What Should I Do Instead of Making New Year’s Resolutions?

There is a way to change the way you look at the upcoming year.

Are you sick of making new year’s resolutions you don’t keep? Think the idea is foolish to begin with? Want an alternative?

Let’s do a quick dig into the stats about how many of us make and keep New Year’s resolutions because the numbers tell a story. Most people can keep them for a week. Fewer than one in five for two years. One study quoted widely claims only 8% of people keep their resolutions. The point: resolutions don’t work well.

But it turns out that resolvers still do better than non-resolvers at making changes. At six months, 10 times the number of resolvers were still going after their new habits. But only 46% of the resolvers were still at it. For both groups, the odds stink. Whether the number is 1 in 10 or 1 out of 2, the New Year’s resolution model is a dinosaur. You don’t play roulette to make money. If your best odds to a better 2019 with resolutions are 1 out of 2 (that’s red or black in roulette parlance), isn’t there another option?

Before reading about my solution to the problem, here’s the background. I have lived a yo-yo life the last 10 years. I have gained 40 pounds and lost it numerous times. I have started exercise programs and failed to complete them. I have controlled my eating and drinking and won the race to oblivion just as often (that’s code for doing whatever, whenever no matter the physical consequences). My struggles have come from working too much, caring too much, and simply not having made the wisest choices with my energy over the years.

So over the last 12 months I ran a self-study. What if instead of resolutions, I asked questions? What if I turned my life into an exploration rather than a self-absorbed, winner-take-all, yes-or-no competition?

The idea came from Judson Brewer. His TED talk posits that curiosity is the best way to stop a bad habit. You know certain things are bad for you. That’s an idea. A New Year’s resolution is an idea. We don’t change because of ideas. We can rationalize away, moment-to-moment, why doing the opposite of our resolution is okay.

For instance, you say to yourself, ‘I don’t want to drink.’ A friend asks you out for one beer. You love your friend. It is only one beer. Resolution demolished by simple logic and circumstance. And, of course, you had six beers that night. You were with your friend. It was fun. Your brain isn’t made to put the risk of continued drinking ahead of the immediate pleasure of friends and good ale.

But what if you had a New Year’s question instead. What if you asked yourself, ‘Why do I drink?’ or ‘What’s more important than drinking?’ Or my favorite, ‘What can I learn by drinking less?’ You still might go for the beer, but you would stop after one or two because the pleasure of listening to your friend was more important than riding the wave of the high. You might drink club soda instead because listening was most important that night. You might drink one pint or club soda because you wanted to see how good your workout could feel the next morning when you started fresh rather than exhausted. Maybe you even decided, after wondering your question, that it was a night to let loose. The question still allows you the next day to love your decision or learn.

What might you ask yourself in 2019?

My main question this year was: What are alternatives to worrying? I have made worrying an art form over the years. I know why too. I have a big alarm. That alarm in your brain is your amygdala. It wants to keep you safe. It looks out for wild animals that might eat you. When it comes to the alarm, size matters. Big ones, though, can be a problem. Your alarm is ancient and it doesn’t think. It is not rational. Mine constantly sees trouble where there isn’t. To fight its urges to stay safe, which caused the intolerable worry, I have always worked, cared, and consumed more than is best.

What happened when I asked the question rather than resolving to worry less?

I changed careers. Literally, I reordered where I spend most of my time. As a result, I made two big discoveries in my research. They will keep me busy for the next decade. Wondering about worry produced the insight.

I lost the next ten pounds. Why? I consumed less. How? I wasn’t in a battle to stop worrying. When I worried, I wondered. Do I need to worry? Is this urge based on my survival brain trying to give me the fat stores to survive the perceived impending apocalypse? Is there something else to spend this moment on rather than running away from a bit of discomfort? Just asking the question gave me enough pause to figure out if it was really a good night for mischief or a quiet evening was better.

My experiment helped me do and be better with work and my physical self.

My emotional life? Well. Hmm.

I care just as much. I still care too much, about everything.

Enter the New Year’s question. Is that a bad thing though? The old model would have had me resolve to “care less.” Instead, my question for this year is: Where should I put all the love I have to give? I don’t want to care less. I want to find people and communities that care as much as I do about people, brain health, and learning. My second question for this year: What is a sustainable community? It’s one thing to have people and experiences you love; it is another to have them give as much as they take from your time and energy.

So what are your New Year’s questions for 2019?

My study produced a powerful punchline: Questions lead to discovery; resolutions lead to a feeling that you aren’t good enough and can’t change. You may not have a quick answer and they may evolve throughout the year. The difference between questions and resolutions, however, is that you can’t fail as your questions evolve. Your change doesn’t end up in the junk yard of resolutions past. I hope you prefer the questions model. You can feel better and your change can become new clarity, even enlightenment, on the road to a better you.