Why do you keep breaking your New Year resolutions? Expert advice on actually achieving those goals

It’s only been a week since you said good-bye to 2022 and by now, you would already have pushed the proverbial restart button. Whether it’s to lose a few kilogrammes, finally figure out cryptocurrency, or put that Singapore Zoo family pass to good use, you’re going to stay on track this time.

But how many of us actually stick to these New Year resolutions when, by February, we’d already abandoned our gym-going routine or reverted to bingeing on K-drama instead of getting enough sleep?

What is it about the calendar change that compels some of us to declare to all and sundry on social media (or maybe just to yourself) that we will do better during the next annual cycle?

Or if you no longer subscribe to the New Year reboot phenomenon – and are wondering why so many people are still riding the New Year, New You train – here’s news for you: Humans are hardwired to the concept of starting anew.

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In fact, New Year resolutions go way back. The first people that were said to do so were the Babylonians some 4,000 years ago, according to History. The difference was, they didn’t make them in January but in mid-March when crops were planted.

And instead of resolving to cut down on bubble tea and give up smoking, Babylonians made promises to their gods to pay their debts and return borrowed objects. If they made good on their promises, the gods would grant them favours, such as a bountiful harvest for the year – or a big, fat bonus in today’s context.

As for us, these resolutions are “an opportunity to forgive the errors or failures made in the passing year and to start afresh”, said Annabelle Chow, a clinical psychologist with Annabelle Psychology.

Making resolutions is like closure for the 2022 chapter of your life, she said. Moreover, doing so increases your sense of self-efficacy, which is “the belief that one has a sense of control over one’s life through action”. “This often manifests in needing to make resolutions for the new year and to resolve to achieve them.”

Starting afresh also helps to “focus our energies on people or activities that help to make our daily lives meaningful”, said Cecilia Chu, a specialist in clinical psychology with Raffles Counselling Centre.

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Nearly 60 per cent of us do keep our New Year resolutions, said Singapore Counselling Centre’s chief wellbeing officer John Lim, citing a Great Eastern survey in 2013 on 800 people from Singapore and Malaysia. Not bad at all.

But what about the rest of us? Why do we fall off the wagon? “Many times, people find themselves making New Year resolutions because of social pressure,” said Lim. “However, because they are not ready to be self-disciplined and the goals do not stem from self-resolve, people often find themselves losing steam quickly.”

Past abandoned goals might have also fed your self doubt, while not having a timeline or having goals that are too ambitious are other hurdles, he said.

Chow agreed that taking on a too-grand picture of our resolutions and forgetting about the multiple steps that need to be performed over time to get there could be your downfall. “We rely on the hopes and promises of a new year to push us to accomplish our goals. When the New Year buzz wears off, it becomes hard to remain motivated.”

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She added: “For example, wanting to get fit would require good nutrition and regular exercise that must be scheduled with consistency. Suddenly, what started out as a simple goal might look more accurately like a big change in lifestyle”.

Chow continued: “If we focus only on specific outcomes, it can be challenging to persevere in our efforts, especially if the results are not immediate. Achieving goals takes thought and time. Without factoring in the process and time needed, we can become discouraged and relent before attaining the goal”.


Chu recommended asking yourself these questions: What are the key areas of your life that you want to improve? Why are those areas important to you?

“The latter can help you shed light on your morals and values as well as core needs or desires”, she said. It helps to keep those questions in mind and use them to “pick ourselves up when we get derailed”. Take your desire to travel more in 2023, for instance, said Chu. Ask yourself:

  • What does travelling do for me? Does it make me happier, or give me something to look forward to when work gets tough? 
  • Why do I want to spend time and money on travelling when I could use those resources for other aspects of my life such as work, family or self?
  • Considering my commitments and obligations for 2023, when can I travel and where can I go that fits into everything else in my life?
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Said Lim: “The important thing about any kind of goal setting is making your goals specific and bite-sized”. For example, if you want to travel more, an effective goal would look something like this: “Make tangible plans for at least one trip to a country outside of Southeast Asia, and two trips within Southeast Asia by Feb 20”.

A timeline is important to help you stay committed to your goals, said Lim, as does “listing out what exactly this goal entails”.

To help you along for 2023, here are some guidelines to suit the resolutions that you may have made for the new year:

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Rome was not built in a day – and neither is attaining a healthier, trimmer you. First, consult a knowledgeable person or resource on the steps involved so that you know what you’re in for.

“Take small, easy steps towards your goal, even if the steps do not appear to give you an immediate tangible benefit,” said Chow. “For example, if you want to lose weight, plan to visit the gym twice a week for an hour each time, even if you do not feel productive after each session.” 

To motivate you to work out, listen to your favourite podcast or watch K-drama while on the treadmill, suggested Lim.

Chow added: “Wear your exercise clothes and shoes, and show up. Enter the gym, do an easy set of exercise, and leave. Repeat this regularly until each repetition becomes easier to perform”.

The key is to set aside fixed “anchor” times in your weekly schedule for showing up at the gym, she said. “Building small actions into a habit is probably the most important first step you can take.” 

After that, you will find yourself regularly going to the gym and the motivation to continue onto more challenging exercises needed to achieve your goal, she said.

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Like the goal to lose weight and get fit, it is about repeating something often enough (from the right expert or source of information, of course), it becomes a habit or second nature to you. The same goes for acquiring a new skill.

There are two ways of assessing our progress: Measurable and non-measurable, said Chow. Oftentimes, we focus on the former, “such as receiving a certificate for completing a course or effectively kicking a habit”.

“But what are the non-measurable aspects that we should also consider? Intangible goals include improving confidence and gaining friendship, leadership and contentment, which are helpful in improving our quality of life,” said Chow.

If you need a tangible reward to keep you going, said Lim, you could allow yourself your favourite snack during the time you’re practising your musical instrument or doing an activity in your French textbook.

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Identify the components of your life that you want to incorporate into your balance, advised Chow.

“Start small. For example, if you want to take time out to enjoy a quiet coffee break once a week, block that duration as an ‘anchor’ and work other obligations or activities around it,” she said.

“Once you have worked that into your schedule and sustained it over a period of time, add other activities.”

Lim has this action plan for you: Ensure that you set good boundaries for work by being firm to your coworkers or boss when they ask you to work overtime.

Also, set aside 20 minutes every night before bed to go through one mindfulness activity.

(Photo: iStock/Dzmitry Dzemidovich)

It helps to “focus on the actions you are going to take rather than the actions you are going to avoid”, said Chow. “Ultimately, you are trying to create new habits that will allow you to reach your goals.”

So, instead of trying to avoid the social situations that induce you to smoke, for example, plan for a new action instead, she said.

“This way, you can develop a new set of helpful behaviours” such as performing 10 pushups whenever you feel the urge to smoke.

If you’re still lost, try Lim’s action plan to help you kick the habit. For example, actively cut down the number of cigarettes you smoke a day, each week.

Let your support system know about your plans, and get them to remind you when you fall off track.

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