Do New Year's resolutions really work?

woman writing down her new year's resolutions
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With the holiday season underway, thoughts may soon turn to New Year's resolutions as many seek to eradicate bad habits and establish new and healthier ones. But do New Year's resolutions actually work — and is Jan. 1 the best time for a new goal? 

One phenomenon, dubbed the "fresh start effect," suggests that the new year may be a good moment to make resolutions and changes, because it can act as a "temporal landmark" that gives people a renewed commitment to goals. 

But other factors can also influence the ability to stick to a New Year's resolution, experts told Live Science.

Do New Year's resolutions work?

The "fresh start effect," proposed in a 2014 study in the journal Management Science, suggests that events like New Year's, birthdays, holidays or even the beginning of a week or month are associated with an increase in aspirational behavior. These "temporal landmarks" enable people to split their perception of time into "before" and "after," and write off previous failures as the responsibility of a past-self, the researchers posited. 

Temporal landmarks may also encourage "big picture thinking," the researchers wrote, making people more likely to invest in long-term goals over instant gratification. 

However, the theory has never been tested, and many New Year's resolutions are not followed. 

Robert West, an emeritus professor of behavioral science and health at University College London (UCL) in England, told Live Science that the key to understanding behavior — and therefore why New Year's resolutions can be unsuccessful — is to realize that desires only exist "in the moment."

Professor Robert West
Robert West

Robert West is a professor emeritus of health psychology at University College London (UCL), England, and an associate of UCL's Centre for Behaviour Change. He is the former editor-in-chief of the Addiction journal and has published more than 900 scholarly works, including books on behavior change and addiction.  

"Throughout our waking hours, we act in pursuit of what we most desire at that precise point in time — not an hour ago, a day ago or five minutes ago," he said. "That is why it is so often hard to do things we set out to do. When the time comes, we forget what it was we planned or some other desire turns out to be stronger."

Old versus new habits

The key to a successful New Year's resolution may also lie in establishing new goals, rather than breaking bad habits. A 2020 study, published in the journal PLoS One, found that 55% of participants considered themselves successful in sustaining their New Year's resolutions from the previous year. However, participants with approach-oriented goals (doing something new) were significantly more successful than avoidance-oriented goals (stopping doing something), with a 58.9% versus 47.1% success rate. This indicates that those who take on new challenges are more likely to succeed than those who try to remove something from their lives. 

This didn't mean that participants who set avoidance-goals such as stopping smoking or losing weight were unsuccessful, rather the likelihood of participants succeeding with their resolutions was higher when the goal was framed in an approach-oriented way.

Cyber Monday running leggings deals. This image shows a woman wearing leggings running on an outdoor path.

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The 'intention-behavior' gap

Susan Michie, a professor of health psychology and director of the Centre for Behaviour Change at UCL, told Live Science that another  psychological phenomenon can impact how people respond to their New Year's resolutions.

"[It's] what psychologists refer to as the ‘intention-behavior gap,’" she said. "Although someone may feel highly motivated to change, feeling is not enough to make things happen; they also need to have the skills to manage their behaviour and the opportunity to make it happen."

Professor Susan Michie
Susan Michie

Susan Michie is a professor of health psychology and the director of the Centre for Behaviour Change at University College London, England. Her research focuses on behavior change in relation to health and the environment.

A 2016 review, published in the journal Health Psychology, looked into the impact of changing attitudes, norms and self-efficacy (a belief in one's abilities to execute a behavior) on health-related behaviors such as exercise and dieting. The researchers found that inducing changes in the participants' attitudes, norms and self-efficacy, led to medium-size changes in behavior, in areas such as diet, condom use and stopping smoking. However, because studies were “different from one another in ways too complex to capture by a few simple study characteristics'', effect sizes were interpreted using scientific guidelines. 

"The secret to controlling our behavior is to plan ahead to make sure that when it comes to doing things we set out to do — or not do things we want to avoid doing — our desire to follow the plan is stronger than anything else," West said. "New Year's resolutions are a way of trying to achieve this. We make a big deal of the plan — to stop smoking, follow a healthy diet or go to the gym — and perhaps we tell people about it and get some kind of support. This way, if we are successful, the desire to stick to the plan is greater than the desire not to."

Readiness to change

woman writing down her goals in a journal

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A 2021 study into alcohol abuse, published in the Journal of Psychiatric and Mental Health Nursing, found that a willingness to change is an important factor in successfully making change. The same theory can be applied to a New Year's resolution: For the change to be successful, the person needs to be ready to commit.

Group motivation

A 2011 review in the journal Social and Personality Psychology Compass found that a group dynamic can help keep people motivated for a task. People, including those less skilled in the task they had been assigned to, were more motivated and successful as part of a group than they were individually, the study found. 

Healthy habits

woman cooking salmon in a frying pan with courgettes and asparagus

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Research published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology in 2013 indicates that habits can help people adhere to their goals even when their personal motivation or willpower is low. The human brain relies more heavily on habit-creating mechanisms than personal goals or desires when motivation levels are low, the study found. So creating a habit and via task repetition could be a useful way to work around a lack of motivation.  

Making a resolution

Having a specific goal in mind and a plan for how to achieve it may increase the likelihood of success. A 2002 study published in the Journal of Clinical Psychology found that those who made a New Year's resolution were 44% more likely to succeed in that goal after six months than those who did not make a resolution but were interested in changing a problem later. 

Lou Mudge
Health Writer

Lou Mudge is a health writer based in Bath, United Kingdom for Future PLC. She holds an undergraduate degree in creative writing from Bath Spa University, and her work has appeared in Live Science, Tom's Guide, Fit & Well, Coach, T3, and Tech Radar, among others. She regularly writes about health and fitness-related topics such as air quality, gut health, diet and nutrition and the impacts these things have on our lives. 

She has worked for the University of Bath on a chemistry research project and produced a short book in collaboration with the department of education at Bath Spa University.