12/20/2012 12:28 pm ET Updated Feb 19, 2013

For Successful New Year's Resolutions: Have Fewer Choices

New Year's is fast approaching, which means that everyone is gearing up to sit down to write their resolutions for 2013. Unfortunately, most of us aren't usually too successful at sticking to our year-end goals.

So, how can you approach New Year's resolutions differently this year? A fascinating study about the paradox of choice might shed light onto the human behavior behind the New Year's resolution failure rate.

Sheena Iyengar, a professor of business at Columbia University, conducted a well-known study on choice and decisions. She set up a jam-tasting table in a grocery store and offered some shoppers 24 jam choices and other shoppers only six jam choices. On average, customers tasted two types of jams, no matter if they were choosing from the group of 24 or six. However, even though more people stopped by the table with 24 jams, only 3 percent of those actually purchased. Thirty percent of the people who had tasted from the table of six jars actually bought one of the jams.

Another example Barry Schwartz cites in his book The Paralysis of Choice looks at mutual funds being offered by an employer. It is definitely in employees' best interest to join one of the programs. By not participating, they are turning down up to $5,000 per year in employer matching. The study found that for every additional 10 mutual funds an employer offered, the rate of participation went down 2 percent! Why would people turn down this offer when they get more choices? Having too much choice causes paralysis.

What do these experiments tell us? When we have too many choices, we don't take action. Oftentimes this is because having too much choice causes paralysis, so we cannot make any decision at all. More importantly, we spend time thinking about the choices or actions we didn't do, instead of being happy with the one we did. The more choices, the more we feel we failed.

How can this information help us with New Year's resolutions?

1. Pick One Resolution

I know many people try to pick a few different resolutions to work on, but you are better picking one to focus on and going full speed ahead.

2. Break It Into Small Action Steps

Choice paralysis also comes into play when we have a big goal but no idea where to start achieving it. When you sit down to make your goal, outline all of the mini-steps to get there so you do not have too many choices to try to achieve it.

Offer yourself and others less choice and you will be more successful. Happy New Year's!


[1] Schwartz, Barry. The Paradox of Choice: Why More Is Less. New York: HarperCollins, 2005.

Lehrer, Jonah. How We Decide. Boston: Mariner, 2010.

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