New Year’s Resolutions Resolved

By Rebecca Capps   |   January 17, 2023

Every New Year, people create resolutions: Lose weight, eat healthier, drink less, etcetera. However, research indicates that a whopping 80% of New Year’s resolutions fizzle by February. I just learned there’s even a term for it: “The February Fail.” But what if you reframed how you talked about failure (as not the opposite of success but a necessary prerequisite instead)? Also, what if you learned how to create resolutions you could actually accomplish? Thankfully, you can! The key to moving beyond your perceived failures and following through on your goals involves mastering the art of behavior change. 

The difficulty of a behavior change is determined based on the type of habit you’re trying to break, how you view the challenge involved, the perceived benefits, and the environmental factors associated with establishing the change. Whenever setting goals, it’s essential to tap into your motivation and big life visions. That said, vague, unrealistic goals invite disappointment. Whatever change you want to make should be realistic and achievable within the time frame you’ve set out for yourself. For example, if your goal is to run a marathon, it would be unrealistic and likely end in disappointment (even injury!) to sign up for a marathon two weeks from now, especially if you still need to start training. This means to pace yourself because if you try to go too fast, you will run out of gas; you must keep some energy, patience, and motivation to traverse the journey ahead.


As a psychotherapist, I like teaching my clients the importance of setting SMART Goals, which stand for Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Relevant, and Time-bound. Although it’s lovely in theory to set big New Year’s resolutions, when you declare things like: “I’m going to work out daily” or “I’m going to manage my drinking,” such goals are not SMART because they’re vague and not actionable. A study published by the American Psychological Association (APA) revealed that people who set SMART goals and consistently monitor their progress are more likely to succeed. So, if you want to learn how to play the guitar, build a SMART goal to track your practice. Or, keep a journal of your meals if you want to develop more balanced eating habits. It is worth mentioning, however, there’s a balance to strike between measuring your goals and immersing yourself in the process. Sometimes, the very act of goal setting can undermine its utility if it feels burdensome or like it’s homework. Thus, center your goals around the feeling state and impact you wish to invoke. Measure goals based on what you want to do instead of measuring them just for measurement’s sake. Remember: Life is a journey, not a destination!

Shifting Habits

Another helpful consideration when mapping out your goals is understanding the type of habit you want to shift. Think of something you do all the time and notice how it’s become a habit (likely without much conscious realization). The truth is that everything you practice daily, starting with your morning habits, eating preferences, and thought patterns to exercise routines… are all habits. And some habits are more challenging to break than others. The first type of habit is what I just described, where you practice it virtually on autopilot (e.g., driving your car, brushing your teeth, etc.). The other type of habit (the kind that’s more challenging to break) is pleasure or reward-based (e.g., binge eating or drinking). Pleasure-based habits are harder to change because the reward center part of the brain gets activated, and dopamine (the feel-good hormone) gets released. As a result, the brain will continue to follow this pleasure-seeking neural pathway and seek more and more rewards, causing the habit to become deeply ingrained and tough to break. 

Even though it can be tough to break pleasure-based habits, it is feasible. One step to consider is replacing the unwanted habit with a different reward. For example, let’s say the behavior you’re trying to change is your daily McDonald’s habit. To shift this dopamine-seeking behavior, you can reinforce the new habit of cooking more nutrient-dense meals at home by rewarding yourself after each milestone (e.g., getting a new pair of sneakers after a week of meal prep or workouts). Giving yourself new rewards for a behavior stimulates dopamine, so your brain will associate the positive outcome with it and help to solidify the new habit. Focus on building routines that take you off autopilot and help you make informed decisions that align with your long-term goals. Ultimately, your goals should be an expression of your values and the type of life you want to live.

Setting Goals and the Environment of Success

Successfully executing your goals involves knowing who you are and what motivates you intrinsically. Intrinsic motivation means feeling rewarded by the challenge and pleasure of the goal in addition to the satisfaction of seeing it materialize. It is doing a task for its inherent fulfillment rather than being motivated by external pressures or rewards. Tapping into your intrinsic motivation looks like: participating in a sport because it’s enjoyable rather than doing it to win a title; tidying up your home because you love practicing the art of feng shui as opposed to cleaning up to avoid making your partner upset; or, working out because you enjoy the physical challenge instead of doing it to lose weight. You get the picture.

To succeed in your goals, the final aspect to consider is your environment. If you’ve participated in a particular habit for an extended time, environmental cues can trigger the behavior – with or without you even noticing it. Your surroundings, from social pressures to visual cues, can significantly impact your choices. A 2013 study in the journal Appetite examining the effects of environmental cues on dietary decisions found that “participants were more likely to eat chocolates in the presence of an environmental cue that others [and] participants were more likely to choose a snack that was consistent with the choice of others.” The level of accountability in your immediate environment is a vital factor in creating successful behavior change. The likelihood that you’ll reduce your alcohol consumption or lose weight, for example, increases whenever you share your goals with others who will hold you accountable and encourage your success. 

Whenever examining factors that will lead to success, psychologists often research the effects of genes versus environment. Even though your genetic makeup is undoubtedly an important consideration, it is not something you can change; however, you can focus on changing or curating your environment to help you succeed in your goals. One of my favorite expressions (attributed to Dr. Judith Stern) is: “Genetics loads the gun, but the environment pulls the trigger.” This quote is worth reflecting on because even though you may have predisposing genetic factors, they are not always necessary determinants of your success. Your environment “pulls the trigger” and plays a crucial role in how your many potentials get expressed… or suppressed. So, be sure to examine the people, places, and situations that may thwart your efforts. Knowing your environmental triggers can help you predict and navigate potentially challenging situations that derail your goals. Having people in your corner who are there to encourage and support your efforts to change, such as a therapist or an accountability partner, is helpful.

All in the Process

Ultimately, a big reason why New Year’s resolutions fail is that they tend to involve making drastic changes without a repeatable, systematic process involved. It is rare to succeed in lasting behavior change if your goals are a vast departure from your current lifestyle. As a psychotherapist specializing in eating disorders, I hear many people talking about setting extreme weight loss-related goals around this time of year. However, as research indicates, roughly 95% of all dieters regain their pre-diet weight (and often end up wreaking further havoc on their bodies and will to change). So, if you already feel like you’re failing with your New Year’s resolutions – whether your goal is to lose weight, quit drinking, or something else – this does not mean you should just give up. Failing to hit your resolutions or goals just points to the need to iterate your process and how you view behavior change. Failure is not the opposite of success; it is a necessary prerequisite. If you work with the intention to succeed and fail with the goal of learning, you will, without a doubt, become unstoppable. So, this is your cue not to allow the fear of failure to stop you from pursuing your goals. As the late Zig Ziglar declared: “If you learn from defeat, you haven’t really lost.”  


You might also be interested in...