Why Is It So Hard to Keep New Year’s Resolutions?

Katie Lorz, LMHC, NCC on Jan 02, 2023 in Life Transition

Each year, people all over the world ring in the New Year with celebrations, a review of the year gone by, and — often — by setting some resolutions. But New Year's resolutions have a way of falling by the wayside as the weeks and months progress. So why is it so hard to keep New Year's resolutions?

The simple fact is: It is hard to change our habits and routines. Our brains are magnificent organs that do so much more than we can even imagine, but they also have some quirks and bad habits of their own that are hard to change.

One such bad habit is clarified nicely in the Dunning-Kruger effect. The Dunning-Kruger effect is a cognitive bias wherein a person believes they are more competent at something than they actually are. When you don't have the full picture of what knowledge and skills are needed to accomplish a goal, it can be easy to think that it is very achievable to accomplish it without much effort.

But there is good news. When you start to understand how to accomplish a goal, you can break it down into achievable steps and create a New Year's resolution that you can actually stick to. One of the best remedies for the Dunning-Kreuger effect (and any goal you want to accomplish) is to gain skills and knowledge by practicing it repetitively, easily remembered in the common phrase "Practice makes perfect."

With my clients, I often break down the four stages of learning that support goal achievement. They are:

1. Unconscious incompetence: I call this "not knowing what you don't know."

2. Conscious incompetence: I call this "realizing that you don't know something."

3. Conscious competence: I call this "learning how to do something" (and this is the long, hard step of goal achievement!).

4. Unconscious competence: I call this "intuition or autopilot" — when you do something "mindlessly" or without even thinking about it.

Now the word "incompetence" can feel pretty loaded, but I like to explain the process this way. First, we have all practiced this model of learning throughout our entire lives! Know how I know? I take it back to the basics. Can you walk? Can you talk? When and how did you learn to do those things? As infants and children, we learn how to do things with confidence and trust because our survival depends on it. We are fully dependent on our caregivers and our environments to show us how to stay alive and keep going.

As we get older, the information we take in from our environment and community can create conflicting ideas about what is possible and our abilities to achieve. But we continue to use this process of learning whether we realize it or not. I like to bring it into conscious awareness so that you can create goals (and New Year's resolutions) that you can actually stick to!

So how do you create that achievable New Year's resolution?

There are a lot of "hacks" for doing it, and if any of those (like SMART goals or accountability buddies) work for you, then I encourage it! They are great ways to turn a wishful desire into an achievable goal! But I like to offer some simple tips and tools that can help you move through the stages of learning.

How to Work with Your Brain in Ways That Support Success

Brains (and the people who house them) love rewards, consistency, and acceptance above all else. When your brain has these goodies, it is more likely to keep working at a goal.

Rewards: Giving yourself some small rewards at different milestones can help you to keep reaching for your goals. I'm a big fan of dark chocolate, so I like to keep a bag of it handy and give myself a piece after I accomplish a difficult task.

Consistency: Consistency speaks to the very basic survival structures of our brains. When we are in painful places (such as trying to learn something new), the brain goes into a survival state and it can be hard to get the logical brain online. We revert back to basic needs, and it is a quick path to giving up or quitting.

Providing the brain with familiar rhythms and routines can get you out of the fear state, but knowing that it is part of the learning process and being aware that it may show up often as you work toward your goal can help you challenge it.

Some people have called this part of learning “the Valley of Despair,” and it's important to remember that when you are in the valley, you have to keep going until you reach the next peak. You can make these valleys smaller with some of the following tools.

