The Case for Not Making a New Year’s Resolution

If you want to make a change in the new year, psychologists say follow these tips instead to set yourself up for success.

Medically Reviewed
woman sitting peacefully in chair
There’s nothing magical about January 1, according to psychologists. If you want to make a change, pick the timing that’s right for you.Julia Volk/Stocksy

If the idea of making New Year’s resolutions fills you with dread, consider ditching the tradition. Science suggests most people who set resolutions each year don’t stick with them and mental health experts say other strategies for adopting healthier habits work better.

A frequently cited study, published in 1989 in the Journal of Substance Abuse, that followed 200 people found that 77 percent of people stuck with their resolutions after one week, 43 percent stuck with them three months out, and 19 percent stuck with them for two years, with many citing a lack of willpower.

Another study, published in March 2002 in the Journal of Clinical Psychology, found only 46 percent of resolvers reported success at sticking to their resolutions six months after the new year.

The problem is that we often set unrealistic goals, explains Seth Gillihan, PhD, a licensed clinical psychologist in private practice in Haverford, Pennsylvania, and the coauthor of A Mindful Year: 365 Ways to Find Connection and the Sacred in Everyday Life. “We try to make a really big change and we try to do it all at once.”

For example, thinking we can suddenly completely overhaul our eating habits on January 1 — when we ate whatever we wanted up until the day before — is probably a goal that’s going to fail, Dr. Gillihan says.

The social pressure around New Year’s resolutions doesn’t help either, suggests Camilla Nonterah, PhD, an assistant professor of health psychology at the University of Richmond, who researches mental health in underserved groups and minority populations.

You may not be wanting to make a change for the right reasons, Dr. Nonterah says. “It may just be this sense of oh, this is something I should do.”

But the good news is setting a goal for healthier behavior and sticking with it is possible, both Nonterah and Gillihan agree. To boost your chances for success in adopting healthier habits, choose small steps rather than grand leaps and gestures, and be strategic with each of those steps along the way.

RELATED: How to Recognize When a Self-Care Practice Is No Longer Self-Care

9 Better Ways to Go About Behavior Change

Instead of making New Year’s resolutions, follow this advice to help make healthy habits stick.

1. If You’re Going to Make a Change, Pick the Time That’s Right for You

There’s nothing magical about the first of January that makes it easier to achieve goals than it would be at other times of the year, says Gillihan. If you prefer exercising outside when it’s warmer out, for example, plan to start that new running routine in the spring. Do what makes sense for you.

RELATED: How to Start a Self-Care Routine You’ll Follow

2. Get Specific About Your Goals

Start with the SMART framework for goal setting, which was first developed as a business success strategy, according to a paper on using the SMART framework for behavioral change, published in September 2017 in the American Journal of Lifestyle Medicine. The framework suggests goals should be specific, measurable, achievable, realistic, and time-based. The point is that you’re more likely to reach a goal if you define it in specific terms, according to the paper.

So, pledge to run twice a week instead of “become a runner,” for example. The goal should also be realistic to achieve — aiming to run a 5K before a marathon, for example — and have a definitive end-date or milestone you can reach, such as signing up for a scheduled fun-run or race, so it’s on the calendar.

3. Change Your Environment to Set Yourself Up for Success

Don’t count on motivation and willpower alone to accomplish your goals. Set yourself up for success by changing your surroundings to encourage healthy behavior, Gillihan says.

That might mean buying more fruits and vegetables at the grocery store or charging your phone out of reach at night so you aren’t tempted to pick up the device and doom scroll. Whatever the goal may be, make sure your environment makes it as easy as possible to reach it, Gillihan explains. “You have to change the system.”

4. Surround Yourself With Supporters

Round up your personal cheerleading squad and keep them at the ready, Nonterah says. If your goal is to eat healthier, consider asking a friend or family member to grocery shop with you to remind you to make more nutritious shopping choices, she says. Or invite a friend over to cook a healthy meal with you.

Other members of your support team could include your doctor, a therapist, a personal trainer, an exercise buddy, or a peer support group (virtual or in-person).

RELATED: Why You Should Find an Exercise Partner Right Now

5. Spot the Saboteurs

Likewise, if certain people feel uncomfortable with your goals or with the behavior changes you want to make — especially if it’s a habit they still enjoy — recognize that and be prepared to stick with your goals, even if they try to persuade you to do otherwise.

Remember that you don’t need to defend or even explain your personal choices, Gillihan says. Instead, be firm with them about your decisions at the outset. He suggests letting people know what they need to in the simplest way possible. If, for example, you’re trying to drink less you can just say: “No thanks, I’m not drinking tonight.” You don’t need to explain yourself further, Gillihan adds. “You're not responsible for removing other people's discomfort.”

6. Experiment

Specificity can help you clearly understand what your goals are and identify steps you might need to take to get there. But a less rigid approach at other times can be strategic, too, says Gillihan. To spend less time on his phone, Gillihan says he experimented previously with taking apps off his phone for a short period of time.

When you treat your goal as an experiment, you can learn as you go, he says. Try committing to a new behavior for a month rather than for the rest of all time, he suggests. That way there’s an opportunity to shift the goal based on what is and is not working.

7. Automate Cues to Keep Yourself on Track

Again, don’t rely on motivation and willpower alone. Automated reminders, like phone alerts or alarms to alert you to drink more water or take a break from sitting, and visual cues — Post-it notes on your mirror, for example, to remind you not to skip the gym — make it easier to stick with a routine change, Nonterah says. Tracking progress via an app or with a pen and paper can also help keep you on pace.

RELATED: The Best Apps for Weight Loss

8. Accept Barriers That Are Out of Your Control

Worrying about what you can’t change usually just increases your anxiety and makes you feel discouraged, Nonterah says. If you can’t afford to hire a personal trainer, for example, there’s nothing you can do about that. Instead, she says, focus on: “What can I do with what I have?” Be realistic about what you can achieve.

9. Keep Trying, Even After Small Failures and Missteps

Behavior change is hard, Nonterah says. So don’t be discouraged if you don’t reach your goal the first few times. Just keep trying with the strategies outlined above.

“If you do something 80 percent of the time, that's a lot better than not doing it at all,” Gillihan adds.

newsnewsseoseogamesmedicalgamesgamesnewsnewsnewsnewsnewshealthnewsgamesnewsseogameshealthgameshealthnewsgamesgamesnewsseohealthnewsnewsnewsnewsgamesgamesgamesseogamesgamesseogamesgamesgamesseohealthgamesgamesgamesgamesmoviegamesgamesgames