The Psychology Of Quitting: Why Your New Year's Resolutions Always Fail

by John Haltiwanger

There's something inexplicably magical about the new year. It's a chance to start anew, to fix your life and to move beyond the transgressions of the past 12 months.

This is precisely why people around the world come together to celebrate this annual acknowledgement of time moving forward.

It's a reminder that our time on earth is finite, and that every moment is a gift not to be wasted.

In the words of Ralph Waldo Emerson:

Tomorrow is a new day. You shall begin it well and serenely and with too high a spirit to be cumbered with your old nonsense. This day ... is too dear with its hopes and invitations to waste a moment on the rotten yesterdays.

These are the very same sentiments that drive us to set new goals, or resolutions, with each passing year. Time and time again, however, we fail to live up to them.

New year, new me... Good one.

Around 40 percent of Americans make New Year's resolutions. Chances are you've written down a number of goals for the year, and perhaps you feel like you're already on your way to accomplishing them.

You're going to exercise more, eat right, drink less, quit cigarettes, read more, spend less money and generally just be a better you.

Good for you! It's great that you want to improve your life.

Statistically speaking, however, you're destined to fail at accomplishing any of these goals. But don't worry, you're not alone. According to research from the University of Scranton, only around 8 percent of people achieve their New Year's resolutions.

If you take a look at your own life, it's probably safe to say that you've fallen into this category at some point.

We all do it. We promise ourselves that we are going to run at least three times a week in the new year. For the first week or two, we actually live up to this. But then reality hits and we start making excuses. Life gets in the way.

It's too cold outside, or you didn't get enough sleep. By February, you're back to your old habits, which primarily include binge-watching Netflix and devouring pizza.

Yet, it's not just reality that gets in the way. There are actually a number of psychological explanations as to why most of us give up on our New Year's resolutions.

We can't change our behavior without changing our thinking.

Motivation is all mental. When it comes to exercise, for example, your body might not always agree with what's happening. You just have to tell it to shut up and that you know better.

The concept of akrasia is quite relevant in this regard. Akrasia is the paradox of wanting to do something beneficial, but failing to do it. We fail because the benefits are delayed and we're impatient.

You want to exercise, but the results aren't immediate, so you tell yourself you'll start later. Akrasia is why we procrastinate, and it's directly tied to why we need to change the way we think.

As author Ray B. Williams highlights for Psychology Today:

Making resolutions work involves changing behaviors—and in order to change a behavior, you have to change your thinking (or "rewire" your brain). Brain scientists... have discovered, through the use of MRIs, that habitual behavior is created by thinking patterns that create neural pathways and memories, which become the default basis for your behavior when you're faced with a choice or decision.

In other words, if you want adopt a successful exercise routine, you have to change the way you think about it. Don't see it as a chore, look at it as a privilege. See it as something that benefits your overall mental and physical health. It's your body and only you have control over it. This is a freedom we often take for granted.

The same is true for anything else. Positive reinforcement is crucial when it comes to changing behavior.

Correspondingly, research from Ohio University has showed that just thinking about working out can make you stronger.

"Mind over matter" is truer than we might believe.

We're setting unrealistic goals.

There's nothing wrong with setting big goals, but it's also important to be realistic about how to accomplish them. When we set unrealistic goals and expectations, it's a recipe for failure. Not to mention, it makes you less likely to achieve your goals in the long run.

The way we perceive the world is a product of our experiences. If we consistently fail to accomplish a certain goal, then we begin to believe that it's impossible to achieve and give up on it. This illusion is a product of setting unrealistic goals. Accordingly, we have to recognize that it will take small steps in order to accomplish big things.

Thus, the key to accomplishing goals is to focus on the tasks instead of the outcome.

If you want to run a marathon, you don't begin training by running 26.2 miles. You start small and work your way up.

If you want something, you have to be willing to work for it. There's no shortcut to success, it requires patience and persistence. Change doesn't happen overnight, and it probably won't even happen within a year.

True change requires lifelong commitment. New Year's resolutions set a time limit on our goals, which is inherently constricting.

If you don't reach your goals by the end of the year, keep going. Time is merely a reminder of our mortality, we can't allow it to dictate our entire lives. We created the calendar for purposes of orientation, that doesn't mean it has to map out our existence.

We don't recognize the value of failure.

We also need to recognize the value of failure. It's extremely easy to get discouraged in life, this is particularly true when pursuing a big goal. Yet, you can't rush a good thing.

The path to success is full of obstacles. We will undoubtedly stumble as we pursue our goals. In the process, we learn how to confront future challenges.

Simply put, failure is necessary for growth and learning.

The most enlightened and accomplished people in the world understand that a great defeat is just as valuable, if not more so, than the sweetest victory. Without perspective, we understand nothing.

As 2015 continues to move forward, remember that every year is full of ups and downs, triumphs and defeats, success and hardship.

Life is dynamic and random, sometimes we realize that the greatest success is found in going with the flow.

Citations: Its Normal To Be Terrible At Keeping New Years Resolutions (Huffington Post), Holiday Spending Status Quo Weight Loss Top Resolution for 2015 (Marist Poll), The science of actually keeping your New Years resolutions (Vox), New Years Resolution Statistics (University of Scranton Journal of Clinical Psychology), 15 Inspiring Literary Quotes That Will Start Your New Year Off Right (Huffington Post), Youll definitely break your New Years resolutions but it doesnt matter (Quartz ), Why We Dont Always Do What We Want (Cafe), Why We Dont Keep Our New Years Resolutions (Psychology Today), Consider Not Setting Goals in 2013 (Harvard Business Review)