  • Create daily or weekly small tasks that can help your brain get used to a new and unfamiliar goal and know that resistance to change is normal. This can help you to keep working toward your New Year's resolution. To do this, I recommend habit stacking, creating a regular schedule of practice, and using somatic tools to pull your brain out of survival state when sticking to your resolution becomes difficult.
  • Habit stacking is when you attach a new habit to an old and well established one. For example, if you want to drink more water so that your body has all the hydration it needs to function properly (and reduce anxiety) and you brush your teeth every morning on autopilot then you can habit stack by putting a glass by your toothbrush and each morning after you brush your teeth, drink a glass of water. Since your body is already on "autopilot" for brushing your teeth (that final stage of learning: unconscious competence) you can simply attach the new habit to an old one and are more likely to succeed. The brain loves associations so associating an old habit with a new one is a great way to be consistent and create a pattern of change.
  • Create a regular schedule of practice. The brain loves routine and automation (familiarity) and hates new things (the unfamiliar) because it requires more energy and work. So setting aside even a few minutes a day to work on your goal can be helpful. Often our goals and expectations are bigger than necessary (that Dunning Kreuger effect) and it sets us up for failure. So I encourage my clients to create very small goals. Even so small it seems silly, so that you can be successful. For example: when I teach someone breathework I encourage them to start with 30-60 seconds of focused breathing. Often people want to start with 30 minutes, or even move down to 5 minutes, but that is too long for many people. Start SO small and do it consistently. Another example is if you create a new year's resolution of running. Often people jump in to running on day 1. I encourage my clients to start with imagining running. But even smaller than that. Start imagining what you will do to get to the front door. Do this for a week to prepare yourself for the effort it may take to get out the door. So you will set an alarm, get dressed, put on running shoes, etc. Imagine yourself doing all of those tasks in order and all it will take to get to the front door. After a week of imagining it, do all of that and nothing more. You don't have to start with running to create a habit of running, you can start with getting your mind comfortable with all of the little changes it will take to create a successful pattern of running. (This is also part of the "acceptance" need of the brain.)
  • Use somatic tools. Getting the brain out of survival mode and into action can seem simple but can actually be very emotionally difficult. Somatic or body-based tools are good ways to "trick" your system into action. Sometimes it is as simple as drinking a glass of water, eating something, or moving your body. All of these tell your primal brain either "it is safe '' or "I have control". When your body believes it your mind can follow. So if you are feeling stuck on a goal, or fear or failure is creeping in, have a drink, take a walk, or eat a snack and then start again on your practice of learning.

Acceptance: All living creatures move toward comfort and away from discomfort. This has been scientifically shown in humans, animals, plants, and even single-celled organisms! You can use this knowledge to inform how you create and practice your New Year's resolutions so that you can be successful with them.

What does acceptance have to do with comfort?

The brain is primed from a lifetime (or more when you consider epigenetics) of learning to move toward comfort and away from discomfort. It is so intuitive that it shows up as simply as using the word "no" or "yes." When the brain hears or believes "yes," it is more likely to change. When the brain hears or believes "no," it is less likely to change. In therapy, this is often called "resistance," but it is also a very important tool for what messages are going in that are saying "no" instead of "yes" to change.

Change is uncomfortable. It requires more energy and effort, and that is uncomfortable on an evolutionary scale. So to make change more possible, you have to remove some of the discomfort by creating accepting opportunities in the brain: ways the brain can say and hear "yes" to change.

Some ways to do this are:

  • creating those small goals and habit stacks mentioned earlier
  • seeking external validation and approval through small rewards or social supports
  • internal validation through your own value alignment
  • practicing kind and thoughtful reflection of your learning process

It is possible to create New Year’s resolutions that you can successfully implement.

It just takes a little knowledge, patience, and support to make the changes stick.

Quick tips for making goals you can keep:

  • Create goals that align with your values and priorities. Understand why you want the change to occur and what you hope will be different.
  • Set realistic expectations of yourself and the goals you want.
  • Make small, incremental, and consistent changes.
  • Reward yourself with internal and external reinforcement.
  • Understand that bumps in the road are part of the learning process.
  • Share your goals with others for support, encouragement, and recognition.
  • Attach new desired habits to old, established habits to create more acceptance and less discomfort in your system.
  • Track your progress and setbacks so you can learn from the process and move toward intuition.
  • Celebrate successes and then repeat the process for other goals and resolutions.

I hope this helps you create New Year’s resolutions you can stick to! Remember that the only constant in life is change. You are changing no matter what, so being aware and intentional about your change is a great way to be mentally healthy and soothe any anxiety that shows up as part of the uncertainty of life.

I’m Katie Lorz, and I’m a trauma, empowerment, and relationship therapist for women in Washington. I love to support holistic mental health and wellbeing for anyone. I’m holding a 12-week online workshop series in 2023 to support anyone who wants to create the foundations of mental health in their own life. Check out my website for more information about me and my services if you would like to know more or to sign up for the workshop series!

Katie Lorz is a Therapist in Tacoma, WA.

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