Your New Year’s Resolution is Destined to Fail

New Year’s Resolutions are self-defeating, guilt-inducing, and often rooted in rampant fatphobia and consumerism

A martini glass full of glitter being tossed across a pink background. Photo by Amy Shamblen on Unsplash

In September, I started lifting weights for the first time in my life. Learning to operate various weight machines and perform a variety of squats and swings with barbells and kettle bells has been both challenging and immensely gratifying. It stimulates a part of my brain that’s long been left dormant, the one that thinks about how my squirrely, Autistic body occupies physical space.

I’m naturally very bad at this stuff, and will always be on the left-hand side of the bell curve in terms of strength and coordination. Despite that, I have learned to love lifting. Weight lifting has taught me to persevere even when my arms are shaking and my face is red and I have no idea where my feet are supposed to be. It’s gotten me more comfortable with trying things that don’t come naturally to me. And I’ve really relished getting gradually better at this hard, uncomfortable thing, in measurable ways every single week.

I didn’t start lifting for any particular reason. No holiday marked it. Nothing about who I am as a person fundamentally changed. I didn’t have any specific, big-picture outcome in mind. I wasn’t trying to lose weight. One day I just decided to go to the gym and try it. And then I kept doing it. Every other day. For months.

In a few days, the quiet gym in my apartment will be swarmed with New Years Resolution exercisers, people who drag themselves grimly to the treadmill or the weigh bench out of a sense of obligation, not because they just felt like it. They’ll crowd the once-peaceful room, filling it with their anxiety, their body loathing, and their too-big expectations. Each of them will come having set goals that were too abstract and too unyielding, and statistically, almost all of them will end up failing.

Social science research predicts that most of these New Year’s Resolution-makers will work out diligently for a few weeks at most. On average, a new gym goer will only make it through January 17th before tapping out. A particularly tenacious resolution-maker might last a month, logging far more gym hours than their schedules or bodies are accustomed to. Then life will get in the way. They’ll catch a cold, or snow will slow down their commute, or the semester will start up and they’ll have a paper due.

The first time they miss a scheduled workout session, these New Years Resolvers will beat themselves up. Breaking a streak of “good” behavior will demotivate them. The guilt will make it that much harder to drag themselves to the gym the next time. Daily obligations will continue to bubble up and block their view of the long-term, big-picture ideals that seemed so important when the year was new. Eventually they’ll feel demoralized and “lazy” and will come to associate the gym with failure, avoiding it entirely until the next New Year comes around again.

I’ve seen it happens dozens of times, with dozens of types of resolutions. People start out the new year with fuzzy high hopes and set themselves up for failure and frustration every single time. They want to write more. They want to learn a new language. They want to cook every single dinner that they eat. Even something like resolving to floss more can get all screwed up if you look at it the wrong way. And the research is pretty clear at this point that New Years Resolutions are never, ever the right way to look at changing one’s behavior.

There’s a huge body of scientific research and psychological theory that explains why New Years Resolutions fail at least 80% of the time. Here are a handful of the most prominent reasons:

They’re Too Abstract

When we set important goals for ourselves, we often think in terms of our abstract values, rather than the concrete, practical factors that might get in the way of living up to those values. In this way, we can set out to make a major change that truly matters a lot to us — but have no plan for how we’ll actually, on a day-to-day basis, go about doing it.

A black and white photo of a cigarette in an ashtray. Photo by Ali Yahya on Unsplash

For example, a lifelong smoker might make a New Year’s Resolution that sounds something like this: “I’m going to stop smoking for good on January 1st”. Notice the finality and the vagueness of this statement. When a person makes this type of decision, they’ll tend to focus on the big picture reasons for why they want to quit, rather than the day-to-day logistics of quitting. They’ll resolve to quit based on their desire for a long, healthy life, and imagine a faraway future when they are many years nicotine-free.

