Why Most Popular Resolutions Don't Work (And What to Do Instead)

new years resolutions
Cole Saladino/Thrillist

New Year's Day begins the same way every year. You wake up in a daze, probably with a pounding headache and parched throat, body hurting from God knows what damage you've done, and you think, "Hey, I really should start living a healthier life." Each year, you think that somehow this year will be different from all the others. 

And yet, nothing seems to change. There's a reason for that: Most people approach resolutions the wrong way, making vague pledges to themselves with no real actionable plan or consequences.

It doesn't have to be this way! Below you'll find some of the most popular New Year's resolutions, all of which are doomed to fail if you take them at face value. By adjusting them, however, you just might stand a chance at actually getting your life in order this calendar year. 

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Daniel Fishel/Thrillist

Stay healthy and fit

Assuming you're already in good shape, this seems like a decent plan of attack to avoid going in the completely opposite direction and gaining 782lbs. It was also the most popular resolution for 2016, so people must really be concerned with retaining their hot bods.

But this resolution is so vague that it could mean almost anything. Should you add more leafy greens to your diet, or train for a marathon? Watch less TV, give up hard drugs? So many options to choose from! These types of ambiguous resolutions don't hold people accountable in actionable terms, which makes it easy to fall off the wagon. Skipping a workout here or eating junk food there can turn into a slippery slope of bad habits. 

Make specific plans instead, such as "continue to work out five days a week" or "bring a salad to work every day," which are more concrete examples of how you'll actually maintain a healthy lifestyle, and they're goals you can easily track. 

Spend more time with family and friends

This is actually a pretty good resolution to keep, considering maintaining healthy relationships is one of the biggest factors to living a long and healthy life. When the head researcher from the 40-year Grant Study, which is the biggest undertaking observing human life and longevity to date, declares that "good relationships keep us happier and healthier. Period," you know it's legit. 

Good intentions aside, it's another vague promise that's easy to ignore. Everyone loves to brag about how busy they are, so making time for people you love is notoriously difficult. The reality is that people prioritize what's important to them; set aside a specific time slot to call your grandma, or one day a month to grab drinks with a friend. By making set plans, it becomes an appointment both parties feel obligated to stick to. And make sure you actually keep fostering these relationships if you want to live longer

new years resolutions
Daniel Fishel/Thrillist

Lose weight

A close cousin of "stay fit and healthy," this resolution was the second-most popular goal for people in 2016. Which should come as no surprise, since basically our entire culture is obsessed with losing weight (hey, even we're guilty of it!).  

But aside from being a lofty goal you make for yourself, it's pretty hard to achieve; most people who set out to lose weight don't, or if they do they gain it back. Plus, people tend to go overboard with these promises to themselves, signing up for expensive gym memberships, stocking up on pricey green juices, and buying the latest fitness tracker. Here, too, you run into a specificity problem -- if you just say you're going to "lose weight," how will you know what to shoot for? What's too much, too little, and just right? You're more likely to do nothing at all if your goal is too broad.

The best way to actually lose weight and keep it off is to start making targeted, specific lifestyle changes. And starting out slow is best: swapping out processed snacks and meals for fresh produce, committing to a couple days a week of activity, drinking at least 64oz of water a day. If you're obsessed with the number on the scale (which you shouldn't be), then keep your goals realistic. Most people can lose about 0.5-2lbs a week, so aiming for a 20lb weight loss in a month, while doable, isn't as sensible as, say, 5 or 10lbs. 

Learn a new hobby

Again, not a bad idea; challenging your mind is vital for overall brain health, especially new tasks like learning a language, picking up a new instrument, or studying a subject you're interested in but don't know much about. 

Just make sure you pick something and stick to it. Signing up for Spanish classes or taking piano lessons is a more concrete way to hold yourself accountable, and will make it that much harder to abandon once the newness factor wears off. Besides, what else are you going to do with that baby grand piano you just had to buy? 

Spend less, save more

More money is good; debt is bad. These are facts people can get behind, and it makes sense that someone would want to get a handle on their finances heading into the new year. But just the idea of spending less and saving more means nothing if you don't have an actual budget to track where your money is going. 

If building up your savings account is a goal, plan to have a specific amount come out of each paycheck -- 20%, for example, if you can swing it. Setting up automatic transfers in your bank account makes this easier, so money gets deposited into savings before you even get a chance to see it in your checking account.

You've probably gathered the common theme here, but in case you haven't, remember that making a specific goal is always better than a half-assed, vague promise to yourself. It's just too bad you can't resolve to have deep-fried foods taste worse. 

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Christina Stiehl is a Health and fitness staff writer for Thrillist. Her New Year's resolution is to stop eating almond butter straight out of the jar. Tell her yours @ChristinaStiehl.