New Year’s Resolutions – Will Power is a Myth

By: Sharon Burris-Brown, National Board-Certified Health and Wellness Coach, LICSW

‘Tis the Season – for New Year’s Resolutions! These are our new or renewed goals and commitments to eating less, exercising more, spending less time in front of our devices and more time with our families, cleaning out our closets and setting up a system so they stay uncluttered. So many goals – so much frustration.

Smokers who set their quit date on January 1. People join a gym and proclaim they will get there at least three times a week – starting January 1.

But 92% of us will go back to old habits by February. We start… and stop. Then start again… and throw up our hands – until the next year.

And why is that? A new year, a new way, right? Well… no.

Here are reasons why most of us fail:

  • First of all, sustained change is hard!
  • We truly believe we will be different come January 1.
  • We see change as an effort that has a beginning, middle and an end.
  • We set unrealistic goals for ourselves.
  • We see slips as failures and we beat ourselves up for them.
  • We don’t adequately plan for the changes we want to make.

So, let’s take these expectations, myths, and beliefs that get in our way and look at them, one-by-one:

Change is Hard.

Yes. It is. And many of us have not really examined WHY we want to make this change. Most of us have a thought that we SHOULD make it. And without a why, we are unlikely to be successful.

So, examine what could happen if you do not make this change in a year or five years. AND think about your life as specifically as you can if you WERE to make this change. What would you be able to do that you have a hard time or can’t do now? How would this affect your loved ones and your relationship with them? Specifically, how would you feel? What would your life look like?

The time you take to getting very specific and tangible about your motivators will make a big difference when you are struggling and want to quit.

Things Will be Different in the New Year.

No. You will likely be the same you. And the reasons why it has been hard for you to make the changes you would like will still be there. So, start with that premise and work from a place of reality. You will be the same you and your life will likely look pretty much the same between December 31 and January 1. When you face this head on, you will be able to handle what is and plan for a different outcome.

Change Has a Beginning, Middle and an End.

When you can wrap your head around the fact that change is an ONGOING PROCESS rather than a discrete effort, you can stop believing that if you “fail” to be successful in this effort of change, you have epically failed. You can then reframe your struggles as part of the change process. Struggles are then seen as learning opportunities rather than failures. And you will truly realize that change is very rarely linear.

Unrealistic Goals.

So many of us want to be able to say, “we are done. We are where we want to be”. As a result, we set up goals that, out of the gate, are way too big. We have the expectation that we SHOULD be able to exercise 4-5 times a week at the beginning. And, so, we make it as difficult as possible to create change that is sustainable. Because something will always happen in our lives that throws us off track.

The key to successful change is to START SMALL and make it EASY. Because if it is too hard, it will be that much harder to succeed.

Success in sustaining small changes often increases confidence to tackle bigger ones.

For example, many clients want to bring their lunch to work rather than stopping at a restaurant or for fast food. This is a great intention. But, how do we make this a reality? We might start out with the goal for bringing lunch to work at once or twice a week. We take a look at the steps that must be made in order to be successful—making a grocery list, going grocery shopping, prepping food that is satisfying but easily prepared.

Outcomes are Seen as Goals.

Instead, focus on tasks towards an outcome and widen your perspective of what success looks like. A common mistake people make is to determine that losing weight is the goal: “I am going to lose five pounds in a month”. This is something you do not have complete control over and it then becomes easy to give up if the outcome is not met. However, you do have control over the amount of servings of fruits and vegetables you eat each meal. You have control over the minutes of physical activity you add to your day.

Neglecting to Think About Barriers.

There is a reason why people don’t follow through. There are both mental and logistical barriers that get in the way. First assess whether these barriers can truly be overcome. Brainstorm solutions and choose those solutions that you believe you can sustain. Know that if one solution does not work, something else will.

Seeing Slips as Failures.

When we do not follow through on our goals to our expectation, how many of us make these failures about our own shortcomings? How many of us believe that we are “weak” or “failures”? Cultivate curiosity. See trials as experiments and know that just because one way does not work or does not work all the time, there are other solutions.

Beating Yourself Up.

We beat ourselves up for our struggles when we need to be seeing these slips as NORMAL. Because they are part of the process of change. Research has shown that those of us who can accept that slips are part of the change process, and an opportunity for learning, are more likely to persevere when things get tough.

No Plan = No Success.

How many of us would love to magically just be able to make a change and believe that you just need to assert your willpower? In reality, willpower has little to do with making sustained changes. To go back to that example of the hypothetical client who wants to bring lunches to work, how successful would this person be if he or she did not think about what food to buy, so did not make a list, did not schedule in a time to go grocery shopping and left prepping and bagging lunch to the last minute, because there was no planned time to make the food?

Forgetting Your Why.

Change can feel like two steps forward and one step back. Life can get hard and often early changes can be the first to fall off the list. Create reminders for the outcomes you want to see to stay motivated—affirmations, photos—something you can see. For an example, many older clients keep pictures up of their grandkids when they are trying to quit tobacco or are beginning an exercise program. They want to be around and healthy so they can spend time with their grandkids.

Change is Ongoing!

If it feels good to imagine yourself starting fresh come January 1, great! Just know that you can still understand that you are in the process of change and will always be AND have the start of a New Year be a kick in the pants to get going. The journey towards better health is filled with ruts, obstacles, disappointments, but incredible rewards! TO YOUR HEALTH!


3. Mindset: The New Psychology of Success. Carol Dweck (2006). Random House.
4. Changing for Good: A Revolutionary 6 Stage Program for Overcoming Bad Habits and Moving Your Life Positively Forward. James O. Prochaska. (2010) Harper Collins.