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Why our resolutions fail

Updated: Apr 1, 2021

resolution image coping cross-cultural-adjustment expatriate self-improvement

The new year is a time for setting fresh goals and making plans for self-improvement. Unfortunately, most New Year’s resolutions fail.

So, why do our resolutions fail?


One reason that our resolutions fail is that they are often too big. We have a cultural mindset of the new year or new beginnings as fresh starts, so we tend to overreach. We want to wipe the slate clean and begin anew, so we have a tendency to aim too high. We simply set goals that are too big for us. It is like having a ladder with the rungs placed too far apart; we can’t get to the top because the steps are too large. Sometimes it is better to break goals down into smaller, more manageable parts. It is helpful if we can make our steps more reachable and easier to achieve.


Another reason our resolutions fail is that we try to change our behavior without changing ourselves. In alcohol recovery they use the term ‘the dry drunk’. This is someone who has achieved a strained and tenuous sobriety but has not changed their self-perception and their need for alcohol. Keeping their commitment to sobriety requires intense effort and it constantly under challenge since old relationships with alcohol and old identities have not been replaced with new ones.

To create a new you, you have to first imagine who that is.

There are many paths to change. We can begin with how we think, act, or feel. But we must close to loop. We must bring all of these back to ourselves and integrate them into a new perception of who we are.


Sometimes we don’t truly commit. Full commitment requires prioritization and action. We cannot just want a goal; we have to do the things that help us get to it. This means we have some homework to do. This can include writing our goal down, making a public commitment or sharing our commitment with another person, and finding a way to hold ourselves accountable.

Studies on goal setting have found that simply writing a goal down increases your chance of achieving it by 30 percent. If you write down your goal and share it with another person, your chances of success increase by 50 percent. If you write the goal down, share it with another person, and send weekly reports to someone else, your chances of success increase by almost 80 percent.


Finally, sometimes we simply fear change and lack confidence in ourselves. Deep inside we expect failure so we build in escape hatches and rationalizations that allow us to fail more gracefully when it happens. We all have scripts and narratives about our lives that run in the back of our minds. These can be positive or negative. We can gain confidence by visualizing and adopting a narrative of success. This does not mean that the success is necessarily going to be immediate, easy, or without pain. But we can adopt a storyline in our mind of the path we are on, even if it is rocky, that includes reaching the end successfully. It helps when we find sources of support or role models along the way that remind us that we have the power to change.

Interested in reading more? For my books and blog, see

James McGinley, PhD is a professor, author, certified life coach, and licensed counselor. He is interested in applied psychology, whether at work, as a part of a team, in our personal lives and in our relationships with others, or when we face adversity in life – whether from stress, addiction, or exposure to crisis.

(Image credit is Unsplash)

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