New Year Resolutions versus Goals: Why Resolutions Don’t Work

New Year resolutions are ingrained in our culture. You would be hard pressed to find anyone who hasn’t heard of them and/or participated in them themselves. Typically, we come up with our resolutions around the time of the New Year celebrations and there are some fairly common ones. Typical resolutions include weight loss, changes in behavior, financial success, or traveling. New Year resolutions are not necessarily a bad idea, but more often than not we do not follow through with them completely or even begin them. If you have been able to make major changes through the use of a New Year resolution, then more power to you. Continuing this tradition may be a great way for you to make improvements in your life every year. For most of us however, resolutions do not pan out into any sustainable improvement. Why is this? Well, there are some simple explanations that psychology can tell us about how New Year resolutions fail and why it may be better to have a different type of goal setting for New Years.

Resolutions pay-off before work is done

The primary reason that has been identified as to why resolutions often do not work out, is from a process of gratification that occurs without us having to actually make changes. Whether we are making a change for ourselves, for others, or a combination of both, the reward system of our brain is involved. The dopamine centers of our brain release this chemical when we expect rewards or when we receive them. This does not require us to have actually done anything to receive the rewards. A closely related phenomenon occurs in gambling. We get a rush of dopamine just by betting, and a second one if we win. The initial “reward” happens in our brains regardless if we win or lose. To see how New Years resolutions are similar, lets use a specific example.

You decide that your New Year resolution is to get into the best shape of your life. You decide that Christmas will be your last hoorah in terms of eating a big meal filled with all your favorite foods. You subscribe to a exercise program you can do at home starting January 1, and you create a meal plan for yourself that you can cook at home and prepare on the weekends to have all week. Your family is on board, promising not to keep junk food in the house and if they decide to eat something different than you they will not order any extra so you will not be tempted. Excited about your new challenge, you let people around you know. You tell your coworkers before leaving for the holidays, you inform your family both immediate and distant during the days leading up to the New Year, and you are more than excited to tell you friends who are extremely supportive. You aren’t aware of this, but your brain is already releasing dopamine and flooding you with feelings of reward and pleasure. At first it feels like you are even more motivated to start your goal! The New Year begins, and the first week is filled with working out hard and eating right. Work starts back up at its usual schedule and within the first 3 weeks the initial motivation passes. Now you are in a space where you got that positive feeling, life is getting busy again, and it feel fine to skip the gym sometimes. The healthy eating falls off, old habits return, and by March you are back living the same way you were before the New Year. That initial positive feeling you got from telling everyone about your goal is a major factor in this failure of achieving your goal. It’s like giving a child a reward on the promise that they will do something good in the future. It is not an effective way of motivating positive behavioral change.

Goals over resolutions, the difference

It is more likely to result in positive outcomes if you set goals for where you would like to be at this time next year than to set resolutions and share them. The main difference is that a general goal is a hypothetical future you want to design for yourself. The specific plan will develop WHILE you are taking action in the New Year, as you navigate the return to normal life after the holidays end. It is tempting to share with others our goals, but it gives a better chance to succeed if we keep it general with others by saying we hope to continue to self-improve in 2021 as opposed to giving specifics. This will prevent that dopamine rush from coming in, and will not allow you to feel the reward before you do the work. Keeping your specific goals private and less specific may seem counterintuitive to everything you know about goal setting, but in the case of New Year goals it is better to take it slow and let them develop over the course of the year. Goals also allow you to be more fluid and adaptive to what the world throws at you. A general goal of getting healthier as opposed to losing 30 pounds in 3 months makes it easier to handle the unexpected things that life throws at us. Keep in mind when you are setting any goals in the present time, New Year based or otherwise, that we live in a very challenging time where there are things that are out of our control. COVID-19 is the primary example. All of your goals for 2021 need to take into account that the world around us is going to be changing, hopefully for the better, but changing none the less in the next 12 months.

How can we stick to goals?

Sticking to your goals is always a challenge. A multitude of things can get in the way, many internal and some external. There are some things we can do to improve our chances of following through on our goals.

  • Save rewards for the end. The positive feelings will be reward enough when you finish your goal, but if you plan some kind of extra reward make sure you only save it until you feel totally accomplished.
  • Keep goals realistic. We all would like to think that in 1 years’ time we could change everything about our life drastically. The truth is, that is a recipe for overload and failure. Pick 1-2 big goals, but don’t make the mistake of overloading yourself.
  • Set goals that you truly want! This may seem like common sense but realize what your biggest priority is to change and focus on that. We sometimes get caught up in common goals, thinking they will be our ticket to happiness too. Maybe losing weight isn’t the right goal for you. Or maybe traveling more next year sounds nice but isn’t as important as making career changes. Pick the goal that is best for you, not the one that many others choose.

If you are looking for help in developing goals for 2021 and avoiding the pitfalls of New Year resolutions please contact Life Enhancement Counseling Services today at 407-443-8862 to schedule an appointment with one of our experienced mental health counselors.


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