Are New Year's resolutions worth it? Experts unpack the power of goal setting

If you're wondering whether to make New Year's resolutions, here's how goal setting could transform your 2022

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After a year filled with so much uncertainty, following the age-old tradition of making New Year’s resolutions may seem a little futile. But goal setting this January could be a smart way to achieve far more in 2022 than you have in the past 12 months. “We can all live perfectly normal lives without setting goals,” says Emma Jefferys, a qualified coach also known as Action Woman, who runs the ‘Goal Digger’ masterclass at Soho House. “But life is a series of choices and decisions, and if we don’t set out knowing where we are going then it’s possible we might not like where we end up."

Indeed, goals—and tools such as goal planners—get you going in the right direction, and are a focus for your time and energy. Goals aren't just for New Year—although it's a great opportunity to make a start. But, whether your aim is to make healthier choices with the help of the Fitbit you received for Christmas, learn how to run a marathon, or tackle your drinking problem, it can sometimes be tricky to see your goal through January and beyond. With that in mind, we’ve asked the experts for their advice on how to set effective New Year's resolutions, as well as their tips for sticking with them.

New Year's resolutions—how useful are they?

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The first New Year’s resolutions were made roughly 4,000 years ago by the ancient Babylonians, who would make promises to the gods in the hope of earning good favor over the coming months. In 2022, we're still doing pretty much the same. “As we approach the new year, our thoughts often turn to new goals and plans,” notes Tess Leigh-Phillips, a psychotherapist at The Mind Map. However, many people often fail at the resolutions they set themselves. Indeed, one study found that most people last a little over two weeks—giving up on their New Year's resolutions by 19 January.

But goals made at the tail-end of the festive season don't necessarily have to be destined to fail. If we take a smart approach to our New Year's resolutions, as we're encouraged to do when we set them at other times of the year, then we can drastically increase our chances of achieving them—and also sticking to them long term. Because, while Veganuary and Dry January are admirable, it helps to have aims that you're working towards throughout the year. “There are so many distractions in life, so having clear goals can help us focus on the things that mean a lot to us,” says Caroline Sanderson, author of Mindset Magic & Miracles. 

Why is goal setting so effective?

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For New Year's resolutions that stand the test of time, it can help to start with the evidence-based theory of goal setting. “This is linked to the idea that setting specific and measurable goals is more effective than setting unclear goals,” explains Dr Jan Smith, a chartered psychologist. “It can also help us select goals that are challenging enough to be motivating, but not so tough that it feels overwhelming.” 

One of the key benefits of goal setting is that it often forces you to make time-bound commitments. "It can help you navigate your way with a sense of purpose," says Jim Rees, emotional intelligence expert and author of Vicious Cycle. Decide between short-term (weeks or months), medium-term (quarterly or yearly), or long-term (five years-plus) aims." Like getting back into cycling within six months, or mastering yoga for beginners over the course of a year. 

What's more, goal setting also works wonders for your brain. “It activates the reticular activating system, which is a network of neurons located in the brain stem that mediate behavior and program new patterns," explains Rees. On top of this, when you hit milestones along the way or achieve what you set out to do, the brain also gets excited. "Several regions become active when someone experiences a 'positive event'—including the part that's rich in the feel-good chemical dopamine," reveals Andreas Michaelides, chief of psychology at digital health platform Noom. No wonder people can get hooked on setting themselves challenges.

Why do people’s goals fail?

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People often give up on their goals mid-way through, due to various factors including other commitments, lack of motivation, and external stress. “Goals take work and effort,” says Jefferys. “We have to show up and do stuff to make them happen, and experience shows that if we are aiming for something based on other people’s stuff rather than our own intrinsic motivation then we tend to fall over along the way.” This can often happen if your goals aren't driven by you, but by ego and perception of others, like reaching a certain dress size because you see everyone looking that way on Instagram.

Another very relatable reason why goals falter is that other things are often vying for your focus. “It’s no secret that modern-day life is busy and full-on, and external pressures can cause you to break the new habits you’ve put into place to ensure you hit your goals," acknowledges Rees. "Things like stress and social arrangements can see you deviate from your goals and become less committed, and eventually, this will lead to failure.” This is why it's important to think ahead about these obstacles.

The other pitfall, Jefferys notes, is when people have an aim but no roadmap. “Whether you achieve a goal you set is all down to the actions that you need to make to get there,” she warns. “What needs to happen in order to get there? What and who do you need? What might get in your way? How will you reset if you have a setback? These details will make all the difference. And after all, a goal without a plan is just a wish!”

There are certain considerations that will help you set more realistic and achievable goals, which in turn you're more likely to stick to. And remember, just because you veer away from your goal momentarily, that doesn't mean you need to give up on it altogether. 

