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What to Do When You Find It Hard to Stick to Your Resolutions

Before you make any New Year's resolutions, you need to do this.

Years of broken promises to myself have made the whole New Years resolution ritual a subject of considerable discomfort. When amongst my earnest resolution-making friends, I apply a heavy dose of self-deprecating humor, point to my history of failure, and write myself off as irresolute. But every year, in private, I draw up a list and secretly pray that this year I will be the kind of woman who keeps or—at the very least—strives to keep her resolutions.

Those people who make promises to themselves and keep them are a rarity. In fact, the most extensive research on keeping New Years resolutions show that 60 percent of Americans who make resolutions fail after six months. I don’t know about you, but at any given point I can think of 101 reasons to excuse myself from any commitment—but most especially from those commitments that I make to myself.

But keeping my resolutions is an important element of having a healthy relationship with myself. Research indicates that failure to keep our resolutions and goals has a profound psychological impact on our ability to succeed in any future attempts. Janet Polivy, a psychologist at the University of Toronto in Mississauga, says that,

"Every time we fail, we damage our own self-esteem. We make ourselves less able to bounce back the next time. When people fail, they blame themselves. And that makes it hard to start again."

Indeed, my humorous “history of failure” can actually begin to build a narrative that convinces me that my goals are impossible.

Each year those notoriously irresolute people start fresh, only to abort mission at the first whiff of defeat. We read that we should keep our goals small to ensure success, but even those baby steps seem to trip us up—and make our failure that much more humbling. Our little broken promises are scattered throughout our lives—friendships, dating, career—creating a permeating disorder and defeatist attitude.

It’s not so much a lack of proper motivation that we suffer from. It’s that we lack the necessary mental and emotional strength in facing difficulty, adversity, danger, or temptation courageously—otherwise known as fortitude.

So this year my goal is to develop fortitude, to build mental and emotional strength in the face of little things—like getting out of bed when my alarm goes off and refraining from chocolate when I crave it. That way, with practice, when those big things come along—those things I can’t back out of, like sickness, depression, and loss—I will be a woman of resolve, a woman of courage.

Here are some resolve-building resolutions for other women like me, so (with a little practice) we can finally accomplish what we set out to do.

01. Do something uncomfortable every day.

Self-denial, or saying no to something you love, is a well-known religious practice among Buddist, Christian, Muslim, and Jewish people alike. But the benefits of self-denial extend beyond its spiritual purposes. Science indicates that practicing self-denial helps to build willpower and resolve. explains that willpower is increasingly being understood as something that can be cultivated, a muscle that can grow stronger or atrophy depending on how it is used. Neurologists and behavioral psychologists tend to describe willpower as a “domain general” trait, meaning the more you practice it in one area of your life, the more it starts to apply itself to other parts of your life as well. In fact, one experiment in which subjects were given uncomfortable tasks to perform in a lab, such as holding their hand in ice water or squeezing an exercise grip, and then sent home to practice a random rule, like not swearing, for two weeks. After the two-week period the subjects were again asked to perform uncomfortable tasks, but those subjects who had been assigned a rule to practice at home did better when trying the uncomfortable tasks again, than those who had not been assigned any rule to practice at home.

Many of us have the freedom to set up our lives so that we can pretty easily avoid those little discomforts. In which case, we may need to go out of our way to deny ourselves some of those comforts so that we can practice. Maybe it’s a cold shower once a week, eating a healthy food you don’t like once a day, or doing something inconvenient for someone else every day. These are just a few of the many little ways you can practice getting out of your comfort-seeking routine and building willpower for when it counts.

02. Spend five minutes in reflection every day.

If you want to be intentional about the way you live your life, it’s helpful to spend some time every day processing and setting intentions. What do you want to accomplish today? How are you going to set about doing it? What should you do differently tomorrow? Time flies when you are going about your routine, and sometimes those resolutions go forgotten. Tape your goals for the day, week, or month to your bathroom or vanity mirror and review your day as you brush your teeth in the morning and at night. It’s OK if you messed up one day; practicing fortitude means getting back up when you fall—and if you are doing that then you are succeeding!

03. Find an accountability partner.

An essential aspect of practicing mental and physical fortitude is finding someone to fight the good fight with you. You don’t have to go at it alone, nor should you. Share your goals with a friend or family member who supports you and/or who also desires the same end. Check in with and encourage one another when you fail and when you succeed.

04. Think short-term.

Fortitude is hard to practice when you see a year stretched out ahead of you. A year of self-denial? No thank you! Break up your fortitude building into a short-term plan, like a month or even just a day at a time, and your goals will feel less intimidating.