New Year Resolutions – Do They Work?

New Year Resolutions – Do They Work?

New Year Resolutions 

Author: Paul Hollinrake, Researcher & Trainer in Public Health/3 January 2020

As we welcome in the New Year many of us start thinking about how we can improve our lives, careers, relationships and much more. For some, it may be just thoughts of what they want to do, others sit down and make a list. The problem is, it is fairly easy to write a “list” of promises out, and you probably would like all of these to happen, but why do they not happen for most people?

You see, doing something is different from just saying it or writing it down. So, do New Year resolutions work? Well, the answer is yes and no.

A study in the US compared a group of 159 people who had made a resolution to become healthier by becoming more active, losing weight or stopping smoking – to 123 people who had very similar goals but had not made a solid commitment to change. The researchers followed both groups up six months later and found that almost 50% of the committed group were partly successful towards their goal compared to only 4% of the non-committed group.

In a different study (Norcross & Vangarelli, 1989) tracked the self-change attempts of just over 200 New Year`s resolvers, they found that 77% stuck to their plan for just a week, 55% for one month and 40% for six months. After two years only 19% were successful.

Why don`t New Year’s Resolutions work then?

The fitness and weight loss industries know that their gyms and weight loss clubs are going to be crammed with well-intentioned people all wanting to succeed and achieve the goals they have written on their list. Why then by the middle of February do we see such a big drop off?

Well, first of all, the concept of a New Year’s Resolution is a good one. You have a thought (contemplation is important in terms of behaviour change) to make a positive change in your life. This is very much the start of the process which then includes some sort of preparation and then hopefully action, and then at some point, you should also review your goal/s (unfortunately for most this is usually the following January) and make changes depending on how it went. However, this type of goal is generally vague, usually has no actual plan attached to it, and no real commitment or social support.

In the Norcross & Vangarelli (1989) study the participants highlighted what helped and what led to failure:


Having self-responsibility for change and your own actions (just because you hire a fitness or nutrition coach does not guarantee success in these areas).

Being ready for change ( a good coach can guide you through this change).

Positive self talk.

Having your goals, motivational quotes, reminders etc  set up around your place of work/home.


Not wanting to change enough, no real desire or passion.

Being too self-critical, self-blame, no self- reevaluation (Emotional and cognitive reappraisal of values by the individual with respect to the problem behaviour/value clarification, imagery, corrective emotional experience).

Just wishing the problem was not there.

Minimising the problem (e.g. “it`s not that much of a problem anyway”).


Trying for perfect will eventually lead you to failure. This kind of mindset can be very negative and leave you wanting to quit. How often do we hear “I’ll start again on Monday…January the 2nd… after my holiday…as soon as the kids are older…when I’m not as stressed out… I’ll get over this knee injury” Sound familiar?

Although this stop / restart fresh mentality seems logical, it is not actually that helpful. The reason being you are not learning the skills to cope with normal life and all its challenges. You are simply waiting for the perfect “next time will be different” scenario. The truth is the perfect 12 weeks, 90 days, 21 days or whatever programme you are on when thinking your diary and life are free from challenges is very unlikely for most people. You do not sign up to a gym or weight loss programme wanting to fail, most people want to do well and be successful.

What to do so you can move closer towards your goals

1. Make a plan and adjust expectations

Although it may seem obvious, taking the time to sit down, think about what is happening in your life in the next week, month etc. will focus your mind not only on what obstacles stand in your way but also what you can do to work around these. This may include strategies such as hiring a coach, getting social support, but also adjusting your expectations.

To do this assess your confidence to achieve what you are planning. A simple and great way to do this is to use a scale of 1-10. Using fitness as an example, going to the gym 4 days a week and walking in the mountains at the weekends may be a level 10 on your scale, whereas 1 might be making sure you walk at least 5000 steps per day. In this case, you could plan your month accordingly depending on what else is going on in your life for that month.

Perhaps for three weeks you could commit to a 10 and feel confident that you can achieve this level, but for that one week when you are really busy you commit to a level 1. The point here is that this is fine and you should not feel guilty for not doing a 10 all of the time, you may even be doing a 5 (whatever that means to you) doing a 1 is better than doing none. This principle can be applied to all areas of your life such as nutrition, stress management, overall wellbeing activities.

2. Small improvements are better than none

Being able to achieve something every day, even if it’s less than we ideally want means we are still “walking forward” and not “standing still”. This builds confidence and skills that can help manage a hectic life and move us closer towards our goal.

Take home

Taking the time to sit down and consider your health and wellness goals for the year will increase your chances of moving closer to and achieving them. Whilst doing this reflect back on the past year and recall two or three things that you managed to do really well and you are proud of, building on previous successes, regardless of how small, can help with confidence and your skillset. Plan and have contingencies in place to avoid a stop/restart mentality and maintain progress. Successful people do this all year round and do not necessarily wait until the New Year – your health and wellbeing is a continuous journey, year in year out. Enjoy and embrace yours.

Do you want to become healthier? Why not sign up to our X-PERT Weight Programme where you will learn how to manage your weight and lifestyle for the long term.

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