Why Resolutions Don’t Work (and What to Do Instead)


(photo courtesy of Aftab Uzzaman cc)

How many of us confidently step into the New Year with the mindset: This is the year! This year it’s going to be different! or some similar statement of bold promise?

How many of us make similar bold statements about the New Year’s resolutions we’ll make and keep?

And how many of us actually follow through on those resolutions?

Not many. In fact, according to www.statisticbrain.com, of the approximately 45% of Americans who make New Year’s resolutions, only 8% of us successfully achieve that resolution. Perhaps even more telling:

  • 25% of resolutions don’t make it past the first week
  • 36% of resolutions don’t make it past the first month
  • 54% of resolutions don’t make it to the half-year mark

Wow. So it’s clear resolutions don’t work for most of us. But why is that? What is it about these wonderful opportunities for change, these fabulous intentions that sprout as we’re toasting the New Year, that wither on the vine within the first week or month? Okay, so maybe alcohol consumption has something to do with our flush of bravado… but shouldn’t more of us be able to stick to our guns and actually accomplish something, or at least put forth good effort for more than a few weeks?

So Why Don’t Resolutions Work?

Here are three reasons why New Year’s resolutions aren’t a successful way to achieve lasting change:

  • Because we make resolutions too broad—from this flush of “I need to make a change” anxiety and impatience—and we end up with something that’s not specific and we therefore struggle to achieve…
  • Because we don’t write down our resolutions, to make them visible and tangible and achievable.
  • Because we don’t build in accountability. We don’t generally make our resolutions public and visible and “official.” We are social creatures, and we need accountability. And if we don’t find someone to help us and hold us accountable for the change, to keep us honest and keep us doing something when we don’t want to do it, or when our willpower is weak, we’ll stop doing it.

And since most of us tend to make these broad, undefined, unmeasurable resolutions like “I want to get healthy,” or “I want to lose weight,” or “I want to improve my finances,” few of us are going to make those stick in any meaningful way. How could we? We can’t wrap our minds around them for very long, and we certainly don’t know how to set about achieving them when they’re so vague…

So What Should We Do Instead?

So, instead of this vague, unachievable phantom of a resolution, we instead need a real, successful, repeatable process for building a habit—one that we can sustain. Here are three DOs I’ve used to beat the three DON’Ts we just talked about. You can use them, too.

1. Dream Big and Powerfully

Give yourself a monstrous, big, hairy audacious goal for the year. (Yes, this may seem like I’m telling you to do exactly the thing I said not to do above. Bear with me.) Maybe you want to lose 50 pounds and reduce your body fat percentage to 12%. Maybe you want to write your first novel or non-fiction book. Maybe you want to learn to play guitar. Maybe you want to run your first marathon. Maybe you want to pay off your credit cards.

Whatever your goal is, make it big and vivid. Associate it with a powerful emotion. Because we don’t make changes based on logic – we make them based on emotion. Maybe your weight loss is focused on a feeling of power and strength and pride in how you look when you see yourself flexing in the mirror. Or maybe it’s that feeling of sliding into that new pair of jeans or that new skirt, a feeling of health and sexiness. Maybe it’s the feeling of holding that physical book in your hands, the one you wrote, or seeing it on the shelf at your local bookstore, and feeling that surge of pride and accomplishment. Maybe it’s pulling out your guitar at your next bonfire and playing for 30 minutes while everyone sings along, feeling connected to everyone there. Maybe it’s crossing the finish line of that marathon, and them hanging that medal around your neck, and feeling powerful, like there’s nothing you can’t do. Maybe it’s seeing all those credit card balances at zero, feeling a sense of security and control, and treating yourself to something special—like a massage, or a pedicure, or a nice dinner, or an overnight hotel stay—in cash, from what you’d otherwise pay to those bills each month.

2. Do Small and Visceral

Then, once you have that emotion firmly grounded in your mind, turn your thoughts to action. Have a big vision, but achieving that vision only works when we divide it into smaller, tangible, achievable steps.

We need to make our goals, and the steps to achieve them, as visible and tangible as possible to ourselves. The more viscerally we can feel that driving emotion, see the goal associated with it, and see the immediate next step we need to take to achieve it, the more likely we are to be successful.

In fact, our bodies are primed to do just that: in each of us is a powerful chemical, dopamine, which makes it feel really good when we move forward to achieve something. Each time we take a successful step forward toward that goal, whatever it is, we get a nice little shot of dopamine to reward that behavior.

