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Your New Year’s Resolutions… How to fail at them well.

New Year, New You!

A fresh start!

Turning over a new leaf!

Along with the clichés, January can bring hope, optimism and the prospect of change.

Yet by February most resolutions have been shelved (along with those novelty Christmas gifts) and written off as a fail. Or have they?

Research shows that we actually need to fail to succeed and that our greatest learning can come through our mistakes. For example, smokers on average ‘fail’ 3-7 times before quitting for good (Prochaska & DiClemente, 1983). So come February our average resolution-maker is simply in the natural process of change…

Habits are stubborn and hard to change and setting a resolution is not an instant guarantee for success. The process can be especially challenging if your resolution is ‘important’ but not enjoyable: you are less likely to succeed over the longer term if your resolutions are only based on importance and cannot be made rewarding or enjoyable in some way (Woolley & Fishback, 2017).

Let’s take as an example the most common New Year’s resolutions- those that are lifestyle related such as healthier eating and exercise. Here are some tips for how to set your goals and how to fail well:

  • Frame your goals in positive terms- what you will do rather than what you won’t, e.g. ‘I will go for a brisk walk at least twice a week’ rather than ‘I will stop smoking’. Use the ‘dead man test’: If a dead person can do it better than you, you are setting yourself up to lose (since a dead person cannot ever smoke).

  • Focus on specific and measurable steps that are part of your longer-term aims. If you are too fixated on the outcome (e.g. a certain weight or clothes size), you may become disheartened and distracted away from the steps needed to get there (e.g. swapping a calorific food for a healthier alternative).

  • Give yourself credit for your efforts over your results: if you made it to the gym on a day when you really didn’t feel up to it, this scores you extra points- more points than you may have ‘lost’ if you didn’t complete that final set of exercises…

  • On days you don’t do as much or as well as you had hoped, put it all in context. Reflect: What triggered this lapse? What have you learnt? Reframe these ‘failures’ as temporary lapses and ask yourself ‘what do I need to get back on track?’ Maybe you were over-ambitious in your original goal-setting; making such a realisation is better than forcing unrealistic resolutions that are set to flop if not adjusted. Then you can make a realistic action plan.

Lastly, if your best intentions are derailed repeatedly it may be time to reflect on your chosen resolutions. What led you to choose them? How important are they? Is now the time to make the change; have you the time, resources, inclination?

And remember: every change comes with its downside. Sometimes we ‘fail’ because we don’t really want to change.


Prochaska, J.O. & DiClemente, C. C. (1983) Stages and process of self-change of smoking: toward an integrative model of change. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, 51, 390–395.

Woolley, K. & Fishback, A. (2017) Immediate rewards predict adherence to long-term goals. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 43(2), 151-162.

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