New Year’s Resolutions: Can They Be Done?
I can say with almost complete certainty that everyone reading this has at some point set a New Year’s resolution that they didn’t end up following through on. Don’t be alarmed if I’ve guessed correctly about you: I say this with such certainty because it’s true for almost everyone! The excitement of celebrating the new year carries into the early days of the year, and we channel this enthusiasm into all sorts of ideas of what we can accomplish. Then a few weeks pass, and the gyms are no longer overcrowded, our living spaces become messy again, and all of the gross health food ends up in the trash.
So why is it that the same process seems to play out every single year? For many, this phenomenon discredits the idea that New Year’s Resolutions are ever actually achievable. And in a sense, I agree with that: we’re not going to succeed at our New Year’s resolutions if we keep trying to accomplish them with methods that we already know don’t work. The quote from Mr. Einstein about trying the same thing and expecting different results is pertinent here—simply approaching a goal with the idea that “this time I’ll get it done because I’ll try harder to get it done” is not going to get you anywhere. If we approach change as a one-time effort rather than an adjustment of our processes, we’re going to find that the change doesn’t stick once we lose that initial enthusiasm for it.
How does someone actually achieve a goal? There are many different ways to answer this question, but I think that one of the areas where many people stumble is not making goals specific enough. You may have heard of SMART (Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Realistic, Timely) goals before, but if that terminology is new to you, the SMART framework is a good starting point for being more effective with achieving your goals. When it comes to making goals specific, I think we can contrast specific goals with “it would be good if” statements. A specific goal is “I would like to read 2 books this month,” whereas a statement of “it would be good if I read more often” is essentially impossible to measure. If it’s not that important to you to read a specific number of books, then perhaps the idea of “reading more” can work for you, but not being able to truly compare how much you’ve changed your behavior can still end up being an irritating problem in the back of your mind. The other aspect of SMART goals that many seem to struggle with is that of goals being Timely: as I say above, we often want to simply change everything about our habits in a single exertion of willpower. But really, what we find is that willpower is only helpful for those “short burst” situations, and making meaningful changes is about making smarter and better decisions repeatedly over a long period of time.
One obstacle to change that I see in many clients is the fear of losing progress by making a mistake in their process of change. For example, someone who is trying to stop eating sugar might succeed for a few weeks, then feel that they have “lost everything” when they break from their habits for a day. I encourage anyone who feels this way to think of change in terms of a calendar: if we look at our day that we broke from our habit and judge our progress on that, it’s going to make us feel like we’ve fallen short of our goal. But if we think about January 2022, and we ate well only 5 days in that month compared with eating well 15 days in January 2023, we can more clearly recognize the cumulative progress that’s being made. Shame around the idea of having “failed” at a goal can sabotage someone who might otherwise achieve that goal, and it’s important to recognize both the process of improvement as well as the reality that falling short of perfect does not make us a failure.
I hope that these ideas help you to approach your New Year’s resolutions more effectively; I truly believe that making a change in the New Year is possible so long as we approach it effectively. For a more comprehensive approach to habit formation, James Clear’s book Atomic Habits is an excellent starting point. Atomic Habits does a great job of emphasizing and elaborating on some of the ideas above, such as thinking of change as a process, and the value of recognizing small daily improvements rather than approaching change in terms of big chunks.