If they’re like most New Years Resolution-makers, the would-be ex-smoker won’t think as much how they’ll handle the daily triggers that prompt them to smoke — the alarm clock in the morning, the crowd of people puffing outside their work, the cravings they feel when they’ve had a drink or two. And then, predictably, when those triggers arise, their resolve will buckle and they’ll find themselves smoking again. Like so many resolution-makers, they will sadly discover that desperately wanting to change a behavior isn’t actually enough to change it — you have to have a plan in place.

In social psychology, we have a theory that explains this phenomenon: Construal Level Theory. This theory says that when somebody sets a goal, they can frame it in one of two ways: abstractly or concretely. An abstract goal feels really good to commit to. It’s based on a person’s values and beliefs. It’s vague and important-seeming and might begin with the word “should”. I should work out more. I should finally learn Spanish. I should stop eating meat. I should do more for my community.

Unfortunately, our daily behaviors aren’t usually driven by abstract ideals. Most of our lives are lived in concrete terms, not abstract ones. When I decide what to eat in the morning, it’s based on my hunger and what is quickly and readily available to me — not my personal code of ethics. As much as I might believe I “should” go vegan, I also need to do a ton of meal prep and planning to actually make that feasible. Until I commit to handling those logistics, going vegan isn’t going to happen.

Years of telling myself I “should” lift weights didn’t do a thing for me. In order to become a regular gym goer, I had to let go of fuzzy ideals and focus on the specific, short-term practicalities: when I am I going to work out today? How am I going to make time for exercise two days from now? Where will I go to lift weights when I’m out of town?

Most New Year’s Resolutions are abstract, not concrete. Yet concrete goals are far easier to follow on a day-to-day basis. It’s tempting to look at the new year as an opportunity to radically change one’s life. But most major life changes just don’t work like that. They require practicality and planning. So if you’d really like to take up a new hobby, brush up on a skill, or dispense with a bad habit, avoid using New Year’s as an excuse to do so — set goals that are SMART (specific, measurable, achievable, realistic, and timely) instead.

They Promote Black & White Thinking

“New Year, New You” has become an advertising cliche for a reason. It’s psychologically appealing on a ton of levels. It suggests that the flipping of the calendar can prompt a radical rebirth, erasing all our old triggers, habits, and limitations, replacing them with clear-headed resolve and diligence.

Black and white stripes. Photo by Daryan Shamkhali on Unsplash

The phrase “New Year, New You” suggests that change can come all at once, rather than through slow, painful, habitual work. In the New Year, I will be a kinder person, wholly and entirely. Being kind will feel like an authentic expression of my new self. It won’t be hard, it’ll come naturally. And if it doesn’t come easily, then that means I didn’t succeed at becoming a new, kind person, and so I might as well quit.

It’s easy to feel like a new person on New Year’s Eve, when we’re relaxed and well-fed and a little drunk. On the tail end of a holiday vacation, many of us feel rejuvenated, ready to return to our jobs with a new sense of purpose and focus.

But then we get back to regular life, and we become our regular selves, with our regular annoyances. Deadlines pile up. Cars break down. We get tired and cranky. Suddenly it’s February and we’re sleep deprived and the internet is down and we find ourselves kicking the router and screaming. Guess we didn’t become a kinder person this year. Maybe next time.

Instead of thinking in black-and-white, perfectionist terms, it’s much more beneficial to approach goals in a gradual way, and to leave plenty of room for self-compassion. Maybe you can’t magically transform into a person who never yells or behaves unkindly, but you can try to have fewer angry outbursts this week than you did the week before. You might never become an utterly “new you”, but at least your behavior will actually change in measurable ways, and you won’t lose all your motivation every time you slip up.

They’re Fatphobic

Survey research consistently shows that the most common New Year’s Resolutions are those related to weight loss. Gyms offer New Year’s themed membership specials, with advertisements that weaponize our culture’s fear and hatred of fat bodies. Marketing of weight loss supplements, appetite suppressants, diet books, and Weight Watchers memberships rises precipitously in the days after Christmas and throughout January. So do internet searches for weight loss products and services.

