All Articles Leadership Management The final word on New Year's resolutions

The final word on New Year’s resolutions

Too many New Year's resolutions fail to consider how motivation works. Here's a guide to making better resolutions for 2021.

7 min read


The final word on New Year's resolutions

Susan Fowler

New Year’s resolutions. You might disdain the concept, but most people consider them, whether formally or in their heart of hearts.

Proof positive: My internet search for “New Year resolutions” yielded 154,000,000 results in less than a second.

Hope seems to spring eternal, especially entering a new year. And never have people been more desperate to leave a year or anticipated a new year with more hope.

New Year’s resolutions can pave the way to opportunities and possibilities. That’s the good news. The sad truth is that resolutions are often failed attempts to improve health, lower debt, learn something new or spend more time with family, and those failures leave us feeling more inadequate to control our circumstances than ever.

In the spirit of exploring whether New Year’s resolutions are worth the effort — and possibly making this the final article you need to read on the topic — I encourage you to consider three breakthrough ideas supported by compelling motivation science.

Take advantage of reticular activation

When writing your resolution, focus on what you hope to achieve not how you plan to achieve it. That might seem counter-intuitive, but it sets up reticular activation — a primitive but powerful brain process — that ultimately leads you to the best action plan. Your reticular activating system, or RAS, is a bundle of nerves at your brain stem that filters out unnecessary information so the important stuff gets through.

Reticular activation helped early humans survive. A cavewoman realized a berry wasn’t poisonous, then noticed every time she had the opportunity to pick them in season. Today, you might experience reticular activation in more mundane ways, like when you buy a new car and suddenly start noticing all the cars on the road identical to yours. You can use reticular activation to find success with your resolutions.

Take this example. A woman announced that her resolution for the new year was to finally earn her master’s degree. In the same breath she continued:

“But then I’d have to go to school at night, and I don’t know how my family would handle that, and I’d need to ask my boss for financial help, and he’d probably get nervous that I’m planning to leave after I get my degree because I’d be overqualified for my job, and — oh, never mind, it’s a dumb idea.”

Now, it’s possible that the timing for earning her master’s degree wasn’t prudent, but the best time to determine whether a resolution is viable is after writing a resolution that sparks your interest, vitality and joy. When you focus on the outcome you desire, you trigger reticular activation, and you suddenly become more aware of options for accomplishing your resolution that you hadn’t seen or noticed before.

Getting mired in a daunting list of obstacles will prevent you from triggering the reticular activation that stimulates awareness of all the options you have for succeeding. Focus on your resolution, not how you plan to achieve it. The best action plan will become apparent after your reticular activating system kicks in.  

Don’t write a resolution to drink less alcohol, go to the gym three times a week or start a new diet

So many online articles recommend resolutions that set you up for failure. Three of them are listed in the examples, below. 

  1. Drink less alcohol
  2. Go to the gym three times a week
  3. Start a new diet
  4. Don’t add sugar to my coffee or tea 85 days out of the next 90 days

Of these four potential resolutions, only one has a good chance of being realized. The resolution to drink less alcohol is like running a race without a finish line. This resolution is so vague that it will dissipate while you’re chugging your third bottle of beer on Super Bowl Sunday. Get more specific.

So, you’re resolute about working out at the gym three times a week? Oops, COVID-19 shutdown. No gym. Now what? Your brain interprets missing a week at the gym as a failed resolution. But it was doomed from the beginning. The point of your resolution wasn’t really going to the gym three times a week, but to improve an aspect of your health or well-being.

Focus on what matters, not the tasks involved in accomplishing your outcome. When your attention is on what’s meaningful and measurable, such as blood pressure, weight, heart rate and so forth, your reticular activation will provide alternatives for making progress until the gym opens.  

Same concept for losing weight. Don’t commit to a diet. Commit to losing weight. Be specific about how much and by when. Then, let reticular activation kick in to guide your action plan for losing the weight. The success of your resolution requires adapting your action plan as life unfolds differently than you originally planned!

The quality of your resolution matters

Some types of resolutions drain your energy, generate unhealthy physical symptoms, diminish creativity, leave you feeling dissatisfied or possibly lead to depression — even if you achieve them.

You’re wise to refrain from low-quality resolutions based on acquiring power, status and social recognition, or tangible and intangible rewards. Examples include:

  • Gain recognition by moving to the corner office by September
  • Prove your popularity by increasing Facebook friends or LinkedIn contacts
  • Win more sales contests

You are more likely to succeed and thrive with high-quality resolutions based on personal growth and health, relating more deeply to others, building community, being of service or learning something new.

  • Practice mindfulness for 15 minutes a day for 80 of the next 90 days
  • Write a personal note to 20 people whose relationship you want to nurture this year
  • Dedicate 14 days of volunteering this year
  • Respond to customer requests within 24 hours at least 95% of the time over the next six months

But the highest-quality resolutions depend on moving beyond the what and the how of your resolution, to answering a key question: “Why did I create this resolution?”

If you can answer with one of these options, chances are your optimal motivation will sustain you all year long.

My resolution is:

  1. Aligned with developed values that I hold dear.
  2. Integrated with how I identify as a human being — it reinforces my best self and a deep sense of purpose.
  3. A source of joy.

I encourage you to write resolutions following these three breakthrough ideas. Chances are, you won’t need to read another article on how to write resolutions. Even better, you won’t be scratching your head in March wondering what happened to your good intentions.


Susan Fowler is on a mission to help you learn the skill of motivation. In her latest book, “Master Your Motivation: Three Scientific Truths for Achieving Your Goals,” she presents an evolutionary idea: motivation is a skill. Providing real-world examples and empirical evidence, Fowler teaches you how to achieve your goals and flourish as you succeed. She is also the author of bylined articles, peer-reviewed research, and eight books, including the best-selling “Self Leadership and The One Minute Manager” with Ken Blanchard and “Why Motivating People Doesn’t Work … And What Does: The New Science of Leading, Engaging, and Energizing.” Tens of thousands of people worldwide have learned from her ideas through training programs. For more information and the free What’s Your MO? survey for exploring your motivational outlook, visit

If you enjoyed this article, sign up for SmartBrief’s free e-mails on leadershipcareer development and HR, among SmartBrief’s more than 200 industry-focused newsletters.