult to feel motivated and energized about not doing something; plus it’s hard to track the progress of a non-event.

Once you know what sort of resolution you have, here’s how to modify it to maximize your chances of success.....


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 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.