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Reasons for Breaking New Year's Resolutions

Reasons for Breaking New Year's Resolutions

I am sure you have already noticed the many internet articles and ads popping up about keeping your New Year’s Resolution. 

quitBut, what about why we break and abandon our resolutions?

I came across a really cool 1972 study by Drs. Marlatt and Kaplan.4 They examined 135 people and their resolutions over a 3-month period. The majority of resolutions were a desire to lose weight – interestingly, with an average starting weight of only 138 pounds (all women)! Unfortunately, the average weight loss was a mere -0.32 pounds.

Other than weight loss, the most difficult categories for keeping resolutions were:

  1. Physical Health/Physique (64% broken)
  2. Smoking (60% broken)
  3. Personal Behaviors (31% broken)

Reasons for Breaking NYRs

What stuck out to me was their inclusion of why resolutions were broken and abandoned. Here are the 4 most common reasons they found, alongside my tip for overcoming them.

1. Circumstances Beyond Our Control

“The person I had planned on going with could not wait, and split.”

TIP: Be Flexible in Your Thinking

Flexible thinking is our ability to adapt and strategize when we meet a challenging situation. If your main option is gone, no problem. There is always another option. The more options you have, the more likely you will be to stay on track. You want to walk outside, but it is raining. What do you do? What other options to you have? 

Being flexible also helps us avoid the “all or nothing mentality”. For example, if you cannot get 30 minutes of activity, could you get 15 minutes? Do something. You might also try these other types of flexible thinking.

2. Deliberate Choice to Quit

“I just decided it was not worth it.”

TIP: Value the Small Things

Yes, we value the outcome, such as reach a target weight or fitting into an old pair of jeans. But, do you value the steps and behaviors you do every single day, moment to moment, to keep you on track to those goals?

Focus on the process, and value even your smallest of efforts. I also recommend reading Dr. Erik Gnagy's insight on setting and sticking to 'process goals'.

3. Lack of Willpower

“I just can’t force myself to take one every night.”

TIP: Take Time to Fill Your Tank

Willpower is the energy or ‘mental fuel’ that allows us to self-control our behavior. The problem is that this fuel is limited, and we can deplete it throughout the day. If we have to make choices on an empty tank, we will most likely choose the wrong option. So, we need to refill out tank throughout the day.

How? Previous research has shown that prayer, meditation, positive emotions, relaxation, periodic breaks, and even eating a healthy snack, like a piece of fruit, can give add fuel to our tank.1,2,3,6,7

Take time throughout the day to add a short prayer of thankfulness, a moment's break of peace and quiet to relax or meditate, and a sincere smile or hearty laugh to help you keep enough willpower to stay in line with your NYR.

4. Forgetting the Resolution

“The action of biting my nails is so natural it takes too much concentration to keep from biting them. When reading or concentrating on work, I just start biting.”

TIP: Cue and Plan

We know that the early steps to forming any habit is to (1) intend to do it, and (2) remember to do it. To help, repeat your desired behavior alongside consistent cues (i.e. events) that are already prominent in your day-to-day routine, such as going for a walk (the desired behavior) after breakfast (the cue).5

Next, make a plan. Write out what you are going to do, and put it in a calendar or your phone to help remind you. When you make your plan, use events (not a time) to cue you into action. Then, develop your response behavior in the following format, “if situation Y is encountered then I will do behavior Z (in order to reach goal X)”.

These plans are called implementation intentions.


Despite our focus on why NYRs were broken, many people in the 1972 study were also successful. I think we can learn from them too, not necessarily because they set proper NYRs, but because they were able to overcome the common reasons others broke and abandoned their NYR.

This year, every time you set a new resolution or goal, be aware of these reasons, and make adjustments to minimize their effects. Happy New Year!

Resolution (noun): A firm decision to do or not do something. The quality of being determined or resolute.



  1. Friese, M., Messner, C., & Schaffner, Y. (2012). Mindfulness meditation counteracts self-control depletion. Consciousness and Cognition, 21(2), 1016-1022.
  2. Friese, M., & Wänke, M. (2014). Personal prayer buffers self-control depletion. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 51, 56-59.
  3. Hagger, M. S., Wood, C., Stiff, C., & Chatzisarantis, N. L. (2010). Ego depletion and the strength model of self-control: A meta-analysis. Psychological Bulletin, 136(4), 495-525.
  4. Marlatt, G. A., & Kaplan, B. E. (1972). Self-initiated attempts to change behavior: A study of New Year's resolutions. Psychological Reports, 30(1), 123-131.
  5. Lally, P., & Gardner, B. (2013). Promoting habit formation. Health Psychology Review, 7(1), S137-S158.
  6. Tice, D. M., Baumeister, R. F., Shmueli, D., & Muraven, M. (2007). Restoring the self: Positive affect helps improve self-regulation following ego depletion. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 43(3), 379-384.
  7. Tyler, J. M., & Burns, K. C. (2008). After depletion: The replenishment of the self's regulatory resources. Self and Identity, 7(3), 305-321.
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