Why do New Year's Resolutions fail? Goal-setting and mental health

Written by Nicole Laoutaris
Last updated on: Mar 27, 2024

Do you ring in every new year with a laundry list of life-changing resolutions? Then, by mid-January you’re already feeling behind, you’re disappointed, or you’ve simply forgotten about them?

How does that make you feel?

If this pattern describes you, you’re not alone. One widely-used statistic cites a whopping 80% of people abandon their New Year’s Resolutions by February, and another finds January 19th is the date most people quit. You might be wondering, then, do New Year’s Resolutions work? It depends on how you approach them.

Resolutions can be helpful because they give us direction. Mental health professionals tell us that having a sense of purpose can be a positive factor in our overall mental health. On the other hand, lacking momentum in our lives can have negative impacts on our wellbeing. 

New Year’s resolutions vs. goals

When we make resolutions, we tend to make broad statements about things we want to change or improve, like “get healthier,” “save money,” or “travel more.” Goals, on the other hand, come with one key ingredient: small, actionable steps to get there.

This is something Fawn MacInnis, Registered Social Worker, sees in her practice. She says, “Sometimes people come to me with these big, big goals. But they're so big, they’re almost impossible. It's like, I want to climb Mount Everest, but I'm not even walking around the block right now.” 

To think about it in a more actionable way, she says, “We want to break that big goal down. You want to take a trip to Ireland? How is that going to happen? You need to check the airlines, look into hotels, talk to family. If you break big goals down into smaller goals, it’s more attainable.”

If we think about resolutions as goals, it’s easier to set and stick to a plan to reach them by December 31st.

How goals help with mental health

Goal-setting is a good practice for your overall mental health and wellbeing. It’s not because achieving more or being more productive makes us “better people.” It comes down to our brain chemistry.

The owner of the Mental Game Clinic, who specializes in working with high-performing athletes, executives and founders, says, “When you have goals that you're working towards, every time you reach a certain level on those goals, you get a dopamine rush—and that dopamine rush actually buffers you against the negative effects of stress.”

Setting mini goals or milestones to reach bigger end-of-year goals makes them more attainable, and it will create more of those little dopamine rushes through the year to balance everyday stress. 

But, what if you don’t know what your goal should be?

Goals can be a thing we aim to attain, like the big trip to Ireland, that is clear and easy to plan around. Sometimes, though, we might set resolutions because we want to feel better in our day-to-day lives. Setting an intention around internal change can be a great idea, but it might be harder to see the steps or understand why we want this change. It could be that you just feel off so you try to guess at a resolution, which ultimately fails.

Registered Social Worker, Daisie Autie, says, often, people who come to see her just can’t pinpoint what’s wrong. A lot of her work is about identifying patterns, which could be tied to bigger issues like generational trauma, and working together to interrupt them.

“People come to me, it’s amazing how much, thinking ‘I don’t know what’s wrong, there’s something wrong and I don’t get it. Everything seems okay, but it’s not okay,’” she says. “That is very interesting and very real … often there are conflicts or patterns intergenerationally for people who are coming to me who want to make the change, who want to interrupt those patterns, that is something that is possible and really important work.”

In this case, a resolution might be tied to interrupting deeply rooted patterns that are a disservice to your wellbeing, or which could even be leading to real mental health issues. This is where finding a therapist might be helpful to you and your work around goal-setting and internal change.

How to set goals you’ll actually keep

Remember, your goals are about you. They can adapt and shift as you go through this year and the next. It’s about ongoing growth and development. Before you set that goal, think about why you’re choosing it and why it’s important to you.

Registered Provisional Psychologist, Arunie Saldhi, says, “Everyone has different things they want to achieve in life. Whether it's your career, relationships, or personal development. We talk about why is this goal important for us? What values are we engaging in when we're looking at this goal? Then we start rating. Which values are more important to me? We focus on the goals that are most important. It doesn't mean the rest of our goals aren't important or they're not a priority, but by breaking down what they mean for us and how they impact us, we're able to set a priority for each one. Having goals and achieving those goals is a really important and tangible way to show your progress.”

To set yourself up for success through the year, here are a few tips for setting goals you can actually stick to.

  1. Make them SMART. This acronym comes from the business world, attributed to a business consultant named George T. Doran in 1981. It stands for Smart, Measurable, Achievable, Realistic, Timely. Give yourself a deadline. Make sure it’s not Mount Everest before you can walk around the block. Consider what proof you need so you know that your goal has been met.
  1. Break it down into steps. Once you’ve set a SMART goal, look at the year ahead and think about the steps you need to reach your finish line. Assign those steps a timeline as well. Soon, you’ll see your goal has turned into a plan.
  1. Tell people about it. Being accountable to your goals is a big motivator. If someone else knows you’re trying to achieve something, they’ll likely ask about it. This gives you a cheerleader along the way. Plus, if you know you need to tell someone about your progress, you are more likely to keep up with your plan. This person might be your therapist or counselor, a coworker or boss, or a close friend. 

At the end of the day, if the resolution you shouted out at the stroke of midnight on January 1st seems unrealistic come mid-January, you’re allowed to change it. Goals can be big or small, and establishing them can happen at any time of year. 

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About the Author

Nicole Laoutaris

Nicole Laoutaris is a freelance writer and adult learning professional based in the Greater Toronto Area. She specializes in educational content for brands and companies in industries such as mental health, pet health, lifestyle and wellness, cannabis, and personal finance. Nicole holds a double undergraduate degree in Communications and Film studies from Wilfrid Laurier University, and post-graduate certificate in Corporate Communications from Seneca College. She currently lives in Hamilton Ontario with her spouse and her cat.