Most people abandon New Year’s resolutions within the first month and then make the same resolutions all over again the following year, according to a recent study in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health.1
Researchers surveyed nearly 200 people in the U.K. and Australia over a two-month period around the start of the new year, asking them to list their biggest resolution and how committed they were to sticking to that change.
in a follow-up survey, that initial optimism had waned. Even those who predicted they would be tenacious in keeping their resolution abandoned the effort as much as those who had lower expectations for themselves.
Resolutions that focused mainly on healthier eating and exercise tended to be the most likely to get repeated over again, but the research did not find that re-setting that goal increased the likelihood of success.
However, one bright spot was that those who said they were more flexible about their goals reported higher levels of wellbeing, even if they gave up on those resolutions.
Previous research backs up the importance of flexibility in setting goals, according to study co-author Joanne Dickson, Ph.D., professor of psychology at Edith Cowan University in Australia.
For example, a study in the journal Age and Ageing found that older people who are more flexible in adapting their goals tend to do better in reaching them.2 They also report higher levels of life satisfaction and lower depression as well.
Flexible goal adjustment includes a capacity to view difficulties with composure and a degree of detachment while adapting your approach based on life situations.
“Flexible goal adjustment includes a capacity to view difficulties with composure and a degree of detachment while adapting your approach based on life situations,” says Dickson.
That means you can eat healthily and still have cake at your child’s birthday party without feeling like you’ve sabotaged your goals, for instance.
Another important finding in the recent study is that goals geared toward positive wellbeing—rather than externally driven—tended to be more successful. In other words, if you’re trying to exercise because you feel you should, or because that’s what your Instagram feed seems to imply, it would be tougher to keep that going compared to exercising because it makes you feel more energetic and less stressed.
Rather than waiting until a fresh year rolls around, it’s helpful to set smaller, achievable goals throughout the year, suggests strength and conditioning coach Kourtney Thomas, C.S.C.S. Being flexible is important, but so is understanding why you’re setting that goal in the first place.
“Peel back the layers and get a firm idea of your ‘why,’ so you understand why this particular goal matters to you,” she says. “Your motivation should come from a place of autonomy, and then the execution of that why will naturally follow.”
That could apply to any type of resolution, from quitting smoking, reframing your relationship with food, or exercising consistently to being a more attentive parent or simply being more mindful.
Another big step, Thomas adds, is to think about what you actually enjoy. If you hate the gym and loathe running but you love walking and gardening, then there’s your movement practices.
What feels good, like something you want to do, not something that will turn into a ‘should’ type of activity? Do that. Then, take every opportunity to keep doing that.
“What feels good, like something you want to do, not something that will turn into a ‘should’ type of activity?” she says. “Do that. Then, take every opportunity to keep doing that.”
Taking notes can also be helpful, she adds, since you can see a sense of progress you may have missed otherwise.
Ditch the Guilt
If you made a New Year’s resolution—or several of them—and abandoned it well before Groundhog Day, you’re obviously not alone. But you still might feel guilty about it.
“This is a feeling that comes up incredibly often when we’re talking about resolutions, particularly around fitness and food,” says Thomas. “It’s just not productive, and it can be irrational. So many times, we attach guilt to expectations we haven’t met, as if we’ve done something wrong.”
She suggests trying to look at the situation with a more objective perspective, to see if you’re magnifying the consequences of abandoning a resolution.
What This Means For You
If you’ve given up your New Year’s resolutions, you’re far from alone. But if you’d like to make a change, take a more flexible and adaptable approach, and start with thinking about your reasons for making that shift.