Resolutions vs. Habits: What’s the difference?

Resolutions can help form new habits or break existing ones, but it is the consistent practice of habits that ultimately leads to long-term behaviour change.

Sarah Korba
Jan 18, 2023
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It’s that time of the year again: the “New Year, New Me” wave is here! Every January, millions of people gather their goals and wishes for self-improvement into a shiny list of New Year’s resolutions. “I will lose weight”, “I will get organised”, “I will quit smoking”, “I will spend more time with my family” … These are some of the most common resolutions – or goals – that we choose to add to our list every year, despite the fact that it takes less than a few weeks for most of us to give up on them!

In this article, we will share with you the top causes of why New Year’s resolutions end in failure every year as well as why it is important to consider the power of habits in achieving our goals.

In this article you will learn about the following topics:

  • What are resolutions
  • Characteristics of resolutions
  • New Year’s resolutions
  • Why do most of us fail at maintaining our New Year’s resolutions
  • What are habits
  • Characteristics of habits
  • Examples of good and bad habits
  • Differences between resolutions and habits
  • Why habits are often more effective than resolutions
  • How to create healthy habits

What are resolutions?

Resolutions are conscious and meaningful decisions or goals that shape our actions and give direction to our lives. They are usually made at the beginning of a new year and serve as a roadmap for personal growth and self-improvement. Resolutions promote positive change in various areas of life including physical health, emotional well-being, and behavioural habits.

Characteristics of resolutions

Some characteristics of resolutions include:

  • Self-reflection: resolutions often involve a process of self-reflection in which the person evaluates their current situation, strengths, and areas for improvement
  • Deliberate choice: resolutions are not random or arbitrary but reflect a thoughtful and conscious commitment to personal growth
  • Action-oriented: resolutions drive action by inspiring individuals to take concrete steps towards their goals and desired changes
  • Positive attitude: resolutions involve cultivating a positive attitude, embracing challenges as opportunities for growth, and fostering self-belief in one’s ability to achieve desired outcomes
  • Accountability: resolutions often involve a sense of accountability. Individuals hold themselves accountable for their actions and progress towards their goals. They may also seek support from others, such as friends or family to provide encouragement and help them stay on track

New Year’s resolutions

The beginning of a new year marks a fresh start for many people, inspiring them to set goals and make positive choices to better themselves. New Year’s resolutions offer people the opportunity to look back and reflect on the past year to assess and identify areas for improvement. Although specific trends may vary from year to year, some resolutions tend to repeat, such as:

  • Engaging in regular physical activity
  • Shifting to a healthier diet
  • Spending more quality time with family
  • Making smarter financial decisions
  • Reducing alcohol or cigarette consumption
  • Increasing productivity

Why do most of us fail at maintaining our New Year’s Resolutions?

According to a study conducted by the Journal of Clinical Psychology from the University of Scranton, 92% of people fail to fulfil their New Year’s resolutions!

When we look back on our failed resolutions, we may notice that all of them have common pitfalls such as:

  • An “all-or-nothing” mindset: we tend to measure success as either a complete win or a complete failure
  • An attitude that is overly ambitious: we tend to set unrealistic goals without taking real life into account 
  • A lack of specificity: our resolutions are too general or vague, and we don’t really know what exactly we need to do to reach our target 
  • Focusing on achieving goals rather than building habits: we become obsessed with the outcome and forget about the process that we need to follow to get there

This is why we need to stop making unrealistic resolutions and focus on building strong habits that will help us reach our goals!

What are habits?

Habits are regular routines and actions we perform consciously or unconsciously. They serve as reliable mechanisms to motivate us and keep us on track as we accomplish tasks. By establishing habits, performing certain actions becomes easier as they become ingrained in our daily lives. Examples of habits include: brushing our teeth after breakfast and before going to bed, exercising every morning before work, or grocery shopping on Saturday mornings. The impact of a habit on our lives can be either positive or negative, depending on whether it is a good or bad habit. The great thing about habits is that we have the power to intentionally create and cultivate them to achieve our goals.

