Why it is so difficult to keep your New Year’s resolutions

This post is also available in Dutch.

On New Year’s Day, many of us will resolve to make major changes in our lives. But soon after that, most of us will fail to keep our resolutions. Why is that?



We know which one of these two we should choose for health reasons, but it’s not always easy to make the correct choice, especially if we only rely on our willpower.

Images were edited by Marisha. (Originals by liz west and 0Four)

Enthusiasm vs. Real Life

The magical January 1st makes everything seem possible. The turn of the year fills us with hope and excitement, and we feel like we can do anything we set our mind to. We may decide to begin getting up earlier and start our day with a meditation. Or we may vow to play with our kids every evening after dinner.

A few weeks later, however, the monotony of daily life sets back in, we are tired, and the weather is awful. The alarm goes off at 6:00 a.m., telling us to get up and meditate, but it feels like an impossible amount of effort. At the end of the day, after we’ve finished everything we had to do, we are so tired that we just want to lie on the couch and relax. Our kids ask us to play with them and we promised ourselves we’d do it, but we don’t even want to move a finger. What happened to the unwavering resolve which brought us to make these resolutions in the first place? Somehow it has evaporated, and there’s nothing left to keep us going.

Levels of willpower vary: sometimes we have more, and sometimes less

This comes as no surprise, of course. Psychologists have known for decades that willpower is a finite resource which comes and goes. Studies reviewed here show that when we are tired, hungry, or demotivated, we have trouble controlling our actions (the same is true if we are aroused). But when we are happy, rested, or satiated (i.e., have eaten a good meal), we find it easier to exert willpower.

On January 1st, after we’ve celebrated the arrival of the New Year, we are in a great mood, well rested, and with a full stomach. Thus, we can imagine ourselves engaging in the most demanding activities and going strong: we have seemingly endless reserves of willpower. During the weeks and months to come, however, we will often feel tired, hungry, or sad, and our ability to control our impulses will waver. Those are the moments when it will be difficult to keep our promises.

Don’t get discouraged…

But the fact that it’s difficult to keep resolutions doesn’t mean that it’s impossible. Motivation gurus often try to increase our motivation and inspire us to do more. Such attempts may make us feel better now, but they are unlikely to help us in the long term. They cannot fix the underlying problem of varying willpower levels: sometimes we have more than enough willpower, and sometimes we have extremely little. Instead of getting disheartened by this, we need to address the issue from a different angle. We should not rely on our willpower to determine our actions, but rather we should make it easier for ourselves to engage in the actions we have chosen. Find out how to do this in my next blog post…

Written by Marisha. Edited by Annelies.

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