The psychology behind New Year’s resolutions

A guide on making it past “Quitter’s Day”

A lonely pair of gym shoes rests in the back corner of the closet. Once or twice at the beginning of each year, they go out for a quick jog or a walk around the park, only to quickly return to their solitude. Over the years, they are left to rot in the dark, like most New Year’s resolutions.
Every year, millions of people set their goals for the new year, promising to eat healthier, read more and be a better person, but 91% fail to actualize these goals, according to Just over two weeks into the new year, Jan. 19, marks “Quitter’s Day,” sending millions of resolutions to face their demise.
“There’s something beautiful about it, that we stopped to reflect and we want to improve, right?” said Associate Professor of Psychology Lydia Eckstein, a specialist in behavioral psychology. “It’s this moment to say, ‘What do I like about my life and what do I want to do differently?’ The problem, of course, is that for most of us, New Year’s resolutions last all of what? Six days? Six weeks?”
Most resolutions fail because they are either too ambitious or too vague, Eckstein explained. Common goals, such as losing weight, are often too vague. Without specifying an amount of weight to lose, it is hard to track progress, thus making it easier to get overwhelmed or even lose sight of the goal. Additionally, setting ambitious goals, such as losing a significant amount of weight or doing something every day, is unsustainable and makes it hard to follow through with.
Along with losing weight, drinking less, saving more money and spending more time with family are some of the most common resolutions, according to Eckstein. She explained that these particular resolutions are popular because they are areas where a lot of people tend to struggle.
For Kylee Hollerich, ’25, being more positive was her goal for 2023.
“Normally, I look at things pretty grim,” Hollerich said. “It’s something I wanted to try to improve on.”
She explained that, in the past, keeping resolutions was hard for her because they were often too ambitious for her to follow through with. She did not feel that they had any positive impact on her life. One year, her goal was to draw a picture every day. She gave up pretty quickly.
“It’s kind of difficult sometimes because I try to make it like a big jump for improvement instead of like smaller ones, which are the easier steps to get there,” Hollerich said.
For most people like Hollerich, who often find it hard to achieve their resolutions, Eckstein recommended a series of changes in crafting resolutions to make them more attainable.
For one, sharing your resolution with friends in a social setting greatly increases the odds of completing it. This is because, Eckstein explained, sharing resolutions with friends adds a social pressure to accomplish them. A person’s peers hold them accountable to actually working towards their goals. Also, working towards goals with the support of friends is a lot more enjoyable.
“Especially when it comes to friends and family, having an accountability buddy is so important,” Eckstein said. “If we can couple (resolutions) with something pleasant like hanging out with friends, that improves the odds that we’re going to follow through.”
Another way a person can increase their odds of accomplishing their resolution is by setting specific and attainable goals. This way, a person can monitor or track their progress, therefore setting themselves up for success. It is also a lot easier to accomplish a series of small goals than to try and attack one big goal, which can be overwhelming.
Eckstein also championed the use of technology to help people hit their targets. She referred to this as “the game-ification of goals.” Gesturing to her Apple Watch, Eckstein explained how its fitness-tracking capabilities have helped her stay on track with her goal of being more active this year.
“I don’t quite know where to stand on all these apps because I don’t inadvertently want people to spend more time on their phones,” Eckstein said. “But I think there’s really something to be said for something like Duolingo, where you get rewards and you have this streak and you get points.”
The biggest change people can make, Eckstein explained, is to set an intention instead of a resolution. An intention is a broader goal that a person can carry out with many different actions.
“Instead of saying ‘I want to lose weight,’ or ‘I want to lift or swim half an hour every day,’ I may say something like ‘I want to move more,’” Eckstein said. “‘I want to be healthier.’ And so again, that’s also big, but it also gives me the flexibility to say being healthier may mean today I eat my fruit and vegetables. Tomorrow, I walk for half an hour and the day after that I go swimming so … it doesn’t pigeonhole me. ”
Setting an intention also makes it easier to restart after making a mistake. It is not as strict as a traditional resolution and therefore has more leeway for errors, another one of the biggest reasons why people quit their resolutions.
Most importantly, Eckstein stressed, people do not need to wait for Jan. 1 to make a positive change in their lives. Any day is a good day to take a step back, reflect and plan to make a positive change.
“If we really want to make a change, we can take any day of the week of the month of the year to reflect,” Eckstein said. “What can I do today, even if it’s for 10 minutes, that gets me closer to that?”