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Most New Year’s Resolutions Fail, but Habits Can Make Them Stick

Updated: Oct 16, 2021

A new year encourages people to create New Year’s resolutions, which various people may have done this past New Year’s. However, researchers at the University of Scranton found that only 19% of New Year’s resolutions were upheld for two years.

In James Clear’s New York Times bestseller, Atomic Habits (2018), he claims that most New Year’s resolutions fail when people try to make a change in their life without making a habit. He says this is a more sustainable method of making a change since habits are automatic and do not require motivation, which eventually runs out. Similarly, Pulitzer Prize-winning author Charles Duhigg claims that most of the decisions we make in a day are actually habits in his book, The Power of Habit (2012).

Both Duhigg and Clear have suggested that our brains have “habit loops,” which include a cue, response, and reward where the cue is the trigger that starts the sequence, the response is the action taken, and the reward is the dopamine the brain releases when the sequence is completed. Duhigg uses the example of buying a cookie at work every day in the afternoon. The cue could be boredom, tiredness, or hunger, the response is consuming a cookie, and the reward is the dopamine the body releases when the cookie is eaten.

According to Duhigg, our brains are constantly trying to make connections and discover new habit loops. They do this to release more dopamine into the body. This is beneficial if one builds healthy habits like exercising regularly but can be disadvantageous if the habit is harmful. For example, if one periodically checks their phone out of boredom, it may become an unhealthy habit.

The process of building a habit is similar to an animal learning a new trick. When dogs know that a specific action is rewarding, they’re encouraged to do it. Like humans, dogs also respond to a cue—verbal, nonverbal, or both. The signal incites an action, which is rewarded with a treat.

Clear and Duhigg both also say that habit-building simplifies life, allowing people to train themselves to complete tasks without thinking. Clear suggests that many goals, like New Year’s resolutions, fail because the motivation that sparked the initial change ends up running out. Clear urges his readers to focus on improving their performance by 1% every day instead of fixating on a goal. Duhigg and Clear both agree that goals are pointless if the steps to achieve the goal are not correctly planned and implemented. Clear points out that having 1% better performance every day provides exponential growth and says that people often expect improvement to be linear, which is why exponential growth can be frustrating as progress takes time.

To build new habits or change one’s lifestyle, Duhigg suggests developing a “keystone habit,” which will influence the rest of one’s life. For someone trying to lose weight, a keystone habit might be weighing themselves each morning. Routine weight checks will allow one to be aware of their weight and encourage necessary diet and exercise choices. Eventually, these choices will become habits and improve their health.

Clear suggests making small changes instead of large ones to ensure that people build habits that will last. For example, if a person’s goal is to read for thirty minutes every night, they could start by opening a book every day but not reading anything. He says the key to preventing burnout is stopping before the task becomes hard, so that motivation will not be depleted by completing the task.

Creating habits will encourage New Year’s resolutions’ success. Unreasonable goals that are solely fueled by the excitement of a new year are unachievable.

Through Teen Lenses: What makes your New Year’s resolutions stick or fail?

“If my resolutions are too ambitious and don’t have a clear goal in what they are, I’d probably procrastinate on them. I think multiple smaller and specific goals are easier to follow and manage.” Sam Gwon, 15, Sophomore at Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology, Fairfax, Virginia
“I think that resolutions only stick when you’re actually dedicated to it. Like for example, many people say they want to eat healthier, but don’t have the mindset to carry it out. It’s all about psychological commitment and dedication. If it’s something that’s a big goal, then yeah, it’s tougher to stay with, but it needs that much work.” Nidhish Jayapal Mahesh, 15, Sophomore at Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology, Loudoun, Virginia
“I think it’s a matter of motivation, and that’s about it. We are determined to make the most of our time, but sometimes procrastination gets the better of us, and I think this is purely due to our motivation. If there is something that is easy or enjoyable, we are likely to do it. On the other hand, if something is beneficial but not necessarily easy to do, we might end up dropping it unless it’s mandatory. In conclusion, New Year’s resolutions should incorporate an incentive or have some enjoyable aspect. Otherwise, they are likely to fail.” Raghav Tirumale, 15, Sophomore at Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology, Herndon, Virginia


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