How To (Actually) Keep Your New Years Resolutions: A Psychologist’s Perspective

New Years Resolutions are hard to keep, and some reports claim that the majority of resolutions are broken within a few days after January 1st each year. So why is a New Years Resolution so difficult to follow through with after the big countdown? This article looks at the psychological reasons behind the breaking of resolutions and can guide you in making a big life change. 

Let’s firstly look at some common resolutions:

  • “I want to be healthier” -e.g., eat better, start exercising, go to the gym, get better rest etc
  • “I want to lose weight”
  • “I want to start saving money”
  • “I want to drink less alcohol”
  • “”I need to find a new job”

And here are some examples of common new year resolutions that are (a bit more) intangible: 

  • Develop a more positive mindset 
  • Live your best life 
  • Be more confident 
  • Be more assertive with people (learn to say NO)

At first glance, these resolution goals look fairly short, easy and straight forward. However, if you consider the strong willpower and energy that achieving each of these goals actually entails, it is much more involved than they initially seem. The more involved the resolution goals are, the harder the change is. It is important to note that you should focus on just a few strong resolutions at a time to properly attempt achieving them in the next few months. 

For example, the goal of being healthier requires numerous actions and skills to succeed. This includes time management to allocate time in your week for exercising, shopping for healthy foods, and cooking nutritious meals. Budgeting is also a large factor, for a gym membership, gym equipment and groceries. The time and skill it takes to plan meals is also intense, as you have to look at recipes and learn how to cook those healthy meals without resorting to your usual eating patterns.  

All the above requires hours of planning to become achievable, and this can already pose a practical barrier for progress. It is therefore crucial that time is spent thinking through the practicalities of resolution goals for planning, to increase the likelihood of success. Do not just set a broad goal to be healthier, really be more specific such as committing every Saturday morning to meal plan for the week. 

If you are able to overcome the practical barriers, then you may also face psychological barriers when trying to change your habits in order to achieve your resolution. 

What are the Psychological Barriers to achieving New Years Resolutions?

Psychological barriers will differ from person to person, and depend on the particular resolution goal. If we continue to look at the goal of being healthier, a number of psychological barriers could arise to impede progress. This could include feeling self-conscious, demotivated and stressed.

Firstly, feeling self-conscious or uncomfortable going to the gym is not uncommon. Individuals often report avoiding the gym because they do not fit a particular ‘look’ and therefore fear derision. Psychologists often hear clients say ‘I will begin going to the gym once I lose a few more kilos’. This, of course, leads to a ‘catch-22’ situation and can be self-sabotaging. The psychological barrier here is the fear of social judgement (or social anxiety), which includes shame, embarrassment and low self-esteem. 

Another common psychological barrier to resolution goal achievement is that people do not prepare themselves for the psychological discomfort associated with progressing in goals. For example, people have the intention to exercise but do not have the motivation when it is time to exercise (or ‘action’ their goal). To put it simply, the resolution sounds good in theory, but people are not psychologically ready to ‘push through the pain’ involved in achieving their goals. 

Finally, individuals also have long term unhealthy habits to deal with stress. This is the psychological barrier where day-to-day stressors such as work, finances and relationship complications lead to unhealthy coping mechanisms. For example, the habit of rewarding yourself with an excessive sugary or fatty food after a hard day at work, generally overeating or consuming excessive alcohol to manage stressors. 

Overcoming Psychological Barriers to New Years Resolutions

Overcoming psychological barriers to New Years Resolutions involve raising awareness of your emotions through a continual process of self-reflection. Once the particular emotions and thoughts that pose a barrier to progress are identified, then strategies can be put in place to overcome them. 

Let’s look at the case of a person who has the intention to exercise, but then does not have the motivation when it is time to go to the gym. In this scenario, psychologists ask clients to raise their awareness of the thoughts and emotions that arise during the period of decision making – that is, the thoughts and emotions that accompany the dilemma of ‘do I go to the gym, or do I stay on my couch’. 

The theory is that if we understand the emotions at play during this period, we are better able to plan strategies to combat them for better decision making. For example, if the thought identified is ‘I don’t want to go to the gym, it’s so boring’, then we can create strategies to combat boredom. This, in turn, will increase the likelihood of going to the gym. 

Another example might be that you feel ‘too tired, I don’t want to push myself anymore’. By identifying this, we can strategies to plan to go to the gym at times where we have more energy such as during lunchtime or after work when you normally feel more energised. 

If the psychological barrier is more complex, such as because of issues of self-esteem and fear of judgement (like being laughed at), then a short term solution might be to bring friends to the gym each time as a confidence booster, as you can learn to use equipment together, push each other and overcome the psychological barrier. Whilst bringing friends is a good start to making a change, a longer-term strategy needs to be looked at to achieve the resolution. This would focus on building your fundamental level of self-esteem through a number of psychological strategies including Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT), Mindfulness and Values-based decision making. 

Overall, your New Years Resolution does not need to be broken! Do not just give up and try again next year, instead plan a resolution well from the start to really make a change over a few months. Through organising your practical objectives first, like a time to complete the goal, and then using reflecting to work through your emotions, your resolution will become more achievable.