Why New Year’s Resolutions Don’t Work: And How to Change It

Stan Goldberg, PhD

I look at my aging body and resolve to get in shape, lose weight, eat better, listen without judging, and practice my flute more often. They are the same resolutions I made last year, the year before, and ….you get the idea. I’m aware and committed enough to understand I don’t have time to make many more of these resolutions, since my body is increasingly looking like an abandoned vintage car.

The solution to successful change is uncomplicated and usually ignored. There are three keys that transform the grueling process of change (often unsuccessful and temporary) into something as pleasant as a walk through a forest and as lasting as concrete.

—Understanding the role of personal history

—Willingness to modify  goals

—Applying at least one proven principle of change

These three gems apply if you are trying to change your behaviors or the behaviors of other people. It can be a child, someone you’re a caregiver for, a loving but obstinate partner, an insufferable boss, your beloved dog, or a recalcitrant employee.

Personal History

Into our present actions we bring a history of what we have experienced, have been gloriously successful at, orcowboying up miserably failed at doing. If I’ve never practiced playing my flute for thirty minutes a day, why should I think I can practice it consistently in 2013 for two hours every day? Great expectations are best left for titles of classic novels. It does little other than to set us up for failure.

There is the vegan saying, “you are what you eat.” Possibly a little too radical for me since I do eat things I’d be embarrassed to make public. But it does apply to what we experienced. We are our history.

I keep hearing diet pundits, exercise gurus, and personal change “experts” talk about change as if what you do today, is not related to what you did yesterday, last week, or last year. Start anew! Become the person you always wanted to be! Do a complete make-over by sending me $39.95 for a program that will reinvent you! Ah, if life could be only that simple.http://www.dreamstime.com/-image27918057

Maybe these maxims for change work with six-year-olds whose past weighty decisions are ones such as whether to have strawberry or vanilla ice cream, and who suffer the trauma of selecting the wrong flavor. But for the rest of us, and especially for us “older” folks, we bring into the new year experiences and decisions that are a bit more substantive. We may not be what we eat (God forbid!), but we are what we’ve done.

Modify Goals

That doesn’t mean change is stymied by our past. Rather, we should view our past as if it is a wise old grandmother. Just listening to what she went through tells us what to be wary of and what to embrace.And that knowledge can take the form of goal selection. If I failed meeting my musical practice expectations for the last five years, why should I think I’ll magically succeed in 2013 because I’m more resolved to do it?

Does that mean we shouldn’t make new year’s resolutions? Absolutely not! But I’m suggesting that you choose a reasonable goal if for no other reason than to succeed rather than fail. Don’t plan on loosing 20 pounds in 2013 (30 pounds for me), think in terms of 5 pounds. It’s reasonable and you’re more likely to succeed. And nothing stimulates new successes more than old successes. Conversely, the same is true with failures.

As we age or develop chronic illnesses, we often look at what we were able to do five, ten, or fifteen years ago, and http://www.dreamstime.com/-image18797423assume we can still do the same things today. Fifteen years ago, I could still play four-wall handball with guys half my age. As I got older and still played against them, my love of the game diminished. The game didn’t change, my body did. I was able to rekindle the love by playing people around my age rather than younger players. I adjusted my goals to changes in my ability.

Principles of Change

In my thirty years of counseling, I’ve rarely found that failures in change occurred from a lack of motivation. Rather, it has more to do with not knowing the research-proven principles that govern change in everything from diet to personal relationships. We all know what we want to change, but may not know how to do it.


Have a happy and changeable New Year.

Preventing Senior Moments, by Stan Goldberg

Offers practical and achievable prevention strategies for senior moments.


  1. Pat

    Please hand deliver the pamphlet some Saturday soon :-).

    Great article, BTW.

    P.S. Add ‘Submit Comment’ after ‘Captcha’.

  2. Jane Price Lieberman

    Stan.. You might want to check your “captcha’ mechanism. I kept getting an error message and i know… for sure… the input was correct. Worrying about a family history of CVA is enough. Failing to add 4 + 1 right now would institutionalize me. I have twitter for that:) j

    • Stan Goldberg

      Thanks Jane for the feedback on Captcha. I just tweeked the settings. Hope if works.


  3. Jane Price Lieberman

    Loved this story! You must know my husband. He was at the lot doing much the same thing. Then he met me and figured he’d trade up altogether. Now we could both use a little overhaul:)

    Wishing you the same for the New Year. Be well.


  4. Jane Price Lieberman

    Stan… you are not an old car. You’re a classic:)

    You are so in synch with reality that it makes everyone want to go there! One thing I know is on my personal list of things to I must do in 2013 is make sure I don’t miss reading any of your brilliant and thoughtful posts. They get better wi/age… just like you. ~ jane

    • Stan Goldberg

      Thanks for your kind words Jane. When I was in college I would take an old car when it was barely running and go to a used car lot. Since I lived in Pennsylvania I had to have a car that met inspection standards. I’d ask the salesperson what he had on the lot that I could trade in my car for, plus $50 that would pass inspection. For four years, I had a new car every six months for $50 a pop.

      If we only do the same thing with our bodies! Have a meaningful and healthy New Year.

      Take Care,


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