Why New Year’s Resolutions Often Fail and How to Change Your Approach

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The start of the New Year can offer a clean slate, an opportunity to reset our mental health, modify behaviors that are not working for us, and the chance to set new intentions. At the same time, people often unknowingly sabotage these goals within the first two months. Approximately 80 percent of people do not see their New Year’s resolutions to fruition. This is why it’s important for people to reframe their approach to achieving resolutions.

Setbacks Cause People to Give Up

Creating resolutions and being unable to achieve them, regardless of the reason, can demoralize and deter us from setting goals in the future, or illicit responses such as shame or guilt. In my work as a clinician specializing in mental health and substance use disorders, shame and guilt are two of the most significant factors that prevent struggling individuals from seeking treatment and pursuing their recovery. Oxford Languages defines a resolution as “a firm decision to do or not to do something.” This idea is counterintuitive to what we, as therapists, teach our clients struggling with substance misuse: reaching goals is often not so “black and white” and clients must be willing to accept an imperfect path and reroute when necessary.

When people run into setbacks – or, in the case of individuals struggling with addiction, substance recurrence (“relapse”) – they can feel disheartened to continue making firm resolutions. Those with substance use disorders are also contending with a multifaceted condition.  Specifically, they must overcome the multi-dimensional aspects of addiction, including genetic factors, trauma history, social circumstances, and physiological addiction, how the body responds to and becomes dependent on substances.

Break Down Resolutions Into Smaller Goals 

Because overcoming addiction can feel like an uphill battle, we highly encourage clients to “stay in the day” while moving towards their goals and give themselves the time, grace, and opportunity to make long-lasting changes. I recommend making incremental or quarter-inch changes in the direction clients would like to head. Perhaps they want to move toward building stronger relationships with their family, finding rewarding work, or exploring passions that may have been neglected during their alcohol or drug use. Other simpler goals in the New Year might include practicing gratitude or reaching out for help when needed. This way of thinking in terms of small, manageable steps toward larger goals can offer a more sustainable approach to living with and recovering from a substance use disorder.

Reflect and Build Upon Past Achievements

Rather than focusing on resolutions, I tend to focus on yearly reflections for growth with clients. This is an approach that anyone can apply to their goal-setting process, whether they have a history of substance use or not.

  1. First, I encourage clients to identify successes – what they have done well – over the past year. We celebrate any incremental changes that have moved them towards living a richer and more meaningful life.
  2. Then, we discuss what they hope to achieve in the New Year, both big and small, and discuss their “why.” It’s essential to identify and validate each person’s individual reasons for moving toward behavioral changes.
  3. Finally, we identify struggles they encountered during the previous year. We look at how they managed them, who might have helped them, and what they plan to do differently in the future when they encounter difficulties. 

Incorporate Fun and Connection to Improve Success

New York Times and Wall Street Journal bestselling author Jon Acuff of Finish: Give Yourself the Gift of Done states that “the sneakiest obstacle to meeting your goals is not laziness, but perfectionism…” and his research has found that “people who have fun are 43 percent more successful” in achieving goals. His research found that when people are engaged in their pursuits, enjoy what they are doing, and find meaning in the process, their efforts are more successful and sustainable.

For many, strengthening their chances of success might involve working towards their goals in conjunction with others to increase connection and accountability. When we do things together, we can celebrate our successes as collective achievements. We have a greater sense of ownership, and we can receive feedback as well as support from those who cheer us on when our intrinsic motivation is lower. Create your support team if that helps you.

Slow and Steady Wins the Race

I find this framework valuable for anyone who finds behavioral change difficult. Most people have struggled with feelings of discouragement from not being able to stick to resolutions and may feel they lack willpower or automatically assume they are incapable. It is important to focus on progress rather than perfection. While obstacles may and often do arise, I recommend to anyone feeling this way to take a pause, identify where they are resilient and resourceful, celebrate the changes they have been able to make, and focus on hope for the future.

As one of my favorite yoga teachers and writers, Laia Bové, has stated:

“Nothing changes overnight: habits that don’t serve you weren’t created in a week or two, so developing new ones will also take time. Consistency is hard work. Showing up on the days when you don’t want to show up is an act of resilience. So in the same way in which you push yourself to do better, also make space for rest, for mistakes, and for U-turns.”

If you or a loved one is struggling with addiction, Mountainside can help.
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