New year's resolutions: The science behind them

January 4, 2016 Michelle T. Toshima

Ringing in the New Year is often a time of joyful celebration marked with annual traditions: Dropping the ball in New York City’s Time Square. The Seattle Space Needle’s fireworks extravaganza. Establishing New Year’s resolutions. 

In the US, about 50 percent of us usually make New Year’s Resolutions, while about 40 percent of us never do.

So what were the Top 10 New Year’s Resolutions for 2015? According to the Statistics Brain Research Institute:
  • Lose weight.
  • Get organized.
  • Spend less, save more.
  • Enjoy life to the fullest.
  • Be fit and healthy.
  • Learn something exciting.
  • Quit smoking.
  • Help others with their dreams.
  • Fall in love.
  • Spend more time with family. 

The sobering truth about New Year’s resolutions is that only about 8 percent of the people who make them actually achieve them. So why do we fail to achieve our New Year’s resolutions? Often our resolutions are too big in scope and too vague. And we often make too many of them.

Several researchers have looked into this, including John Norcross, Ph.D. Based on his research, here are some tips to help all of us achieve our New Year’s resolutions.

  1. Keep it manageable. Too often we come up with too many resolutions. Change is hard enough, and making too many changes all at once can be overwhelming. So it’s best to start with one resolution.
  2. Make it tangible. Let’s take losing weight, the No. 1 resolution from the 2015 list, as an example. Although losing weight is a worthy resolution, it is too vague. Make your resolution specific with concrete steps and deadlines. For example: I will lose weight by not eating my three go-to comfort foods (ice cream, potato chips, donuts) for the next three months and then re-evaluate my goal.
  3. Be accountable. Go public and be transparent about your resolutions. Let other people know what you are trying to do so they can support and encourage you. Monitor and record your progress in a visible place.
  4. Focus on today. Don’t get caught up in revisiting past failures. If you didn’t stick to your plan yesterday, don’t let it affect your decision to stick to it today. And don’t concern yourself with whether you think you can stick to it tomorrow or next week.
  5. Reward yourself. Every time you make progress toward your resolution, give yourself a small reward. 
  6. Focus on how much better your life will be once you’ve achieved your resolution. Write all of these things down and review them periodically. It’s important to remind yourself of why this is important to you and the positive benefit that will come from achieving your resolution. 

If you are one of the 50 percent of people who usually makes New Year’s resolutions, approach them differently this year and see if you can’t increase your chances of success.

And if you are one of the 40 percent who never makes New Year’s resolutions, consider trying it this year. Lack of meaningful change and seeing it merely as an exercise in futility may be a good reason for not having a resolution, but make it a real effort and see what you might be able to accomplish.


Norcross, JC, Mrykalo MS, Blagys, MD. Auld lang syne: success predictors, change processes, and self-reported outcomes of New Year’s resolvers and non-resolvers. Journal of Clinical Psychology, 2002. April 58(4), 397-405.

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