Why Do We Make New Year Resolutions?
Reading this post means you are among the millions who make New Year resolutions each year. It also means you are among the millions whose resolutions fizzle out well before Valentine’s Day. The dawning of a New Year feels like a blank screen on which to project a more desirable version of our life and so we start dreaming.
Among the most popular resolutions are lose weight, eat healthier, spend less, exercise more, be nicer, quit smoking, and live a more fulfilling life. All of these are potentially wonderful goals. The very thought of achieving any of them makes our hearts tingle with pleasure. And so we set these goals each year after year after year …
What Makes a Resolution Work?
The problem with most of the resolutions people make is that they are all over the place in terms of personal meaning, specificity, and realism. Let me explain.
New Year resolutions tend to be life-changing (or minimally, life-tweaking) goals. As such, they are neither simple nor easy. To achieve any of the popular ones listed above, you need to make changes to how you approach each day. And I’ll bet achieving any others you are contemplating that I’ve not mentioned are also a pretty heavy lift in terms of how you organize your days.
If the resolution is not personally meaningful to you, the odds are very good that you will eventually (or maybe by January 2nd!) give up on it. No matter how much you love, admire, or need the approval of the person pushing you toward that goal, sustaining the effort for someone else is much harder than doing it for yourself.
So, think about what it is you want to accomplish and why you want to accomplish it. If indeed it is in response to someone else’s prodding, think before you commit. Ask yourself whether there is a strong personal reason for making the change—independent of why the other person is asking. If there is, let that personal meaning be your guide as you make your resolution. If not, consider saving yourself from the disappointment of another failed resolution and skip it.
Resolving to live a more meaningful life, be nicer, or eat healthier has a lovely ring to it. However, all these resolutions are so vague that there are two huge obstacles to fulfilling them.
The first obstacle is that they do not contain a definition of the end-state. What does a “more meaningful life” look like? What is it comprised of? What would you be doing on a regular basis that you are not doing now? What would you stop doing? Same goes for being nicer and eating healthier. Without defining what that looks like, how on earth would you know what decisions to make every day to stick to either resolution?
The second obstacle is that poorly defined resolutions like the examples above, make it difficult to tell whether you are accomplishing them. If you resolve to “live a more meaningful life” without specifying what actions that sort of life would include and exclude, you have no way of evaluating your progress or figuring out what strategies are and are not working. Without that knowledge, you cannot know when to pat yourself on the back, when to give yourself a pep talk, or when to ask for help. Under these conditions, motivation tanks pretty quickly and another resolution bites the dust.
For instance, if your resolution is to “eat healthier,” you may define that end-state as including at least three fruit and vegetable servings on most days, limiting your calories from fat to usually no more than 30%, and switching from processed to whole-wheat bread. [Please note. I am not defining “healthy eating” for you. This is just a generic example.] With a well-defined resolution like this, you can track how many fruit and vegetable servings you eat how often, as well as your fat intake and which loaves of bread you buy. Further, by defining the end-state as “on most days,” you will know how well you’re doing by whether you are hitting your target on more days each month than not.
As a weight management specialist for over 40 years, I have listened to literally thousands of people set weight loss goals. While there are obviously many different reasons that someone might have difficulty losing weight, one of the most common barriers I’ve seen is unrealistic goals. As I explain in A Diet is the Last Thing You Need, setting goals for bodyweights that do not jive with your genetics and lifestyle is a recipe for disappointment and weight gain. (Chapter 3 in A Diet is the Last Thing You Need walks you through the family and personal weight inventories that point to personally realistic weight goals.)
The realism requirement applies to any resolution you set.
For instance, if you smoke a few cigarettes a day, stopping cold turkey on January 1st may be realistic for you. On the other hand, if you are a three-pack a day smoker, stopping cold turkey just because it is January 1st is going to be an uphill climb comparable to walking to the top of Mount Kilimanjaro in your bedroom slippers. It might be doable but at what cost?
If quitting is personally important to you, definitely resolve to quit (heck yeah!!!) but modify the resolution to make it realistically achievable. For example, resolve to cut back to one cigarette per hour (or some such) or limit smoking to one spot in or around your home, office, and/or school. Create sub-resolutions that require smaller, more easily achieved steps. As you achieve each sub-goal, take the next step toward fully quitting.
This applies to every resolution one makes. Keep in mind that the fact that something is important and meaningful to you does not negate the fact that some things simply must be managed with smaller steps if they are to be realistically achievable.
3 New Year Resolutions that Work
Resolution #1: I will remember that perfection is a fairytale and I am a real person.
There is nothing in the combined literature of all human religions and philosophies that affirms humans have the capacity for perfection. At times we have the capacity for greatness. We almost always have the capacity for growth. Perfection, however, is not possible. You are a real person, not a magical being.
By definition, the minute you set a goal to perfectly execute a plan, you fail. In contrast, if your goal is to execute the plan as well as you possibly can, you have a good chance at success. In fact, you may even have moments of greatness as your execution looks awfully darn close to perfection. But ultimately, if you only define success as perfection, you will be disappointed.
As you set your goals, frame them in terms that are achievable by mere humans. Strive for goals that are realistically achievable by someone with your resources and figure out the specifics of what you must do to achieve them. If you approach resolutions this way, sticking with them will feel much more natural.
Resolution #2: I will welcome slips as opportunities to grow.
Given that human perfection is a fairytale, you know you are going to slip (i.e., screw up). We all do. Unfortunately, what often happens is that we interpret the slip as a failure, evidence that we cannot achieve our goal. As a result, we then we give up. This phenomenon is so common that it even has a name in the psychology literature, the Abstinence Violence Effect, or, as I like to call it, the What-the-Heck Effect.
A Diet is the Last Thing You Need explains in detail how to use the What-the-Heck Effect to turn slips into strengths. (You can read the short version in Relapse into Recovery with 3 Steps.) For now though, resolve to say this to yourself when you slip, “I am human so it was inevitable that I slip at some point. Now, what can I learn from this that will make it easier to follow through on plan next time?”
Resolution #3: I will treat each day as if it is January 1st.
All coins have two sides. Along with the motivating blank screen offered by the New Year, there is the de-motivating aspect of its short-lived existence. By January 2nd or 13th or February 1st …, if you’ve either not started on or hit a snag with your resolution, it can be super-hard to keep going.
Reflect on the personal meaning behind your goal. Is this something that is important to you? Will it make an appreciable improvement to your life or community? Does it matter? If your answer is yes, then it matters on January 1st. It also matters on the 2nd and 19th and in February as well as all the other months of the year. If this change is important to you, today is the best day to work on it.
The Resolutions You Thought You Wanted to Make
If you take to heart the guidance I have provided here, you are ready to successfully make changes to your behavior. You can decide what realistic goals are truly important to you and figure out what specific behaviors you need to modify. Knowing that perfection is impossible, you will take steps toward goals, accepting the inevitability of slips along the way. When you do slip, you will analyze what triggered the slip and in so doing, gain power over the trigger. And, perhaps most important of all, you know that today is the day to start!