Why New Year’s resolutions often fail – and what to do instead

Forget rolling out the same old New Year’s resolutions. To stick to your goals, experts say you need to choose intentions that tie in with a sense of purpose.

If you were one of the 14 million Australians who set a New Year’s resolution a year ago, it’s a safe bet it was about improving your fitness, eating healthier or losing weight.

A Finder survey identified those as the nation’s top three goals for 2022. 

So, how did you go?

Chances are, you didn’t stick to your goals and you have set them again this year – proving to yourself, yet again, how hard it is to adhere to resolutions.

Why is it so difficult to stick to New Year’s resolutions?

One explanation is the goals don’t match your sense of purpose, which is what gets you out of bed in the morning. 

“Goals are often things that society or others set for us rather than being intrinsically or internally motivated by our own values, beliefs and interests,” University of Melbourne Centre for Wellbeing Science Associate Professor Peggy Kern says. 

Enter those diet, exercise and weight-related goals. 

While they can definitely be good for you, research shows that people regularly set them because of guilt, pressure or to make someone else happy – and that they are typically less successful than people motivated to make healthy lifestyle changes for purely personal reasons

“Intrinsically motivated goals align with our purpose – things we want to do rather than feel like we should do,” Assoc Prof Kern says. 

“As a result, they’re often easier to achieve.”

And simply by serving our sense of purpose, those kinds of goals may provide a range of unexpected and additional benefits, too, such as better physical and mental health. 

How to pinpoint your purpose

“For most of us, identifying our purpose is a process of discovery,” Assoc Prof Kern says. 

“Thinking about things like ‘what do I hope for, what are my passions and what lights me up inside’ can help.”

She says your purpose will align with your values and who you are as a person.

From there, it’s a case of setting goals that match. 

For example, if your passion is to help rescue dogs, you could set yourself a goal of volunteering at a shelter regularly.

As a bonus, research shows volunteering is good for you – it can make you more physically active, boost your wellbeing and even lower your risk of early death.

If you want to set a goal to exercise more, harnessing your sense of purpose can help keep you motivated. 

For example, you could train for a fun run or marathon that fundraises for a cure for cancer. 

How to be a goal getter

Besides partnering your resolutions to a sense of purpose, a few other things can help you achieve success. 

Coach, hypnotherapist and psychotherapist Katie Lowndes has this advice:

Make SMART goals

“You definitely want to set SMART goals,” Katie says. 

“(This) means goals that are specific, that you can measure your progress towards, that are achievable and realistic, and that have a time frame around them.”

For example, you could take a goal of “perform random acts of kindness” and build on it so it becomes: “Every Wednesday in January when I’m buying my morning coffee, I’ll buy one for the person in the queue behind me.”

It’s specific; you can measure whether you get it done; it’s achievable and realistic; and by including “in January”, you have a time frame to work with.

Be selective

“The way to achieve a goal is not to tackle too many at once,” Katie says. 

“At the beginning of the year, it’s tempting to try to make sweeping changes across a number of areas, but it’s often too much pressure, so we quit them all. 

“It’s much wiser to start small and try to achieve just one or two things at a time.”

Review slip-ups and wins

“Regularly review your progress towards your SMART goals,” Katie says. 

“Notice the actions you’re not achieving and question why that’s happening so you can take a different approach; and also the things you have achieved so you can celebrate that and set new, bigger goals to keep progressing.”

Choose life-enhancing intentions

Your purpose will differ from someone else’s, so your resolutions will be unique to you, too. 

However, there are some resolutions we can all benefit from so this year, why not resolve to:

1. Do a ‘digital prune’

Consciously curate your social media feeds to unfollow accounts and content that have a negative impact on an aspect of your wellbeing, whether that’s body image, self-esteem or your self-worth.

And don’t just make it a one-time thing. 

A 2021 study noted digital pruning can protect mental health but requires consistent upkeep. 

2.  Pick a wake-up time

No more sleeping in, even on weekends and after a late night. 

Adults in Australia report having enough energy less than 50 per cent of the time, and one of the main causes is what has been labelled by University of Sydney researchers as an “epidemic of sleep deprivation”. 

One contributor to that lack of sleep is how your body’s sleep-wake cycle gets disrupted whenever you sleep in, so make it your mission to rise and shine at the same time every time this year. 

3.  Savour that series, rather than binge it

Streaming services mean watching episode after episode of your favourite series is easier than ever, but more research is showing it’s a bad idea. 

As well as stealing sleep, making us stressed and bumping up the risk of depression and anxiety, bingeing may even shorten your lifespan, thanks to how sedentary it is. 

Instead, embrace watching an episode at a time and enjoy the anticipation – an emotion that research suggests provides mental health and wellbeing benefits all on its own.

4. Write about things that upset you

Putting pen to paper about your emotions when you encounter a stressful, sad or traumatic event is a research-backed way to reduce the risk of getting sick, and can even improve life for people who have a chronic disease. 

It can speed up how quickly wounds heal, too. 

Experts say writing about the tough stuff triggers beneficial brain changes and supports the immune system to reduce the physical impact of upsetting situations. 

5. Perform random acts of kindness

Research shows random acts of kindness can deliver everything from less stress and anxiety to lower blood pressure – and that’s on top of the feel-good factor that you are doing something good for someone else. 

Need proof? One study shows the same area of the brain lights up in you and them, suggesting that everyone involved in the act benefits.

Written by Karen Fittall.