Why New Year’s Resolutions Don’t Work

We can all conjure up lists of things we’d like to change about ourselves, our jobs, our homes, our relationships.

butterfly on grass

Why do we do this, set out big goals of change after one of the most stressful times of the year? Timing is partly to blame for why our new year’s resolutions often don’t work in the long run. The Babylonians, who are credited with practicing the first resolutions 4,000 years ago, did their new-year celebrating in the spring. Presumably they were feeling buoyed up by the possibilities of warm weather, fresh food, longer days.

Whereas we, modernists that we are, have decided to start Big New Things after weeks of pressure, revelry, stress, too many parties, not enough sleep, year-end reports and deadlines, kids home from school and dark, cold days ahead of us for months.


Is it any wonder we lose momentum by February?


We come at resolutions full steam. Like when Barbie tells Ken he can stop by because, “I don’t have anything big planned. Just a giant blowout party with all the Barbies, and planned choreography, and a bespoke song.”

This is how we treat our resolutions, and it’s partly why they fail. Also, January.

So this year we have a suggestion. Go ahead, set some goals, write out a list of things you’d like to do. Then set it aside and do these things instead.


1. Figure out the why behind what you want to change.

  • Get detailed.
  • Ask yourself, “How will I feel when I’ve got a habit of doing this new thing?”
  • Then ask yourself how you’ll feel when you don’t have the habit and aren’t doing the new thing.

This will tell you a lot about what you really want, versus what you think you’re supposed to want.


2. Only do the things that really get an emotional response out of you when you ask those questions.


3. If you need more emotion to get you motivated, write down in detail what your life will be like in five years if you don’t change a particular habit or start a new one. Then write down what it will be like if you do.


4. Create a system (not a goal) that includes your new habit.


Systems versus Goals


Systems work, goals fail.

Because systems are about doing something different, every day until it’s a habit.

Goals are something you look towards in the future.

Once you reach a goal, then what? If you have no system, you’ll stop there. Scott Adams, author of How to Fail at Almost Everything and Still Win Big, says, “With a system, you are less likely to miss one opportunity because you were too focused on another. With a system, you are always scanning for any opportunity.” He goes on to say, “”Goal-oriented people exist in a state of continuous pre success failure at best, and permanent failure at worst if things never work out. Systems people succeed every time they apply their systems, in the sense that they did what they intended to do. The goals people are fighting the feeling of discouragement at each turn. The systems people are feeling good every time they apply their system.”


If that’s all too much for you and you were really hoping for something fun to get you through winter, we love this idea we got from Jeanne Malmgren’s substack. She says:


“Every January 1st, I pick up a new, empty little spiral notebook and open it to the first page. This will be where I record, each day of the coming 365, One Beautiful Thing that I saw/heard/sensed/experienced that day. Something that moved my soul or gave me a jolt of joy.

One day per page, One Beautiful Thing.

The pages are small so I don’t write an essay. It’s the barest, simplest description of my One Beautiful Thing that day—only a sentence, or a phrase.
One Beautiful Thing a Day combines gratitude with mindfulness, awareness, and joy. It asks you to notice whatever lovely surprise might present itself to you during the course of a day, and to remember it so you can write it down later.”


Here’s wishing you one beautiful thing each day in 2024.

Happy New Year!


Other posts you might enjoy:

How to Start a Gratitude Practice and Why it Works

Smoked Cocktails on the Grill: 4 1/2 Recipes