Why we suck at fulfilling our New Year’s Resolutions (and how to improve our chances of succeeding)

by | Dec 14, 2020 | Blog and Features | 0 comments

With everything that has happened to us this 2020, the new year is just around the corner. And as we all look forward to better days with the coming year, it’s no surprise that new year resolutions loom large in conversations.

But, do new year resolutions actually work?

Okay, let’s pause for a moment and think of how many new year’s resolutions you’ve made in the past. Now, think of how many new year’s resolutions you’ve successfully fulfilled.

Get what I mean?

While the start of the year is perceived as a good time to start something new, timing a behavioral change during the new year is not a guarantee of better success.

Let’s look at some local data: a survey by the Social Weather Stations (SWS) in late 2019, only 1 in 10 of the surveyed respondents said that all or most of their 2019 resolutions have been or will be fulfilled. For context, a similar survey in late 2017 by SWS  shows that close to 2 out of 10 respondents say at least most of their resolutions have been, or will be, fulfilled. Makes you wonder what the result would be if the same question will once again be asked this year.

So, that begs the question: why? Why do we often fail in fulfilling our new year’s resolutions? Perhaps we didn’t consider lies ahead in the behavioral change journey.


Understanding the intention-action gap

It’s safe to assume that our resolutions are for our personal improvement and motivated by good intentions. However, wanting to do something does not automatically lead us to do it, regardless of how much good it will do to us. In other words, there will always be a space between our intention and our desired action that needs to be bridged.

‘Why is there a gap?’, one may ask. When we plan and set our resolutions, chances are it’s our rational side dominating the thought process at that moment. Our rational side is assumed to look after our best interests on a personal level. However, there’s also another side to our thinking – our irrational side. It’s the side that’s faster to react, guided by mental shortcuts, but also lacking in deliberate thinking, and very impulsive. Not to mention that the context or the environment we are in also affects our decisions.

To cite an example: managing your sleep schedule. Most, if not all of us struggle with getting to sleep on time and waking up early during the lockdown. As such, rational thinking would lead you to make it a resolution to have better sleeping habits. However, as you go about your day, your rational thought looks at how to get a regular sleep schedule as it competes with the other ‘easier’ alternatives, such as bingeing your favorite TV show, slouching for hours while playing video games that are more appealing to your ‘irrational’ thinking. Also, our “irrational” side tends to be more at the helm of our thought process most of the time.

Hence, the intention-action gap.


How to improve your chances of fulfilling your ‘resolutions’

Now, don’t fret. Understanding the how’s of our behavior provides us with some ideas on how to succeed with our desired behavioral changes.

On a personal level, there are a number of tried and tested interventions that we can make use of. To keep being faithful to your resolution(s), let’s consider the framework developed by the Behavioural Insights Team (BIT), the OG in Applied Behavioral Economics: the EAST Framework.

The EAST Framework is an abbreviation of the principles that influence behavior change:

  • Make it Easy – making sure that your desired behavior is doable and the tasks involved will not be too effortful for you to warrant avoiding to do it. An example of this would be inserting short stretching and exercising routines during breaks.
  • Make it Attractive – making sure that your action is appealing. One way to make it attractive is to give yourself a reward for completing a goal.
  • Make it Social – making sure that your desire to change behavior is known to your social environment. For example, making a public commitment to meet an exercise target.
  • Make it Timely – making sure that your proposed intervention is rightly timed. Setting up alarm prompts on your mobile phone on specified times of the day reminding you to exercise is one way of making timely interventions.

Above: The Behavioral Insights Team’s (BIT) EAST Framework

Using the EAST Framework as a guide will lead you to a number of potential interventions that you can apply to yourself throughout your behavioral change journey. The benefit of the framework is that you can practically apply it to other behavioral change endeavors that you’re looking into, beyond New Year resolutions. What needs to be pointed out is that failing to keep good on your well-intended resolutions in the past might just be due to a wrong approach. Make sure that your desired behavior will not take too much effort or will not lead to a sudden change in your routine. Ease it through your system gradually but continuously and you’ll find your resolution fulfilled before you know it.

Now, as we finally put 2020 to a close, what resolution do you have in mind for 2021? After reading this, do you feel more confident about achieving your goal? Let us hear your thoughts below.

Miko Nacino

Miko Nacino

Miko founded the Behavioral Insights Network – PH to gather individuals and groups interested in learning and collaborating in behavioral science applications in the Philippine setting.

As a public policy and communications practitioner, he is interested in improving policy outcomes through behaviorally-insighted interventions.