Are New Year's resolutions doomed to fail?

Turns out the popular wisdom on this perennial favourite topic is all wrong

Are New Year's resolutions doomed to fail?

You’ll have no doubt heard that only a small percentage of people who make a New Year’s resolution manage to keep it. It’s a piece of pop dicta, repeated endlessly in the period just before December 31 by media in desperate need of an easy factoid to recirculate for clicks. And debunking popular notions like New Year’s Resolutions sure does get clicks. Here’s an extract from a typical article, from the venerable Time:

And yet, by some estimates, as many as 80% of people fail to keep their New Year’s resolutions by February. Only 8% of people stick with them the entire year.

This depressing factoid has lived rent-free in my head with a bunch of others, like an anarchist squatter commune of bad vibes. If true, there’s an high chance you’re half-way to quitting whatever it is you resolved to do by now. I thought about writing an article about it, but I didn’t feel like dancing on the graves of people’s New Year hopes and dreams. Because as much as we tell ourselves '“it’s just another day,” it’s not, is it? The cultural gravity of New Year is, for Westerners, as inescapable as a black hole. And how could I write an article on how most resolutions fail, when the proof that they don’t always is right in front of us?

An image of a tweet that reads "Jessica 'Donnell happy 2023, yall. trust God. spend time with family. don't give up your rights. shoot guns and watch college football" superimposed with a gunshot foot covered in a bandage.

I’ll level with you. This article was originally inspired by seeing the above image in an Instagram story, upon which I Googled it, and found this Daily Dot article, in which the author says:

Most people give up on the resolutions about 10 days in. Instead, O’Donnell appears to have accomplished hers.

Classic internet “it’s funny cos it’s mean” snark, worthy of Gawker circa 2009, right? But the claim - perhaps because it was associated with an image of a pro-gun person who literally shot themselves in the foot — stayed in my mind, limping into my mental commune of received wisdom. I’d heard it so many times before. It has to be true, right?

Because this isn’t the Wide-Eyed Eternal Optimist’s Guide To Self Improvement, you’ll have guessed where I’m going with this:

The suggestion that only 8 percent of people ever achieve their resolutions, or that as many as 80 percent fail to keep resolutions by February, or that “most people give up on the resolutions about 10 days in” is bunk.

The first clue was clicking on the link in “by some estimates, as many as 80% of people fail” led not to a scholarly paper but another webpage, and clicking on the sources cited in that page and subsequent pages ended up with a dead link. That alone wouldn’t clinch it. What did, though, was that searching for “new year’s resolutions” and similar phrases in Google Scholar didn’t turn up any kind of widely-cited statistic around resolution success or failure. Like so much else in psychology, the truth is harder to pin down than self-improvement pop science might have you think. Nor are “success” and “failure” binaries, in the context of resolutions. A 2020 PhD thesis on NY resolutions by Hannah Moshontz de la Rocha, a student in the Psychology and Neuroscience in the Graduate School of Duke University, found that:

Goals varied greatly in their content, properties, and outcomes. Contrary to theory, many resolutions were neither successful nor unsuccessful, but instead were still being pursued or were on hold at the end of the year. Across both studies, the three most common resolution outcomes at the end of the year were achievement (estimates ranged from 20% to 40%), continued pursuit (32% to 60%) and pursuit put on hold (15% to 21%). Other outcomes (e.g., deliberate disengagement) were rare (<1% to 3%).

Those figures are… pretty good, actually? 20 to 40 percent of people achieving their goal by year’s end is a lot better than the pessimistic received wisdom that most people give up by February.

Likewise, a user at Skeptic’s Stack Exchange has done the legwork on the claim that only 8 percent ever achieve their resolutions, and found it to be at best misunderstood and at worst wildly cherry-picked:

The real source of the 8% number appears to be a survey conducted by Stephen Shapiro, a management consultant, author, and speaker, and published in an article on his website. According to him,

Only 8% of people are always successful in achieving their resolutions. 19% achieve their resolutions every other year. 49% have infrequent success. 24% (one in four people) NEVER succeed and have failed on every resolution every year. That means that 3 out of 4 people almost never succeed.

