Why new-year-resolutions fail but social commitments don’t?: A perspective for innovation leaders

posted by Ravi Arora July 13, 2015

The tradition of making a new-year-resolution is more than 3000 years old, during the time of Babylonians. It is estimated that 40% Americans make this every year.

How many people keep up their new year resolutions? The study estimates this to be around 10% overall but also states that 80% of the resolutions fail by February itself.  Former President of the US, Barack Obama, in an interview with Prince Harry on the BBC said, “I’m not sure I believe in New Year’s resolutions – typically people break them”.

Why do people fail and how can we increase our chances of keeping up our new year resolutions? Here is the summary of the work done by several psychologists.

  • Make resolutions that you are personally serious about: As per Professor Bargh, people should only resolve to try something new in the new year if it’s really important to them personally, and it’s something they’d want to change even when no one else is watching. If our resolution is something that we don’t really want to change, our conscious mind is very adept at coming up with convenient excuses and rationalizations. “Hey, I’ll start that new diet tomorrow.” And then that tomorrow never comes.
  • Make specific resolution: ‘I would exercise more’ or ‘I will be more disciplined’ are not good examples. Instead ‘I will exercise 30 minutes in the morning 5 days a week’ is a better example.
  • Focus on self control more than will power: Most new year resolutions aim to stop an unhealthy habit (weight loss, stop smoking/alcohol, reduce excessive shopping etc). To achieve this, the (conscious) will-power of the resolver should exceed the unconscious-impulse of going back to bad habit. Moreover, this will-power should win over the impulse for a long period of time till it becomes a habit. People who fail to keep their resolutions blame their own lack of willpower. In one study led by a Stanford University psychologist, scientists found that people performed better or worse depending on their belief in the durability of willpower. People have as much willpower as they think they have. Prof Bargh suggests that instead of working on increasing the will-power and sustaining if for a long time, we should work on reducing the impulse. He further suggests that embodied-cognition could be helpful in reducing the impulse. Self-control in removing cues to unwanted behaviors and prevent the temptation contributes in reducing the impulse.
  • Minimum curing time: Research suggests it can take as little as 18 days or as long as 254 days to pick up a new routine, depending on what one is trying to do. As per Bargh, professor at Yale university, one month is a good period to try and test a new resolution. If one doesn’t like the change, he or she can decide to forgo it in February, but only after a month of solid, uninterrupted effort. Another research carried out by university of Scranton, shows a steep drop off in how long new-year-resolutions stick around – seventy seven percent of the resolvers studied made it only through a full week.
  • Bragging about failures is more enjoyable: Another reason why New year’s resolutions often fail, Bargh says, is that people enjoy sharing their failures with others. The community of people who fail to keep up their resolution is much larger than those who fulfill. “Bragging” is also about how one just couldn’t resist the temptation and broke the resolution.
  • Use cues  to trigger action and control impulse: When you set weight loss goals, you don’t really know how your body is going to react. People should use implementation cues to trigger action and remove the external cues that trigger unconscious impulse as much as they can.

Now let us shift our focus to the commitments we make to attend a social event that is scheduled a few months later and think about the difference they have with commitments we make in the new year. I will share a few differences out of several that could be possible.

  1. The new-year resolution is usually made by a person for something that he or she wants to do for himself or herself. On the other hand, the promise to attend an event is for the sake/benefit of the other person. They are also always very specific (Why, where, when).
  2. The new-year resolution is usually not shared with others. Some of us share it in our community only as part of the fun – just before or after the new year. On the other hand, the host of social event expects not only an assurance of attendance but also the actual presence on the day of event.
  3. Most often, new year resolutions are difficult to keep. On the other hand, social events are delightful.
  4. Failing to keep the new-year resolution is common. On the other hand, people feel and express apologies for failing to make it to the social event. There is a social pressure to attend these events.
  5. The rate of failure in attending social events is very less – could be just 10% as against 90% for new year resolutions.

Let me extend this discussion to include achievement of ‘annual performance goal’ and ‘innovations’. What are the similarities/differences?

Social event (commitment) New Year


Annual performance (contract) Innovation


Very specific events and commitment to participate is shared with the host Resolutions are less specific and are shared only voluntarily… mostly for fun Mostly specific contracts, which are shared with stakeholders The intents are neither specific nor explicitly shared (exception: New product)
Easy to accomplish Very difficult to accomplish because it needs will-power Attainable with some difficulties Very risky and difficult to accomplish
Failure is not considered well & if the failure is not justifiable, it is socially unaccepted. Failure is the norm. People do not want to fail because of associated adverse financial impact. Innovation intents are not known or remembered but in cases where they are known, failures are not acceptable

All my future posts are targeted towards making ‘Innovate intents’ as successful as social events. How do we do this? Is there something we can adopt from Death will and promissory notes?

I invite your views, comments and observations for all the posts!

Some links that you could refer: