Why I Don’t Make New Year’s Resolutions

Today is January 1st, the first day of 2015. Fresh from discussing their laundry list of resolutions with friends and family, people on this day feel incredibly determined to reach their goals.

And that’s a problem.

Now, I fully support everyone on their missions to better themselves. In fact, it’s really important for people to reflect and to pinpoint the holes in their selves. The problem with making resolutions is that many people just don’t stick to them, so this excitement dies down, typically within the first month or two — and with it dies people’s motivations to create resolutions down the line.

Why can’t I keep my resolution?

The first issue with New Year’s Resolutions is that a large majority of people overcommit. They make a long list of varying goals which aren’t all related, and following this list soon begins to feel like a chore, one that continually decreases in priority.

This phenomenon is best illustrated with a hypothetical example. Meet Dennis, your typical 27-year-old bachelor:

This year was a big year for Dennis. He got promoted to assistant regional manager at the paper supply firm where he works, found a new roommate, and even coded his own website, from scratch! All these new developments have brought many new responsibilities to Dennis’ life, which in turn has made him realize all the new ways he can improve himself.

Dennis whipped up this list of Resolutions following careful consideration:

  • Buy a membership to Gold’s Gym
  • Lose 20 pounds
  • Eat more vegetables
  • Be nicer to coworkers
  • Floss every day (you promised the dentist you would!)
  • Stare at phone screen less
  • Write more articles on Medium

How exciting! Dennis remains faithful to this list for three whole weeks, as he is more passionate than ever. He feels great!

However, by mid-February, Dennis begins to feel too overwhelmed with these new responsibilities he imposed upon himself. It was simply too hard to keep track of all of these goals, scattered across different categories: health, relationships, work. He continues to cross out each resolution, telling himself he’ll stick to only one or two this year. Soon, dejected by the realization that he will never achieve blogging fame, he gives up on his last resolution and scraps his list — maybe next year.

We’ve now seen the first problem with New Year’s Resolutions: people make too many of them. Such a hefty list makes each item feels like a chore…who wants more of those?

The second issue with Resolutions is that many people, having sidestepped the problem of a long list by dedicating themselves to only two or three resolutions, spend too much initial energy on these goals, which ultimately proves unsustainable. It’s like running a mile on a track: one in this case sprints the first lap only to be out of breath for the next three, instead of simply pacing themself for the four laps.

This is most clearly observed through a well-documented phenomenon that I’ve coined the “gym membership effect.” Gyms every year experience an influx of new members every January; so many, in fact, that lines often form for machines. These newcomers, having just purchased their membership, are determined to make the most of their money, so they devote themselves to working out nearly every day. However, within one or two months, the lines for machines shrink and shrink, as the task of daily exercise proves too daunting for many.

Google Trend for the search term “gyms near me.” Notice the New Year’s spike!

Instead of working out every day — “sprinting the first lap” — these people could have gotten the most out of their yearlong membership by pacing themselves! Creating a strict but less daunting exercise routine, such as setting aside Monday, Thursday, and Sunday mornings for going to the gym, would be much more sustainable in the long term.

So, through a real-world example, we’ve also observed the other problem with New Year’s Resolutions: people tire themselves out quickly.

Are you saying that trying to improve myself is a futile task?

No! In fact, I applaud you if you’ve made New Year’s Resolutions already, because it means that you’ve taken the first step in self-improvement: recognizing what to work on. That’s great!

Rather, I’d like to introduce you to another system. Drumroll please…

Monthly Resolutions!

Instead of the clichéd laundry list at the beginning of the year, each month, try to focus on a single goal. These goals can vary from more abstract resolutions (“Be nicer to parents”) to simple, concrete goals (“Cook dinner five times”).

Why does this system work better? Well, assigning one resolution to a month immediately solves the first problem of being overwhelmed by goals, and the process becomes easier and feels less like a chore. It also eliminates procrastination by adding a deadline; while a New Year’s Resolution might invite procrastination, as one might rationalize putting off a task with the claim that they’ll finish it within the 365 days, a monthly resolution places the end goal in sight.

You can do it!

Monthly modularization also eliminates the problem of trying too hard since the short time span prevents the feeling of being burned out. That’s not to say that it won’t be frustrating at times — self-improvement is hard! But, combined with a monthly deadline, it becomes easier to map out a plan for the 30 or so days and therefore successfully complete a goal.

Finally, this system encourages frequent self-reflection, encouraging individuals to be on constant lookout for aspects of their personalities, their livelihoods, to improve. After all, who doesn’t want to be a better person? (answer: a narcissist)

You can read more about the “gym membership effect” online. Here’s one interesting article that discusses the phenomenon:


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