The psychology of New Year’s resolutions


Photo courtesy of Harvard Business School Online.

“New year, new me” is a term often said at the beginning of each new year — and the new year after that.

According to a study by the Institut Public de Sondage d’Opinion Secteur (Ipsos), 55% of study participants said they keep their New Year’s resolutions for less than a year. It’s a practice that has been around for thousands of years, and yet, it is something that many are unable to follow through on.

Dr. Rebecca Malatesta, a psychology professor at OU, believes that despite the low odds of success, New Year’s resolutions remain popular because humans are constantly striving to better themselves.

“There’s a lot of stuff in research related to positive psychology and how we’re motivated toward improvement and being the best version of ourselves,” Malatesta said. “There’s various theories related to why, but we want to be the best versions of ourselves.”

The reason it may be difficult for some people to maintain their resolutions depends on the way they’re created. Malatesta believes that people need to ask themselves why they are setting a goal in the first place.

“For example, if you want to stop smoking, are you doing it because you actually want to stop smoking or lose weight or whatever the goal is, or are you doing it for someone else?” she said. “You have to make sure that you have full commitment, otherwise it’s going to fail.”

Another reason people fail at keeping their resolutions for the new year is because they set goals that are “too lofty.” Malatesta believes the best goals to set are the ones that have the ability to be challenging, but are also specific and achievable.

“It has to be something that you can actually carry out,” Malatesta said. “So instead of saying, ‘I want to lose 50 pounds by the summer,’ [say] I want to lose a pound and a half a week. The more specific it is, the more likely you are to actually achieve your goals.” 

If people want to succeed in their New Year’s resolutions, Malatesta emphasizes that it’s crucial to develop a plan. Resolution-makers must look within themselves and ask if their resolutions are something they actually want, or if they are motivated to keep them for someone else.

It is also imperative to take “decision fatigue” into account. It is estimated that an American adult makes 35,000 decisions a day. If people are making resolutions they aren’t fully committed to, the little decisions they make to maintain them on a day-to-day basis can be exhausting. 

“If you can set up things where you’re not asked to make little mini decisions all day [so that] it’s just sort of natural, it’s so much easier,” she said. “Anytime you’re having to deny, deny, deny and make these constant decisions not to do something, it just wears you out.”

To summarize, Malatesta says to aim for goals which are achievable, specific, measurable and committable. She also believes it doesn’t hurt to tell others about your resolutions so that they’re tougher to break. 

“Some research does suggest that if you make the goal public by telling other people, it’s a little harder to quit,” Malatesta said.