Why New Year's Resolutions So Often Fail—and the Types of Goals You Should Set, Instead

This year, learn how to make "resolutions" you can actually keep.

new years resolution written on notepad
Photo: Nora Carol Photography / Getty Images

If you find yourself making the same New Year's resolutions year after year without success—lose 10 pounds, clean out the basement, organize your digital photos, start a meditation practice—then it's time to rethink your approach. "In my experience, there are a few common culprits for why people don't keep their resolutions—or achieve goals in general," says productivity expert Maura Thomas. "If you're making the same resolution that you didn't achieve last year, the first step is to assess what you did last year and where it fell apart, and make a specific plan for how you will do things differently this year." Ahead, how to reframe "resolutions" and set meaningful, specific goals, instead.

Clarify your goal.

Many resolutions are too general, says Thomas, which makes it nearly impossible to feel successful. "For example, 'get organized' is too vague—how do you know when you've achieved it?" she says. Set specific, measurable goals instead; replace "get fit" with "complete a 10-mile bike ride twice a week," "reconnect with partner" with "make plans for a monthly date night," or "get organized" with "implement a productivity system."

Take it step by step.

If your goal is too vague—or too expansive—it can also be hard to dive in: Trying to weed through a decade of old photos on your computer or organize your garage looks insurmountable at the start. "A resolution like that is too big and feels overwhelming," says Thomas. "Once you've set the goal, you need to break it down into smaller steps." If your goal is to be more organized at work, for example, list steps like "search for a productivity class," "read a productivity book," or "ask LinkedIn contacts for recommendations." (Then tackle your photos one month at a time, and go shelf-by-shelf in the garage.)

Shift your mindset.

Thomas cites insight from James Clear's book Atomic Habits ($11.98, amazon.com) as a reference for how the way you think about yourself can help—or hurt—your achievements. "He writes about how people identify can hold them back, such as the belief that 'I'm just not an organized person,'" says Thomas. "One way to overcome this is to make these beliefs more conscious—ask yourself, or discuss with another person, your thoughts and feelings around the goal that you set, and see if you have any beliefs that might hold you back. Overcoming those beliefs is another challenge, but learning what they are is the first step."

Get someone else involved.

The accountability that comes with having a friend or partner check in on your progress can be a powerful motivator, but Thomas recommends a slightly different approach: "[Find] a way to make your task more social," she says. "For example, if you start a book club, the members will look to you to set the meeting dates, and you'll want to come to the meetings prepared, and ideally the discussions will be fun. But this might not work for someone who is more introverted, so perhaps in that case, a coach who will help keep you on track by providing structure is a better way to go. The point is that when others are involved, there tends to be momentum that helps carry you along and keep you moving forward."

Follow through.

If we could all follow through on our resolutions, then we wouldn't end up making the same ones year after year—but Thomas suggests that a failure to keep up with your goals might be a productivity issue as much as anything else. "In my experience, [people] don't have a good way of tracking and prioritizing tasks," she says. "Once they do make progress on their resolutions, this isn't a problem anymore, but in the meantime, they need to find another way to keep these tasks visible and within reach." The hardest part of sticking to your goals, then, might just be remembering to carve out time in your schedule for a new activity, whether it's Saturday morning yoga, cooking a new recipe every Thursday, or trading your evening Netflix binge for a craft night. "Oftentimes, when we can't do things on our own, getting some 'skin in the game' by paying for services can help you take it more seriously," she says. "Every day is a new opportunity to change the things we want to change—we just need the plan to get there."

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