Of course, "Only 8% of people are always successful in achieving their resolutions" is not the same as "8% of People Achieve Their New Year's Resolutions". The study by Shapiro has not been published in a scientific journal.

Thanks, Stephen! Your literally incredible claim has poisoned a huge swathe of the internet when it comes to New Year’s resolutions, and (this is my own conjecture) led to a kind of low-key seasonally affective depression amongst those of us who’d like to make a lifestyle change around a culturally auspicious date.

If you’re in that cohort, rest easy. The takeaway is pretty clear: if you want to make a New Year’s resolution, feel free to. You may as well! The achievement/still working on it/still pursuing it statistics seem perfectly acceptable to me: clearly there’s some weight to the things. And it’s not too late: I unscientifically consider the “New Year” period to occupy the whole month of January, because that’s the span in which the year still feels new. I could add some stuff about setting SMART goals, or just making sure that your progress is in some way measurable, but that would be very boring and like every other article on the topic and is something you (an intellectual) probably already knew.

So I’ll just put in some potential resolutions you’ll hopefully have no trouble keeping.

Resolve not to start going to the gym in January

Look, just don’t. Especially if you’ve never gone before. There is much to be gained from lifting weights, including (obviously) muscle, but in my experience the gym in January is a Bad Time. Everyone who made a resolution to “go to the gym more” is there, hogging the machines or giving themselves renal failure from trying to deadlift too much, sweating and grunting and selfie-ing. It’s not worth it.

If you’re a regular, you might choose to power through it, but if you’re a total newbie, save the money on gym fees and buy a broomstick. It’s not a witch thing and I’m not joking. You want to learn how to lift weights before you lift any actual weight, and here the incredible Swole Woman, Casey Johnston, has you covered.

Resolve not to “lose weight”

This isn’t my area of expertise, but I’ve listened to enough people for whom it is to know that “losing weight” purely for the sake of losing weight is — for the vast majority of people — a toxic concept that can easily ruin lives. Food is good, you need it to live, and as a general rule if you’re exercising you need to be fuelling yourself properly. There are plenty of people who know better than me on this so I’m just going to recommend Casey Johnston again.

Resolve not to “do something every day” unless it’s very automatic or very low effort

You can’t move without this shit. “Go to the gym every day.” “Do X push-ups every day.” “Practice Y every day,” or my personal bugbear that I can’t swear off swearing to do: “do art every day.” So let me draw a line in the sane for myself and possibly you too: can we not? Unless it’s for something like “drink water,” or “poop,” committing to do something every day seems a fast track to the kind of demoralizing failure that only comes with overcommitment.

Take “Gym every day.” A moment’s critical reflection will reveal this goal to be both wildly improbable and useless. You’re going to get crook. You’re going to have a family thing come up. You’re going to get a flat tire. At some point, the gym will be inconveniently closed. Letting any of these all-but-inevitable and entirely reasonable life events ruin your resolution because you didn’t tick off all 365 days in the year isn’t worth it. A vanishingly small subset of people either need to go to the gym every day (actors, bodybuilders, influencers in the field of same) or will get any tangible benefit from doing so. For nearly everyone else, working out daily is a fast track to ruined health, because you’re not taking vital recovery time. Your Average Joe, including very much me, will do better resolving to “go to the gym several times a week, with at least a day’s rest in between sessions, and obviously not when sick” or something similar.

The same applies to art. Long, bitter experience teaches that if you try arting every damn day you’ll start hating art and everything adjacent to it. Of course there are exceptions to this rule, and if you’re one of those people who can do something out of the ordinary every day, more power to you — but all I’m aiming for this year is mostly consistent consistency.

Resolve not to get your New Year’s resolution effectiveness information from websites that don’t cite their sources, or management consultants

You probably didn’t need me to tell you that.

Here’s a watercolour seascape I did, because I needed an illustration for the newsletter’s thumbnail image.

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In the meantime, comment away! It’s great to have you here in 2024. It’s only the 12th of January, and it feels like a whole year already.