How should you come up with a goal to aim for?

  • Ask the right questions—"There are some simple questions you can ask yourself," notes Jefferys. "Jot down the answers to these on paper—what do you want more of in your life? What do you want less of in your life? What do you want to be, have, do? What do you want to make happen? Now review what you’ve written. What really stands out to you? What matters? What would you be gutted about if it didn’t happen? That, there, is probably a really good goal to go for."
  • It's also vital to connect with the goals you choose—"You should be pursuing it for yourself, not someone else," warns Dr Smith. This then helps you to think about your goal positively, rather than negatively, which will really aid in changing behavior. “For example, a positively-framed approach goal might be 'when I am at work today, I will have my break and eat some food,' compared with a negatively framed avoidance goal like, 'I’m not going to miss my lunch break today',” she adds. “Despite both appearing to promote protecting your lunch break, there are different emotional and cognitive processes involved." It's clear which one will bring greater psychological wellbeing. 
  • Values are also key—says Michaelides, because if your goals actually matter to you then you will be more likely to reach them. “Think of values as a compass that guides your life in the direction you want," he explains. "Goals are the things you can check off a list that helps you live out your values. For example, someone may value financial independence and set a related goal to pay off credit card debt every month.”
  • Above all, be realistic (and clever!)—“When we set goals, we often aim big,” points out Dr Smith. “While this can be motivational, breaking it down into small achievable ones can optimize our success in reaching them. Additionally, given that habits make up lots of our daily behaviors, preferably tagging goal-orientated actions onto an existing habit increases the likelihood of practicing these.” Like completing your bedtime routine by 10pm if you've been trying to get to sleep early.
  • Use the SMART framework—there also exists, handily, a framework that people can check their goals against to ensure they can be effectively executed. "The first step of the SMART model—the 'S'—is to make sure you are setting specific goals," explains Rees. "The next thing is to make sure they are measurable—the 'M'—and it is also important to set goals that are attainable, the 'A'. They should also be relevant—the 'R'—and time-bound with a deadline, the 'T'."

How to stick to your goals in 2022

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  • Be positive—“So often we focus on what it is we don’t want rather than what we do—it's why people often struggle with weight loss goals, because to 'lose' something has negative associations," says Jefferys. "Change the language to be positive. For example, that you are losing weight to keep up with your children or be fit enough to run a 5k."
  • Set a plan— “Break down the goal into specific actions you need to take and put dates against each one," suggests Jeffreys. "What do you need to do and by when? Make the steps as small and achievable as possible, chunk it right down. That way you’ll feel motivated to keep going.”
  • Make them real—“Don’t internalize the goal, accountability is key,” explains Jefferys. “It can be being accountable to yourself—writing down your goals makes you 42% more likely to achieve them—or sharing your goal with someone else raises the likelihood it will happen by 78%."
  • Be aware—“Taking time to identify patterns of behavior which have previously derailed your goals and typically make you drift off the path can also be incredibly beneficial,” recommends Rees. “Having sight of potential downfalls will allow you to become aware of negative patterns, or blind spots and make plans to overcome them.”
  • Get prepared—"Following an ‘If-Then’ plan can increase your chances of reaching your goal by 300%,” adds Dr Smith. “There are two steps to creating If-Then plans. Using the example goal of practicing five minutes of mindful breathing techniques—step 1, the ‘if, would be to identify situations where you’re unlikely to practice mindful breathing. Step 2, the ‘then’, is creating ways to overcome these."
  • Celebrate wins—“Mark your progress,” explains Rees. “This boosts your inner confidence and self-belief, and the positive domino effect will make you feel like things are more achievable. The key to this is breaking aspirations down into 'chunks' that you can surpass and feel a sense of achievement in the process." 

w&h thanks Emma Jefferys, qualified coach, also known as Action Woman, who runs the 'Goal Digger' masterclass at Soho House, Tess Leigh-Phillips, a psychotherapist at The Mind Map, Caroline Sanderson (author of Mindset Magic & Miracles, chartered psychologist Dr Jan Smith, Jim Rees, emotional intelligence expert and author of Vicious Cycle and Andreas Michaelides, chief of psychology at Noom, for their time and expertise.

Lauren Clark

Lauren is a freelance writer and editor with more than six years of digital and magazine experience. In addition to she has penned news and features for titles including Women's Health, The Telegraph, Stylist, Dazed, Grazia, The Sun's Fabulous, Yahoo Style UK and Get The Gloss. 

While Lauren specializes in covering wellness topics—ranging from nutrition and fitness, to health conditions and mental wellbeing—she has written across a diverse range of lifestyle topics, including beauty and travel. Career highlights so far include: luxury spa-hopping in Spain, interviewing Heidi Klum and joining an £18k-a-year London gym.