Characteristics of habits:

Habits have distinct characteristics that shape their nature and impact on individuals. These include:

  • Environmental influence: habits are significantly influenced by the environment in which individuals grow up or live. By observing and imitating the behaviours of others, people develop habits that can have either a positive or negative impact on their lives
  • Automaticity: once a habit is formed, it becomes automatic and requires minimal conscious effort or thought to perform. The habitual action becomes almost instinctive in response to a specific situation or trigger
  • Consistency: habits promote consistency in behaviour or performance. Once a habit is established, individuals tend to exhibit regular patterns of behaviour or action in various situations
  • Reduced fatigue: engaging in habitual actions generally requires less mental or physical effort, resulting in reduced fatigue compared to non-habitual activities

Examples of good and bad habits

Cultivating “good” or healthy habits helps us nurture and promote our well-being. Conversely, “bad” or unhealthy habits can undermine our health and affect our overall well-being. Below are some examples of healthy and unhealthy habits that can either promote or impair our overall health:

Healthy habits: following a nutritious diet, establishing a daily reading routine, practising gratitude, regular exercise, practising meditation or mindfulness practices, a steady sleep schedule, and drinking water regularly.

Unhealthy habits: excessive screen time, excessive snacking, nail biting, high consumption of cigarettes or alcohol, multitasking, and not getting sufficient sleep.

Differences between resolutions and habits

While resolutions are conscious commitments or decisions made to achieve specific goals or bring positive change, habits are regular and often unconscious behaviours that shape our daily routines and life. Resolutions are usually made at a specific point in time (such as at the beginning of the year), and, on the other side, habits are built through consistent repetition over time. Resolutions can help form new habits or break existing ones, but it is the consistent practice of habits that ultimately leads to long-term behaviour change.

Why habits are often more effective than resolutions

While resolutions provide a starting point for change, habits are more effective in sustaining long-term behaviour change. Habits are formed through repetition and become automatic, requiring less conscious effort to maintain. They offer consistency, stability, and reduced fatigue compared to non-habitual actions. In contrast, resolutions often rely on conscious effort, making them more prone to failure or abandonment.

How to create healthy habits:

Here are some steps that you can follow to set a specific, concrete and behaviour-focused plan that will allow you to build healthy habits and achieve your goals:

Set SMART goals to build your habit 

Goals are consciously chosen objectives that can guide our behaviour and provide meaning to our life. SMART stands for specific, meaningful, adaptive, realistic and time-bound. Setting SMART goals is a general guide to evaluate what you want to achieve and measure how effectively you’re moving forward. 

Here are some SMART questions that you can ask yourself:

S: What exactly do you want to achieve?

M: How much does achieving this goal mean to you?

A: How much will this goal help you go forward in your life?

R: Will you be able to achieve your goal with your abilities and resources?

T: By when do you want to have reached the goal?

Find your “why”

Knowing the reason(s) why building a habit is important to you and aligning your plan with the values you hold dear help you become more motivated to stick to your habit. But sometimes there’s a difference between what we think is important and what is really important to us! Journaling can be one great way to define what really matters to you and to prioritise your true needs and wants. Ask yourself: what do you normally prioritise in your life? Does it match with what you really want to prioritise, and why?

Structure your habit around your routine

Structuring a new habit around your routine makes it easier for you to stick to your habit instead of trying to let it develop itself. All you have to do is to choose what time of the day your habit can fit into and think of when it’s best to include it among your other habits!

Find an accountability buddy

As human beings, sometimes we need to be pushed to make efforts along the line of our goals, and achieving our goals may become extremely hard if we feel lonely or if we are isolated. Having a strong connection with someone who offers you encouragement is an important step to help you stay committed and increases your chance to build a successful habit. Find a person who is supportive, challenging, and disciplined enough to motivate you at critical points of your journey with the right words and actions! 

In conclusion, while New Year’s resolutions are often made with good intentions, they frequently fall short due to common pitfalls. On the other hand, habits have the potential for long-lasting impact as they are routine-based behaviours that shape our daily lives. By shifting our focus from resolutions to building healthy habits, we can increase our chances of success in achieving our goals.

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