Are New Year’s resolutions worth the effort?
Reviewed by Stephanie Steinman, PhD, CSAC
Written byElise Burley
Last updated: 12/22/2023
As the calendar flips over to January, many of us find ourselves looking ahead to what we want to achieve or improve in the coming year. Making New Year’s resolutions can be fun but also daunting, especially if yours have a history of veering off track.
It can be challenging to keep new resolutions going. But whether you’re working toward a brand-new goal or trying to break old habits, you can shape your resolutions in ways that improve your overall well-being—even if you don’t see them all through.
Why the new year matters
There’s a reason why you feel so optimistic about setting goals when January 1 hits. People tend to experience a “fresh start effect,” meaning they’re more likely to make changes after major calendar events.1 The new year is one of the most common times to feel a sense of openness to new beginnings: It seems like a clean slate and a chance to rebuild.
Turning resolutions into reality
It’s easy to get stuck in a cycle of making resolutions, struggling to fulfill them, then stopping. Only about one in five US adults who made resolutions in 2023 reported sticking with them all year long.2 Here are some of the reasons why:
- Time constraints: If your days are already packed, fitting in a new routine can feel impossible—particularly if you underestimate how much time you’ll need.3
- “Lone wolf” mentality: It’s tough going it alone. Without accountability or a support system of friends, family, or a community to back you up, maintaining new habits can be an uphill battle.
- Goal limitations: Some resolutions are vague or unrealistic, and many of them rely on how much mental or physical energy you have. Without a specific plan that includes personally satisfying or rewarding activities, it can be hard to measure progress and stay driven.
- Mental health challenges: Conditions like depression, anxiety, or trauma can make it hard to keep up with resolutions, especially when day-to-day stress piles on.
- Perfectionism: Being overly self-critical can reduce your motivation to work toward goals, leaving you feeling defeated.4
Should you bother with resolutions?
While the new year can offer short-term inspiration, everyday life tends to get in the way of long-term commitment. What seemed promising and achievable may look increasingly hard as time goes on. But this doesn’t mean you have to abandon your goals. The real worth of resolutions might lie not in the objectives themselves, but in how you plan and pursue them.
How to make healthy resolutions
Having an idea for a resolution is a good first step—and you can craft it in ways that work well for you. The best resolutions tend to be:
Small and achievable: Though you may start with big ambitions, breaking them down into smaller, more manageable goals helps you have regular successes and grow more confident.5 For example, a goal to walk for 20 minutes a day may be more achievable than an hour at the gym every morning.
Positive and approach-oriented, as opposed to negative and avoidance-oriented:6 This might look like saying to yourself, “I’ll practice gratitude and write down three things I’m grateful for every day” rather than “I’m going to stop complaining about minor inconveniences.”
Inspired by bigger ambitions: Just because smaller goals are easier to manage doesn’t mean you have to lose sight of bigger ones. In one study of New Year’s resolutions, researchers found that participants who set ambitious goals alongside achievable ones put more effort into pursuing all of them.7 For instance, if your ultimate aim is to be happy and healthy in old age, you might resolve to meditate for five minutes every day as a small step. At the same time, you might look for a therapist to help you work toward longer-term mental health goals.
Developing your approach
Even if your New Year’s resolutions are still in the seedling stage, the process of setting goals encourages you to focus on growth. These intentions can lead to subtle shifts in your behavior over time, even if the original resolutions evolve. What matters most is working toward greater self-awareness and accountability, rather than specific outcomes.
As you approach your goals, it’s important to:
Stay in the present. Instead of worrying about veering off course, use mindfulness practices to experience the moment without judgment.
Practice self-compassion. Celebrate small victories as they happen, try to find joy and satisfaction in everyday moments, and give yourself grace over setbacks.
Pursue goals for personal satisfaction, not just external validation. Whether you want to pay off debt or get back in the dating pool, having deep personal reasons for your actions can help both your motivation and your mental well-being.8
Believe in yourself. People who are most able to follow through on their resolutions tend to embrace change, have confidence in their abilities, avoid self-blame, and avoid wishful thinking.9
Treat challenges as opportunities to learn and improve. This can make it easier and more rewarding to work through obstacles.
Be determined, but also flexible. There may not be scholarly proof that setting flexible goals leads to achievement, but it’s still great for your mental health.10 Being open to change can relieve the pressure of following a rigid plan, which may cause unnecessary stress and increase your likelihood of giving up. It’s a hallmark of resilience to be able to adjust your goals without losing sight of the overall objective.
As the new year unfolds, keep in mind that the journey toward your resolutions is just as important as the destination. Take time to reflect on what truly matters to you, and use that as motivation to evolve. Stay adaptable, celebrate small victories, and remember to be kind to yourself along the way.
(P.S. We may be a bit biased, but finding a therapist sounds like a pretty great resolution to us.)
About the author
Elise Burley is a member of the therapist.com editorial team. She has more than a decade of professional experience writing and editing on a variety of health topics, including for several health-related e-commerce businesses, media publications, and licensed professionals. When she’s not working, she’s usually practicing yoga or off the grid somewhere on her latest canoe camping adventure.
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