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New Year’s Resolutions: Good Intentions or Real Commitment?

Now is the accepted time to make your annual good resolutions. Next week you can begin paving hell with them as usual. ~ Mark Twain

The quotation is attributed to the great American writer Mark Twain, but scholars track versions of it much further back. In 1855, Henry G. Bohn included it in A Hand-book of Proverbs. In 1791, James Boswell mentioned it in The Life of Samuel Johnson LL.D.. In 1670, the English theologian John Ray used the version that Johnson quoted a century later. It is also found in the 1150 writings of Saint Bernard of Clairvaux. Somewhere around 50 BCE, the ancient Roman, Virgil, used it in the Aeneid, one of his major works.

Some version just keeps showing up. Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Sir Walter Scott, Søren Kierkegaard, and Karl Marx all used some variant of the phrase.

My guess is that the sentiment goes as far back in time as when humans first had the leisure to think philosophical thoughts. Why? Because people, at their core, haven’t really changed all that much over the centuries. Our basic instincts, gifts and failings are the same, though expressed differently according to our times. Our desire to be better than we are or, failing that, to look better than we are, sometimes exceeds our commitment to engage in actual self-improvement. This is especially true if doing so requires actions that might be a bit uncomfortable or difficult.

New Year’s Day on January 1 puts us up against that very human tension between wanting to do better and being reluctant to do so. How many people have for how many years said that they wanted to quit smoking, lose 10 pounds, start a fitness program or spend more time with their kids and less time at work? But while 49 percent of Americans make New Year’s resolutions, only about half of them achieve even a little success. Only eight percent actually achieve their goal. Eight percent! The problem doesn’t lie with our intentions to try to be better. The problem is one of commitment.

To try is not to succeed. Dr. Rudolf Dreikurs, a famous Adlerian psychologist, had a ready response whenever a client told him that he or she would try to do something different. “Try?” he’d say. “Try getting out of that chair you are sitting in.” Of course the person would start to rise from the chair. Dr. Dreikurs would respond, “No. I said ‘try.’ As soon as you lift your bottom off the seat, you are doing it, not trying to do it. The question is not whether you will try to stand but whether you will keep going until you are no longer in the chair.”

Trying can let us mask our fears or our unwillingness to actually do something new. As long as we can claim that we are trying our best, no one can fault us for our lack of success in making change. We can fool ourselves as well.

Sometimes it doesn’t really matter. Ultimately, it isn’t that important if we lose that last five pounds or finally take up ballroom dance. As long as our physical or mental health or our relationships aren’t damaged, it’s not a tragedy if we give up on a goal within a few weeks, saying to ourselves that we will try again at a later time. But if physical or emotional health is at stake, trying just doesn’t cut it.

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The key to moving past good intentions and actually achieving a stated goal is doing instead of trying. It is making the commitment to take positive, observable action. Getting out of a chair (or habit) means standing up. Thinking about it, making half-hearted attempts, or flailing about with activity that doesn’t add up to much doesn’t count.

Starting an exercise program or a diet or a more positive relationship means actually doing the things that will make a difference. Fortunately, there are people who study such things. They’ve identified actions that can help us succeed.

If you really want to make a change in your life this year, give up trying and start doing. These strategies will help.

  • Write it down — and be specific about it.
    People who write down the goal and track their progress with a daily diary are 10 times more likely to achieve it.
  • Make it public.
    No, that doesn’t mean taking out an ad in the local paper. But it does mean telling people who matter and who can support you in your efforts.
  • Find a buddy.
    Many of us would let ourselves sink back into our old ways within weeks if left to our own devices. It’s too easy to give up on a daily run, for example, if the only person who cares is you. But if your friend is waiting for you on the corner, it will give you the extra motivation you need.
  • Break a large goal into smaller parts.
    If you break a large goal into smaller, achievable parts, and reward yourself somehow for each success, you’re more likely to do it. Running a 5K next month is a ridiculous goal for someone who has never run. It’s enough to start with a run around the block. Increasing the distance by a little each week is reasonable and achievable.
  • Minimize temptations.
    If you’re trying to lose weight, don’t have junk food in the house. If you want to quit smoking, don’t buy cigarettes. If you want to quit a bad habit, reduce the time you spend with people who are doing it.
  • Create routines that support your “new you.”
    Starting an exercise program? Schedule gym time and put it in your calendar. Do you want to lose that 10 pounds? Take the time to package up healthy snacks and put them at the front of the fridge so you see them first. Do your children deserve more of your time? Find an activity you all enjoy and sign up.

This year, give up the idea of trying to reach a goal. Instead, start doing it. Make a commitment to use these strategies to help foster real change.

2016 image available from Shutterstock

New Year’s Resolutions: Good Intentions or Real Commitment?

Marie Hartwell-Walker, Ed.D.

Marie Hartwell-WalkerDr. Marie Hartwell-Walker is licensed as both a psychologist and marriage and family counselor. She specializes in couples and family therapy and parent education. She writes regularly for Psych Central as well as Psych Central's Ask the Therapist feature. She is author of the insightful parenting e-book, Tending the Family Heart.

Check out her book, Unlocking the Secrets of Self-Esteem.

APA Reference
Hartwell-Walker, M. (2018). New Year’s Resolutions: Good Intentions or Real Commitment?. Psych Central. Retrieved on August 13, 2020, from
Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 8 Oct 2018 (Originally: 17 May 2016)
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 8 Oct 2018
Published on Psych All rights reserved.