In many people’s minds, the new year and the desire to lose weight seem indelibly linked. Resolutions that focus on changing one’s body shape or size are almost always destined to fail — and this is by design. The very companies that entice people to make weight-based New Year’s Resolutions are those that benefit the most when weight loss attempts fail. And make no mistake — most attempts at weight loss fail.

The truth is, sustained, significant weight loss is incredibly rare. The vast, vast majority of people who set out to lose weight end up gaining back every pound that they lost, and suffer a variety of negative health effects for having even tried. The human body is not designed to lose weight easily, and for a variety of reasons (genetic, pharmacological, and environmental) many people are not meant to be thin. Yet the diet and weight loss industries thrive on trying to convince us otherwise, year after year.

Fatphobia is a wonderful marketing tool. Because about 95% of people who set out to lose weight will not “succeed”, they make excellent repeat customers. The new Weight Watchers member of January 2020 will become January 2021’s new devotee of flat tummy tea. The January after that, they may shell out thousands of dollars for a membership at a fancy gym that markets itself using disparaging photos of fat bodies.

It’s a trap, a never-ending loop of restriction, fat hatred, desperation, and fear. The only way to avoid falling prey to it is to detach from fatmisia entirely. If you want to change your exercise habits or improve your health in a realistic, measurable way, focus on the behaviors you have control over, not how you look or what the numbers on the scales say.

They’re a Product of Internalized Capitalism

In a culture that is constantly telling us to do more, New Year’s Resolutions have a natural appeal. Many of us have been taught, over and over again, that the key to living a worthwhile life is being unflinchingly productive and accomplished. Though we are logging more hours at work than prior generations, and getting paid less for it, many of us still feel shame over not getting “enough” done. We are consumed with guilt over being “lazy”, and haunted by the fear of missing out.

Photo by Markus Spiske on Unsplash

And so with each new year, we resolve to get more done, to rack up more accomplishments, to stop wasting our time. As digital work tools proliferate and the gig economy consumes more and more industries, the line between productive hours and down time becomes more and more fuzzy. At any given moment, I could be earning money at a side hustle, teaching myself how to code on Datacamp, cooking Instagrammable meals from scratch, or using Youtube to practice new yoga positions. There is always something more I could be doing. There is always someone on social media to unfavorably compare myself to.

The contents of our New Year’s Resolutions say a lot about the things that society’s shamed us for. We live in a society that loathes fat bodies; consequently, many New Year’s Resolutions are related to weight loss. We are overworked and underpaid, and yet we are constantly being pressured to get even more done — and so our New Year’s Resolutions are often about mastering a new skill, “wasting” less time, or being impressively productive in some new way.

These resolutions fail, in part, because most people are already working well beyond their capacity. If you haven’t been able to make it to the gym in two months, despite planning to every single week, maybe the problem is not that you are a screw-up with no sense of willpower. Maybe what’s actually going on is that there aren’t enough hours in the day.

Shame and guilt are terrible motivators. Exhaustion and pressure do not pave the road to a happy or well-rounded life. Capitalism has taught each of us to measure our worth in terms of how much we get done, but it never tells us when we have arrived and finally done “enough”. When we feel insecure and lazy, a legion of industries stand to profit off us. These industries want us to throw money away on classes we’ll never attend, buy workout equipment that will collect dust in our basements, and download language learning apps that we’ll open two or three times at most.

To resist these pressures, we have to head in the complete opposite direction, resolving to do less, not more. Don’t cave to New Year’s Resolution pressure. Don’t let social trends and industry advertisements convince you that you are aren’t doing enough.

You don’t have to start going to the gym this January if you don’t want to. You don’t have to try to lose weight. You don’t have to fill your few hours of leisure with more writing, or cooking, or online classes that will help you develop more marketable skills. Instead, you can resolve simply to give yourself a break.

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