Why Most New Year's Resolutions Are Horrible

By Dr. Jonathan Kaplan

Many of us make health-related New Year’s resolutions--earnest promises to exercise more, stop smoking, drink less, eat more veggies, lose weight, etc.  While I admire our collective attempts at self-improvement, I also know that there are many problems with how we approach setting such intentions.  In fact, given how most of us pursue these goals, I’ve come to consider most New Year’s Resolutions to be pretty horrible things.  

Let’s do a little quiz.  Let’s take one of your New Year’s resolutions.  Does it involve any of the following?:

 Stop making bad New Year's resolutions!

Stop making bad New Year's resolutions!

  • Losing weight
  • Exercising more
  • Quitting smoking
  • Drinking less
  • Eating healthier

If so, then it’s probably a horrible resolution.  “But, what could possibly be wrong with wanting to get fit?”, you ask.  Unfortunately, given how we approach this intention, there are three main problems.  

First, we often have a corrosive belief underlying our intention to be more healthy.  If you’re trying to get fit in order to look better, then what you’re doing is reinforcing a mental message that you’re somehow not OK the way that you are.  You’re contributing to a fundamental belief in your own unworthiness, which just isn’t true.  You’re beautiful.  You’re worthy.  You’re lovable.  Truly.  You’re better off trying to reconcile yourself to the reality of your own amazingness rather than lose 30 pounds.  If you do want to lose weight, then focus on how it feels in your body to move and carry less pounds.  Most likely, this will feel good, naturally.  You don’t have to berate yourself in order to be healthy.  

The second reason why New Year’s resolutions are terrible is that they are often based on literal, arbitrary rules disconnected from physical experience, life circumstances, and physiological reality.  That is, we devise a particular guideline to follow, then do our best to meet it regardless of the consequences.  Suppose I resolve to eat a salad every day.  While seemingly noble from a vegetarian perspective, what if I don’t like the taste of salad?  What if I add so much dressing that it defeats the purpose of losing weight?  What if there is no place to get fresh veggies near me?  Ideally, behavior connected to a New Year’s resolution is grounded in our real experience of the world, not just what our mind tells us to do.  

Finally, many resolutions focus on stopping a problematic behavior without an understanding of its function.  For example, many people want to quit smoking, eat less sweets, or drink less alcohol, but all of these behaviors help us feel better in the short-term.  Sure, we later cough up a lung, or crash from a sugar high, or feel hung-over.  But in the moment, they all serve a function--to help us feel less stressed.  So, we need replacement behaviors to serve this same purpose.  If you’re not going to smoke in order to reduce stress, then what are you going to do in the moments when you would be reaching for a cigarette?

So, what are the parameters in making a good New Year’s resolution?  Make sure that it is...

  • based on a positive view of yourself 
  • connected with your personal values
  • grounded in your experience in the world
  • describes what you’re going to do (not just what you’re trying to avoid)

With these guidelines in mind, you're better able to create (and adhere to) resolutions that will change your life.