Resolutions: The Science Behind Their Failure and Success

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Now that the holidays are over, and we’re recovering from food comas after our feasts, we start counting down the days until New Year’s. For many, the new year brings hope for the things to come and a renewed “I can do it” attitude. The new year means big plans and resolutions – lose weight, get a raise, propose and carry out a research proposal – which always start out with such confidence and enthusiasm. In fact, 45 percent of Americans usually make some kind of New Year’s resolution.[1]

As with most things in life, there are pros and cons of making resolutions. A study in the Journal of Clinical Psychology shows that those that make resolutions are ten times more likely to succeed in their goals than those that do not.[2] However, another study in 2014 showed that of those that made resolutions, less than 50 percent are able to maintain their resolutions past six months, and only 8 percent reached their goals by the end of the year.

So, how is it that year after year we make grandiose plans to change our ways and ultimately fail? Two reasons seem to be at the forefront:

  1. Being all talk and no action: We make verbal our goal of losing weight or getting healthy, then sit back and wait for it to happen. In order for resolutions to come to fruition, we need to commit and be ready to strategize and work towards them.
  2. Burning the candle at both ends: Often, we spread ourselves too thin by making long lists of large goals, each a challenge on its own. Self-control is a huge part of successful resolutions. Our brain’s chemistry works against us when we take on more than we can handle, causing a drop in blood glucose levels, which eventually leads to poorer self-control.[3]

Now that you’re sufficiently demoralized, I’ll present a few ways to help make 2015 be the year you succeed in your goals:

  • Baby steps: I’m sure you’ve heard the old saying “go big or go home” right? Well, in the case of goal-setting, less is actually more. Instead of setting a bunch of flimsy goals you’ll probably abandon in a couple of months, choose one with the greatest reward. Work hard towards one goal, setting monthly, weekly, even daily goals. When you finish, use the sense of accomplishment to plan and strategize towards the next goal to crush.
  • Practice makes perfect improvement: No one’s perfect, and you need to accept ahead of time that accomplishing your goals may not be all smooth-sailing. However, if you don’t work every day at your goals and lay out your tasks specifically, you’ll lack that momentum to carry you over the long-term.
  • Be accountable for your goals: Psychologists advise talking to others about your goals will help you succeed; you gain their support, but you also have more incentive not to let them down.
  • Think deeply about your goals: Don’t just resolve to get fit because you think you should, really ask yourself why you want to quit. In fact, Kelly McGonigal, a psychologist at Stanford University, suggests asking yourself three times. With each answer, ask why you want whatever that thing is. By doing so, you can understand the deeper meanings underlying that goal and can use that as motivation to succeed.

Using the above tips, making your goals for 2015 work should be at least a little less bleak. Basically, don’t overexert yourself, work at it every day, make it public, and reflect the reasoning behind your resolutions. With the above in mind, use 2015 to not only make a resolution, but also become part of the 8 percent that keep it the entire year.

Also, check out this video of Dr. McGonigal’s TED talk on how to make stress your friend!



[3] Gailliot, M. T., Baumeister, R. F., DeWall, C. N., Maner, J. K., Plant, E. A., Tice, D. M., … Schmeichel, B. J. (2007). Self-control relies on glucose as a limited energy source: willpower is more than a metaphor. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 92(2), 325–36. doi:10.1037/0022-3514.92.2.325

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