Just like our hunter-gatherer ancestors were “encouraged” by dopamine to keep hunting that elusive prey, we too are encouraged to keep moving forward to achieving our goals. But just like the hunter—who needs a glimpse of the animal, or the animal’s tracks, or some other sign of its passing, to keep the hunter in pursuit (dopamine)—we as 21st century achievers need some physical sign of progress for ourselves.

So we need to not only create some physical reminder of our goal, something we can keep in front of us as we work toward it, we also need some sort of physical reminder of our step-by-step accomplishments toward that goal.

First, break down your big goal into smaller, discreet and achievable steps. Then create a tool—a planning document, a vision board, a tracking log, a calendar—that shows you that path to success. Perhaps you want to create more than one: one to encompass your vision of the “end goal”, and another to track your progress. And then create as a part of your daily routine, your practice, the review and use of those tools.

3. Go Public

This last suggestion sometimes requires a little embarrassment. Or at least getting out of your comfort zone. It requires going public with your commitment, and continuing to be public about your progress (or lack of it).

Going public might mean confiding to your closest friends and asking for their support. It might mean joining a support or accountability group. It might mean going on an accountability site like Vimify or stickK.

How you do it doesn’t really matter, so long as you do it.

The main reason to make yourself accountable to someone else is that it’s easier to stay committed to someone else than it is to just ourselves.

Because if we’re accountable to someone else, we stick to the plan—even when we don’t feel like it, even when we’d rather do anything else but that—so that we don’t disappoint them. This social interplay is where another chemical comes in: serotonin. Serotonin is the leadership chemical, and makes the bond between teacher and student. Student does more than they otherwise would because they don’t want to disappoint the teacher, and when the student does well, both student and teacher get that same surge in serotonin, that sense of pride and happiness and the sense that they accomplished something, thanks to and with the help of someone else.

So if you want your resolutions to stick, approach the process logically (set clear, specific, measureable, tangible goals, and break them up into small, bite-sized steps), but prime the whole experience emotionally. Draw on your emotions (and the nifty chemicals our bodies provide us in response) to infuse your resolution-making and goal-achieving with a powerful dose of conviction.

Resolutions: Goals or Practices

One last thing to think about when you’re creating your New Year’s resolutions: are you creating a goal, or are you creating a practice?

A goal is a finite thing: it’s specific and achievable, and in many senses singular—you achieve it once. You set a goal weight or a body-fat percentage, and you achieve it. You set out to run a marathon, and you train for it and run it. You set out to read one book a week for a year, and you read 54! That’s the essence of a goal: there’s an ending, a point of accomplishment, of finishing. And then you pick a new goal and start working toward that one.

But maybe you’re not after a specific goal like that. Maybe you want to do something, like meditate or exercise or read more, and instead of achieving a specific milestone, you want instead to incorporate that into your daily (or weekly) life.

I call that a practice. Practice is the long run to the goal’s sprint. It’s incorporating some action or activity into your regular routine with the intention of keeping it up indefinitely. A practice, like a goal, is still somewhat about results, but a practice is really more about the act—the repetition of an act toward mastery—than about a singular achievement.

A practice can have goals within it. We might set goals, and then set our regular practice to the accomplishment of those goals. But the goal is not the purpose of practice, the practice is.

So as you’re thinking about your resolutions for the year, consider whether you want to achieve a specific goal (lose 20 pounds), or if you want to begin and maintain a yoga practice. Or if you want to get out of debt in two years, or if you want to establish a practice of financial management that helps you reach your debt-free goal, and then maintain it.


Whatever sort of resolution you choose, I hope you have success in accomplishing your goals and building your practices in the new year.

(And if you’re interested in additional information on practice, check out my six-part series on practice, starting with this post.)


If one of your new practices for the year is to read more Free of Gravity, be sure to subscribe to the blog by entering your email in the box in the sidebar to your right. You’ll get regular updates from the blog, news on when the manifesto will be available, and other subscriber-only tools and goodies.

2 thoughts on “Why Resolutions Don’t Work (and What to Do Instead)

  1. James Michael Taylor

    Always great insight my friend.

    I can resolve myself to sell six digits in advertising in 2015 for my newspaper.

    But “sell six digits” doesn’t translate into, “What do I do this morning when I get to work?”

    The only thing that has helped me become a better salesman is the art of practice – letting go of results, and letting my goals instead act as a lighthouse so I know which direction I’m going. It’s in my practice – doing impactful work with consistency – that I make those goals happen.

    1. Steve Post author

      Exactly right, James. Goals and resolutions are great – as you say, they are the lighthouse for the direction of our daily practice. But it’s that consistent, sometimes slogging effort that brings the results.

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