Failure to launch: How to make those New Year’s resolutions stick


Why so serious, Batman? I’ll tell you why. As the New Year approaches, we traditionally look forward to parties, music, dancing (maybe even a kiss at as the ball drops in Times Square)…and then there’s that other tradition: the dreaded New Year’s resolution.

Why dreaded? Because no one enjoys a process that has more than a 50-50 chance of resulting in failure. Clinical research confirms that fewer than half of all such resolutions will be kept—and our own experience backs that disheartening statistic up. So, contemplating that most ubiquitous of New Year’s traditions is, for most of us, not unlike what Shaquille O’Neal must feel like as he approaches the free-throw line (with all due respect to the four-time NBA champion and 14-time All Star whose “Achilles’ heel” is his 52.4 percent career free-throw average). After all, who wants to attempt something we know has such a poor chance of success?

To be sure, some resolutions have a better chance of succeeding than others (or than Shaq’s free throw): Psychological research would indicate that those focusing on doing something (rather than stopping something) have a better chance of success. Unfortunately, the most popular resolution, losing a certain amount of weight, has less than a 10 percent chance of realization.

Why do so many of our New Year’s resolutions fail? There are many possibilities, but I would submit that a major cause is our choice of resolution in the first place. We’re simply not using good thought processes in picking our goals to begin with.

Mistake #1: Choosing a resolution we’re not truly committed to accomplishing. A New Year’s resolution can’t be something we simply think we ought to do, or something someone else wants us to do. It’s got to be something we’re fully committed to doing. After all, the root of the word “resolution” is “resolve,” which in either its verb or noun form conveys a sense of firmness or determination. So unless you actually want to quit smoking (as opposed to just wanting to get your family and/or friends to stop nagging you about it), resolving to do so on New Year’s has no better chance of working than it would at any other time of year (i.e., no chance at all).

Mistake #2: Not thinking about it before New Year’s Eve. The best goals are well thought-out, not those hastily conceived “on the fly”…or on a night when your blood alcohol content is likely to exceed the interest rate on your mortgage. If you actually plan on voicing a resolution that is not doomed to failure from the start, give it some thought now, before you put on the party hat and rhinestones. (Reading this article might be a good start!)

Mistake #3: Picking unrealistic goals. So-called “stretch goals” are fine, but if, objectively, one has a greater chance of being trampled by a wild elephant than achieving a particular goal, it might just be too much of a “stretch.” For example, vowing on New Year’s Eve to lose 50 pounds in time for bathing suit season might be okay in Minneapolis (where it snows until, what, the Fourth of July?), but probably not so much in Miami. Goals that we recognize from the start as all but unachievable are destined to be just that. However, it’s worth pointing out that sometimes goals that seem unrealistic can be made less intimidating by simply breaking them up into smaller chunks. For example, instead of vowing to run 500 miles this year, convert that to a promise to run for about 30 minutes, three times a week. Approximately the same end result, but sounds more manageable—for some of us, anyway!

Mistake #4:
Choosing something that can’t be measured. Resolving to be a “nicer person” is admirable, but how will you measure your success? Vowing to “eat better” is a good idea, but what exactly does “eating better” mean? Any motivational/management guru will tell you that for goals to work, they have to be measurable. To do otherwise would be like bowling without the pins, or football without yard markers (wait a minute; that would be soccer…). Picking a measurable goal will also help you to track progress as you go, which is vital to your success. So rather than promising to “eat better,” you might commit to eating one helping of fruit or vegetables at each meal.

Mistake #5: Keeping it a secret. Resolutions or goals that are documented in some way, whether by sharing them with friends, writing them in a planner, posting them on the refrigerator, or any combination thereof, have a much higher chance of success than those kept to yourself. While “intrinsic” motivation is important (see Mistake #1 above), “extrinsic” motivation can also help cement one’s commitment to a goal and can make it harder for us to conveniently forget our promises. Sharing goals with others can help provide encouragement and support. After all, there’s a reason that AA meetings are, well, meetings.

My “litany” of potential mistakes might lead you to conclude that you should not even bother with New Year’s resolutions. Not so, says psychologist John Norcross, a researcher at the University of Scranton and co-author of Changing for Good: A Revolutionary Six-Stage Program for Overcoming Bad Habits and Moving Your Life Positively Forward. According to Norcross, people who make New Year’s resolutions are ten times more likely to make a desired change than those who don't. In other words, there’s some value just in trying to change.

So once the ball has dropped, the streamers have pooled at your feet and you’re (hopefully) recovering from that midnight kiss, don’t be afraid to make that New Year’s resolution! Of course, there’s a chance you will fail, but it’s certain you’ll fail if you don’t even try.
Best wishes for a happy New Year!

Keith Wiedenkeller welcomes any comments or questions via e-mail at