How to Make New Year's Resolutions Stick

The neuroscience of change, fear and envisioning the future

Why do New Year’s resolutions nearly always fail? And what can we do to make them stick, and form new habits?

A lack of information, or data, is not the reason fail to keep New Year’s resolutions.We know salad is healthier than fries. We know where the gym is (and maybe we bought the membership). It’s emotional. It’s about the root motivation. And the problem with most New Year’s Resolutions is that they get the emotional motivation wrong because they are driven by fear and failure.

by Joshua Freedman


The Death Spiral of Fear and Failure

Most New Year’s Resolutions are grounded in fear and failure, and there are 3 main problems: 

  1. They’re about what’s wrong with us
  2. They’re absolute, and…
  3. We set impossibly high bars.

The key to New Year’s Resolutions is to get the emotions right so you can sustain motivation – because emotions are drivers.

“I am finally going to get in shape.” “This is the year I’ll write a book,” “I’m going to call my mom every single week.” Full of aspiration and the wonder of the turning of another year, we jump in: This year will be different.

Then, life happens, and we slip. And we confirm our worst fears: “I knew it. I’m just never going to _____.” Faced with the absolutism of our “resolutions,” we’re in a dichotomy of continual success or instant failure. It’s the sudden-death-playoff round, every day. So our stress rises. Our adrenal systems kick in. We become more fearful. 

Feelings that arise from our focus on problems, such as fear, anger, jealousy and shame, are, indeed, powerful motivators. They are connected to survival, and trigger our brain & body to focus on the problem. They motivate us to protect and survive the short-term threat.

This is useful if your goal is to build a wall around your heart. To step back from compassion into self-protection. To narrow your vision toward survival. It’s why so many politicians love to stir up these feelings: They make us, individually and collectively, weak and manipulable because they motivate us away from innovation, risk, and collaboration. Yet if we want to stretch our wings and grow individually and together… aren’t these the very resources we most need?

Then, when we experience failure, we intensify our sense of failure. “Not only am I overweight, I can’t even keep a simple New Year’s Resolution.” We increase our own misery, and the next year, pay for an even more expensive gym membership.

From Fear to Envisioning the Future: How to Make Resolutions Stick

Since resolutions based on self-shame and fear-of-not-being-good-enough put us into that trap of narrow vision, maybe we need the opposite. Instead of focusing on what’s wrong and inadequacy, what if we focus on what we most want in the world? What if we get out of the self-imposed isolation and step into the larger world that needs us?

Look around. Not at the headlines, but at real people. Not “somewhere out there,” but on the streets of your own. Listen to the song from Moana, and ask yourself: What’s calling you? Hey, it’s New Year’s, give yourself a moment to dream bigger. What if? What if the world needs you… what does it need you for? What if you could make one thing out there better… what would it be?

Now, dig into that vision. Draw a picture. Stay up all night writing like Jerry McGuire. Sing it from your rooftop. Have coffee with old friends and tell them the story. Make a metaphor. Go for a long walk on the beach and talk with your dog. There’s no secret recipe, no trick. Just a process of strengthening, clarifying: Feeling the vision growing. Keep asking yourself, Why? Why does this matter? What will it look like, feel like, sound like to make this difference?

This process is like winding the watch-spring of your future self. By making the vision clear enough to feel, you give it power. In this wonderful RadioLab show about change, neuroscientist David Eagleman talks about this process of making a deal with our future selves. Essentially, he says that emotions motivate our action, and if the emotions pushing us to option A are more powerful, we do that. But if we want to get to option B, we need to turn up the emotional energy — increase the “valence” of that vision.

3 Questions to Tap Into Sustainable Motivation

How can you be sure that your motivation is coming from a place of optimism and possibility, instead of fear and failure? The worksheet below, and this blog post, suggest 3 powerful questions you can ask yourself to get and stay motivated.


Get Your Free Poster

Explore three essential motivation questions & tips for coaching yourself

Practicing on Purpose: How to Step Forward

Then, instead of making a resolution like, “I’ll go do X things every day,” ask yourself open questions, such as:

  • What are the building blocks toward that vision, what are micro-steps along the way?
  • What are SOME of the steps I could take to make small improvements toward that vision?
  • What could I grow or strengthen in myself that would support me to support that vision?

Then consider the opportunities: When and where do I get chances to practice leaning in that direction?

Malcolm Gladwell famously wrote about the power of 10,000 hours of practice. Unfortunately, he misquoted the research, and there is no magic about the number of hours. But the KIND of practice matters greatly. It’s not about, “today I failed in my resolution,” it’s, “I have 2 minutes: How can I use this well Right Now?”

Vision Catalyzes Change: Our Vision of Practicing

What happens when the vision becomes real, when individually and together you can feel it pulling you? At Six Seconds, a few years ago we adopted a new vision: We are working toward a billion people practicing emotional intelligence by 2039. At the start, it evoked big questions, and in turn, these questions energized us to transform:

  • What is emotional intelligence, and how do you practice it?
  • Who are the people, and what do they need?
  • What kind of organization can support people in this kind of practice?

As so often happens, when we see differently, change unfolds. This vision has transformed our organization. Just for example: We closed all our for-profit offices worldwide and recommitted to building a global community. We restructured our roles and teams creating opportunities to engage, such as our volunteer Network Leaders and global free collaborations such as the UN Universal Children’s Day. We rebuilt our products to create streamlined EQ certification training. We refocused our own practice and learning. But none of these was “a resolution.” None was, “we’re doing something wrong, we have to fix ourselves.” They are all examples of practicing, energized by a vision that feels compelling.



Here are New Year’s Resolutions I wish for all of us:

Revel in Possibilities. What if we could all see the future a little more clearly each day?

Experiment. When you screw up, don’t beat yourself up, we’re all here practicing with you, we are a community of practitioners.

Treat Learning as a Journey. Hopefully we’ll all get many chances to try again, so each day, learn some more, practice more carefully, and keep growing.


Get Your Free Poster

Explore three essential motivation questions & tips for coaching yourself

What's new in emotional intelligence?

What’s Wrong with Self-Help?

What’s Wrong with Self-Help?

Self-help can be a force for good, but there are pitfalls. Here are 3 questions to ask yourself to get the most out of self-help.

Follow me

Pin It on Pinterest

Share This