The Top Seven Myths About New Year’s Resolutions

‘Tis the season for making resolutions—and if you’re like millions of Americans, you’ve got your list of things you’d like to change about yourself. Every year, millions of folks talk about New Year’s Resolutions . . . and fail to change much of anything about themselves.

Why? Here’s a dose of Resolutions Reality to start you off right in 2016.

Myth #1: You know what you want to change.

Reality: We’re better at naming desired feelings than we are at pinpointing the actions we need to take to get there.

You think you will be happier when you lose 10 pounds. Why? Is it to fit into your old clothes from when you were younger? To make yourself more attractive to your spouse? Research finds that setting a goal without understanding the purpose—the why behind the goal—makes us less likely to accomplish the goal, and likely to feel dissatisfied even if we hit our target.

Asking how you want to feel is a better starting place: Perhaps you’d like to feel more confident. Will losing 10 pounds actually help you achieve that? If not, what other action could you take to increase the odds that you would feel confident? In addition, asking yourself why you want to feel more confident, and what success would look like—how does the more confident you act?—increases the odds that you are committing to the right resolutions to achieve the desired outcome.

Bottom Line: Start with what you want to feel more of and less of in your life, and then set goals that help you accomplish those feelings. This exercise can help.

Myth #2: Big goals are better than little ones.

Reality: The small-steps approach to change is a better bet for long-term success.

We’re optimistic folks. We can do anything, right? Probably not—and certainly not all at once. Setting large goals, like putting $50,000 into savings, is so daunting that it seems impossible. And goals that seem impossible are a lot easier to push off until “later.”

Setting up an automatic deduction of $50 per week from your checking account into savings—and then setting up quarterly reminders to move the money into an investment account will help you accomplish your goal in a more manageable way.

And celebrate the small victories along the way. Research shows that this boosts self-efficacy. In my house, we call these “incremental victories.” We don’t wait until we’ve completed a long to-do list to be happy, but rather we try to cheer for each small step along the way. Did you submit a draft of something? Great. Did you organize one drawer? Wonderful.

Bottom line: We are more likely to achieve goals that are broken into small, specific steps—and if you can make it “automatic,” all the better.

Myth #3: It can’t be that hard to just change one small thing, right?

Reality: Yes, actually, it is.

Behavior change requires continuous effort until it becomes an automatic part of our routine. And adding something to your routine means subtracting something else, a fact few of us acknowledge when we pen our lofty resolutions.

“Just” resolving to go to the gym three mornings a week means getting up and doing something different when you’d prefer to sleep in, watch TV, or do other work. It also means that you’re doing several hours less of something else each week.

But if you can keep up the routine for at least three months, the new habits begin to become your new normal. After a while, it becomes an automatic behavior. And automatic behaviors require less willpower because they are just something you do. (Think about the effort it takes to brush your teeth in the morning.)

Bottom line: Adding something to your routine requires subtracting something else. The goal is to stick with it long enough to automate the behavior—and create a new normal.

Myth #4: By the force of sheer willpower, you can revolutionize your entire life, starting January 1.

Reality: Exerting self-control takes energy—and you don’t have the willpower to improve everything all at once.

In one experiment hungry undergraduates were brought into a room that smelled of freshly baked chocolate chip cookies. Some of the students were invited to eat the cookies, while others were offered only radishes. The unlucky ones that were in the “radish condition” struggled to resist the cookies, but everyone followed the rules.

Then the real experiment began: All the students were given unsolvable geometry puzzles. Turns out that the students who had been allowed to eat the cookies persisted in trying to solve the puzzles for more than twice as long as those who had been in the “radish condition.”

Why? Exerting the willpower to resist the treats took energy. The hungry students who had resisted the cookies used up their self-control—and had very little left for the geometry puzzle.

Bottom line: If you are going to ask yourself to exert willpower to stick to one behavior change, that’s probably enough until the new behavior becomes a part of your daily routine. Need help? Try this exercise.

Myth #5: You don’t have to write your New Year’s Resolutions down. Just thinking about them counts.

Reality: If you’re serious about change, write it down.

List your goals, and be specific. What do you want to accomplish, and by what date? What are the steps that you’re going to take to achieve these goals? Which resolution is the most important? As you’re making the list, add a few resolutions that you know you can easily accomplish, so you’ll feel like you’re making progress immediately. By writing things down, being specific and setting up a plan to accomplish the goals, you take a wishy-washy dream and turn it into a step-by-step plan.

Bottom line: Write down one or two specific, measurable commitments to change that are in keeping with your larger purpose and values. Bonus points if you post these publicly where people can hold you accountable.

Myth #6: I can change on my own.

Reality: Going public with your commitments to change makes you more likely to succeed. Because we hate being embarrassed.

Research shows that couples that go on a diet together are more likely to lose weight and keep it off. Find an exercise partner or an accountability partner for any goal.

Bottom Line: Don’t go it alone—go public with your commitments.

Myth #7: You can’t buy happiness.

Reality: You can—if you know how to spend your money.

This year, focus on buying experiences (vacations, exercise classes) not things—you’ll build memories that will boost your wellbeing. Spend money on services to make your life easier—and use that extra time to do something meaningful with others. Paying for the all-expenses paid vacation in advance will increase the happiness you derive from the event at the time because you’ll have had the fun of anticipating it—and you’ll be tricked into thinking those margaritas by the pool are “free.” These tips, and more, are explained in a fun research-based book, Happy Money: The Science of Smarter Spending, which I assign in my classes each year.

Bottom line: Consuming happiness is possible with some tweaks to your daily spending routine.

Energized to make your resolutions a reality this year? Fill in the blanks below, go forth and be awesome. Happy 2016!


I want to feel __________________ so I am going to resolve to __________________________.


I will take this one small step by the end of the day on January 1. ________________.


I will subtract _________________________ from my current routine to make time for my resolution.


Talk to me next year about changing  ____________________ and  _______________________ because I know I can’t do everything at once.


I have written my resolution down in the following place ______________________________ and shared it with the following person ________________________________.


And to boost my wellbeing and make me a bit happier along the way, I will spend my money on _____________________.