It’s a new year, and this year, like every year, there will be a glut of articles and Facebook posts about New Year’s resolutions: those grand promises we make to ourselves to make our lives so much better … at least for a couple of weeks.
There are a lot of reasons to be skeptical of New Year’s resolutions, both from our collective personal experience and from what any number of published polls about resolution-keeping have consistently confirmed: that individuals likely won’t stick to them, that they probably will fall back into old habits, and that they probably will make themselves feel awful about it.
And yet we keep making them. Humans have a fascination with the start of something new — the first episode of a new television show, the first day of a new school year, the first film in a new Star Wars trilogy, etc. Marking beginnings (and the anniversary of beginnings) with hope for the future is just part of who we are. And so we continue, at the start of each year, to resolve to make this year better than last year in some small, meaningful way.
So, should we make a New Year’s resolution? The numbers are against us. However, there are ways of improving our odds of success, if we learn from what psychologists and behavioral scientists have discovered about resolutions and use that learning to our advantage. If we’re going to go through with it again this year, we might as well do it right.
In reality, a New Year’s resolution is just a fancy name for goal setting. The basic psychology of goal setting is pretty standardized in the literature, though there are a thousand ways the science has been packaged and repackaged into self-help books, personal improvement blogs, and TED talks. This conversation with psychologist Kelly McGonigal has the nice spin on the question. For a longer read, just go browse Google Scholar for a couple hours. [Just watch the clock, or your dinner will burn as mine did.]
In general, the collective research on goal setting reveals that resolutions must have the following qualities:
- Like the Highlander, there should be only one — don’t resolve to change a multitude of things at the same time.
- The resolution should be reasonable — that is, something you can actually accomplish within your life situation.
- It should also be challenging — that is, it must be something that you actually have to work at to succeed.
- A good resolution must also be specific enough to be measurable, with clearly defined ways to assess success.
- It should have a clear time-frame for completion (for New Year’s resolutions that’s usually the end of the year, if not sooner).
- Many people also recommend having a goal with milestones — small achievements or checkpoints in your progress that keep you motivated for the big achievements — and rewards — little ways that you will mark the meeting of your milestones.
- Sometimes you’ll see advice on writing the goal down or otherwise having some tangible reminder of the goal (some of them even have worksheets or suggest things like vision boards).
- There’s also a line of thinking out there that says resolutions should be made public in some way, if only to alert friends and family so they aren’t inadvertently sabotaging your efforts (a good way to do this is to find a partner who might make the same resolution).
So, for example,the common resolution “to lose weight”, while reasonable and challenging for most, fails because it is not at all specific or measurable and it has no stated time-frame. Better to resolve to “lose 25 pounds by July”, which is not only reasonable and challenging for most people, but has a measure of success, a time-frame, and the possibility of milestones — 25 pounds by July works out to about 1 lb. a week or 4 lbs. a month. Each of those achievements can be met with a sense of success.
An even more meaningless resolution is “to eat healthier”. Technically, one could eat an extra serving of vegetables a day while changing nothing else about their eating habits and achieve this one. Better to define some way to measure “healthier”, like “I resolve to reduce my sodium intake to below 2,300mg a day” or “I resolve to only eat red meat twice a week.” These are more open-ended goals, in that there’s no stated point where you will stop limiting sodium or start eating red meat again (ideally you develop a habit and stick with it); but they also have quicker measures of victory, in that each day or week is an achievement unto itself. And best of all, that larger implied goal of “to eat healthier” is also accomplished.
So go ahead and make a New year’s resolution. Just make sure that, whether you make a resolution on January first or just resolve to set some life goal at any point in your year, that you’re doing it wisely and with the best understanding of the psychology of goal-setting on your side. As for myself, I’m skipping the New Year’s resolutions this time around. I already have a few goals I’m working on, and I see no good reason to add another to the list.