How to Keep Your New Year’s Resolution

Lisa writes: As a kid I thought New Year’s Resolutions were magical, like wishes made while blowing out birthday candles. On this one special night of the year, I could hope and dream for something to be different and a year hence, it would be. As I got older I made resolutions, often failed to keep them and was disillusioned only a few months into every year. Still later I stopped making resolutions, believing that magical thinking was for kids, and that the hard work of changing ourselves, was just that, hard work and need not be tied to any particular night.

new york city, train station clock, Grand Central

But there is something special about a New Year. Every year we are offered a new beginning and that just might be magical.

So, is a New Year’s Resolution of any value? Why do we keep them or break them? And most importantly what can we do to make it to year-end still in position of our resolve?

Do New Year’s Resolutions work?

We hear so much about the failure of resolutions but that is only a partial truth. A group of psychologist studied resolvers and non-resolvers in the six months after the New Year. What they found was that just over half of those who had made resolutions had failed in their resolve. However the 46% who had made the desired change compared very favorably with the control group, who had the same goals but made no resolution and were successful only 4% of the time.

“Contrary to widespread public opinion, a considerable proportion of New Year resolvers do succeed,” explains Dr. Norcross, one of the study’s authors. “You are 10 times more likely to change by making a New Year’s resolution compared to non-resolvers with the identical goals and comparable motivation to change.”

What does success look like?

Sue Harmon, a third grade teacher and breast cancer survivor/advocate, set herself the very challenging task on 1/1/13 of exercising every day of the year. With her eldest child a freshman in college and youngest in 10th grade,  she had a soon-to-be empty nest and new-found resolve. On the first day of 2014, she celebrated her accomplishment, 365 straight workouts. “I wanted to set a resolution that I thought I could accomplish, “Sue explained. “With each day behind me, the easier it got because I didn’t want to let myself down. Then at some point, my body expected the workout. Each day/workout was different, but I was committed to sweating each day.”

She has gone one further and asked her third graders to set their own goals and when they return from winter break she will encourage them to share their goals with their classmates. “I’m going to have the children revisit their journal entry throughout the year and see how they feel they are doing. Taking ownership is so important, for all of us,” Sue says.

Sue’s experience highlights some of what the experts tell us about sticking to a New Year’s Resolution. She picked one big goal, a daily workout, and didn’t muddy the waters by throwing in diet or other big resolutions. She felt from the start that this was a challenge that she could manage. Sue had someone she did not want to let down, in this case herself. She told others, her immediate family, so that her commitment was not just in her own head. And for 2014, to make sure she stays on track she has made her goal very public, bought some technology to keep track of her accomplishment and now has friends joining her in this challenge

What makes resolutions work?

Goals need to be specific. “Lose weight,” “work harder” or “write a book” are too amorphous to find success, yet year after year we set these goals and wonder why we fail. New Year’s resolutions need milestones, ways to measure success over the 12 months. Experts say our goals should have clear defined targets (lose a pound a week or write 500 words every day) so that we can see progress toward the target.

Psychologists who have studied success have long since come to the conclusion that our focus needs to be on process, not outcome. We can control our actions, how many words we write or how we market those page, but we cannot control if that book then becomes a bestseller.

One resolution at a time

Bad habits are hard to break—and they’re impossible to break if we try to break them all at once. A New Year’s Resolutions requires willpower and that is not something we have in endless supply. When we pile saving money on top of losing weight and doing more work for charity, we quickly deplete our own supply of resolve and condemn ourselves to failure. One big resolution is enough to start with, after all there is nothing stopping us from declaring success in July and making a new resolution in August.

Psychologist tell us to reward ourselves

Sticking to something that involves the strained resources of will power becomes somewhat easier when there is a reward in sight. Losing weight? Give yourself a weekend away. Stopped procrastinating? A big slice of cake. Exercised four times a week? Tickets to a great event. We learn early in life to work for rewards and here is a way to make that work of us.

Friends and family are here to help

Publicly committing to our New Year’s Resolution is one way to improve our determination but friends and family can help by steering us back on track when we appear wayward. Meeting a friend at the gym might just be what it takes to get there. The people who know us the best might just be the ones who can save us from ourselves.

We are our own enemy and can be outsmarted

Most of us know why we don’t exercise enough or manage our stress well. Even before January 1 we can predict what will derail us. WIth that sort of inside information about the enemy, ourselves, we should be able to win the fight. Experts suggest that we “precommit” by making sure the junk food isn’t in our house or arranging a direct funds transfer from checking account to savings account. There are sites like that let you put your money or your reputation on the line in committing to your goal. We know ourselves and our weaknesses and should use this knowledge to succeed.

Technology is here to help

If our success depends on letting others know about our commitment, measuring our progress and putting something at stake, technology has a way to help us. From wearable technology to social media, committing to our resolution with these modern aids is a step. “The more you precommit, the better you do, according to stickK’s analysis of 125,000 contracts over the past three years. The success rate for people who don’t name a referee or set financial stakes is only 29 percent, but it rises to 59 percent when there’s a referee and to 71.5 percent when there’s money at stake. And when a contract includes a referee and financial stakes, the success rate is nearly 80 percent,” explained a New York Times article.

Remember that success is born of failure

It is sometimes hard to remember that almost no success was achieved without failures along the way. A New Year’s Resolution need not be abandoned because it is “broken.” If Sue had worked out only 362 times last year would her resolutions have been a failure? A lapse can be viewed as a minor setback or a failure, the choice is ours.

The notion of beginning the New Year with new resolve is a very old one

The Romans made promises of Janus (the namesake of January) and in medieval times at year-end knights reaffirmed their commitment to the code of chivalry. A New Year’s Resolution is timeless as its speaks to our self-belief, our aspirations and, above all, our hope for the future.

Happy New Year from Grown and Flown. Wishing you health, happiness and renewed resolve.



  1. says

    Excellent points! Keep the focus on process, not outcome. I’ve never thought of it that way, but that is a great way to look at it!

  2. happy outlook says

    Thank you for this post…just what I needed to get 2014 started right.

  3. says

    I love the idea of a fresh start, arbitrary as it may be. Thanks for the constructive look at what can be a frustrating topic.

  4. Carpool Goddess says

    I make a list each year, usually many of the same items remain on the list year after year. (I’m still a lousy cook, my spanish still needs perfecting, you get the idea.) Yet I still look forward to beginning a new year and haven’t lost hope that this year will be the year I’ll check those off my list.

  5. says

    I heard a convincing theory about why many people don’t keep their New Year’s resolutions to exercise more, eat less, and lose weight. You start off with all these good intentions in January — the dead of winter. It’s so darn cold you don’t want to get out of bed, never mind run 5k in the snow.

    You who live in the warmer climates have no such excuses.

    So I’m waiting until July 1 to make my resolutions. :)