Why it’s SO hard to keep your New Year’s resolutions?

Over 40 percent of American adults make one or more resolutions each year. But how long do they actually last?

  • Over one week: 75%
  • Over 2 weeks: 71%
  • Over one month: 64%
  • Over 6 months: 46%

Data shows only 12 percent of people making New Year’s resolutions actually achieve them. The problem is that many of us don’t understand what New Year’s resolutions are about- namely, change, usually significant life change. Anyone who has ever tried to change their thinking, emotions, or behavior knows how difficult it is.

So the question that must be asked is: why do we have such a hard time making significant changes in our lives?

To answer this question, we talked with a Clinical Psychologist at Aurora Psychiatric Hospital.  She shares her thoughts below;

Behavior change is rarely a discrete, single event, but rather a process.  Researchers have identified 5 distinct Stages of Change:

  • Precontemplation–not seeing the behavior as a problem or not considering making a change even if the behavior is a problem.
  • Contemplation—considering making a change but being unsure about making the change or if its even possible.
  • Preparation–getting ready to change, planning on how to go about it.
  • Action—starting to change behavior)
  • Maintenance–maintaining the behavior change over the course of time.

Relapse — i.e., returning to the old behavior or giving up on making a change — can occur at any stage, and it is also possible to slip back to an earlier stage in the process.  Each stage calls for a different approach.

My father used to joke “I can quit smoking any time, I’ve done it thousands of times!”  We can chuckle at this because we all have had similar experiences with change—its easy to say I want to lose weight, get into shape, or quit smoking, but its hard to follow through.

There is a difference between problem-solving and decision-making.  Problem-solving involves examining the problem and identifying the some effective way to resolve it.  Decision-making involves identifying the intrinsic factors affecting if a given person will make a change and what changes s/he is willing to make.

Problem solving is what we do when we think about a change someone else should make:  like Joe Friday we examine “just the facts.”  Aunt Sally’s overweight: she shouldn’t eat so much, she should skip desserts, she should start exercising.  It all seems very simple from our point-of-view.   But when we look at the changes we want to make we realize there’s more to it than Nike’s “Just do it”—and why Aunt Sally always says “yeah, easy for you to say!”

My Father was given a list of 4 different things he could do to manage his high blood pressure.  Number one on the list was to quit smoking.; he was told this would be the single most helpful thing he could do to lower his blood pressure.  He religiously took his medication, watched what he ate most of the time, and exercised a little.  But he refused to even consider quitting smoking until he was diagnosed with emphysema.

When we think about making a change, we usually feel two ways about it:  there are good reasons to make the change and there are good reasons not to.  And so we are ambivalent:  do we really want to change, and is it worth the effort.  Aunt Sally doesn’t overeat because she wants to be overweight or ruin her health.   My father didn’t smoke because he wanted to develop high blood pressure or emphysema.  Both Sally and Dad got something from these habits that makes it hard to change.  This is usually easier to recognize when we examine the changes we want to make.

Impulsive decisions usually fail because the person still feels ambivalent about making the change and/or a lack of adequate planning about what it will take to make the change.  Impulsive attempts to change also can backfire by eroding self-confidence.   The more you fail, the more likely you’ll believe you‘re not able to do it—even if the real reason for past failures are that you never really wanted to change or planned adequately how to do it.

Dr. Larus suggests 4 different ways to help you discover the intrinsic importance of your Resolution for you and the steps you could take to take to achieve your goal.  These exercises focus on 3 important aspects of the change process:  ambivalence, self-confidence, and planning.

Your answers will help you see what you’ve already done to accomplish your goal and help you think in terms of small steps necessary to help you move forward.  It will help to talk these exercises through with a friend.  Remember you want a good listener, not a good problem-solver.  Your goal is to discovery the best solution for you, not to solve the problem perfectly.

Importance Ruler.  On a scale of 1 to 10, rate how important is it to you to keep your New Year’s Resolution (1 being not important at all and 10 being extremely important).  Most will rate the importance somewhere between 1 and 10.  Now, answer 2 questions:

  1. Why did you rate this Resolution as a (insert your rating here) and not 2 or 3 points lower?
  2. What would it take to make this resolution ½ or 1 point more important?

This exercise helps focus your attention on your ambivalence about making this change.  If you scored 5 or below, it would be most helpful to focus your attention on resolving your ambivalence rather than problem-solving how to make this change.

Decisional Balance:  (insert New Year’s Resolution here).

In this exercise you will be looking at the good things and the not-so-good things about making this change.  Take a piece of paper and draw a line dividing the page into two columns; label one column “the good things about (insert Resolution here) ” and the other “the not-so good-things about (insert Resolution here).

Remember, Aunt Sally would say there’s nothing good about being overweight, the real change she’s contemplating is changing her eating and /or exercise habits.

Ability Ruler.  Now rate how confident you are that you could keep your New Year’s Resolution on a 1 to 10 scale (1 being not at all confident and 10 being extremely confident).  Again answer 2 questions:

  1. Why did you rate your ability as a (insert your rating here) and not 2 or 3 points lower?
  2. What would it take to increase your confidence ½ or 1 point?

Your answers will help you see what you’ve already done to accomplish your goal and help you think in terms of small steps necessary to help you move forward.

Decisional Balance:  Effort necessary to (insert New Year’s Resolution here).  

Next, you must decide if your Resolution is worth the effort.  Take a second piece of paper, divide into two columns.  Label each “the good things about making the change” and “the not so good things about making the effort to change”  This list will can help you prepare to make a change—by identify stumbling blocks that could get in the way of your success.

Change is not impossible. Understanding the stages of change can help you keep your New Year’s resolution.

If you or someone you know needs help making significant life changes, contact Aurora Behavioral Health Services at 877-666-7223 or visit our web site at Aurora Behavioral Health Services.


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