Why You Will Fail Your New Year’s Resolutions
You won’t magically wake up on January 1st as a New, Reinvented You.
As another year comes to an end, many of us will begin making New Year’s Resolutions. The new year presents itself as an opportunity to redefine ourselves, hit the metaphorical reset button and try again — an imaginary clean slate if you will.
But why do we make New Year’s Resolutions? And why do they ultimately go unfulfilled?
I will touch on some of the history of why we practice this tradition in the West and some of the reasons they are usually unsuccessful. Then a quick look at some things you can do to increase your chances of achieving your goals in 2020.
New Year’s Resolutions — Where Did They Come From?
Humans have been making New Year’s Resolutions for thousands of years. We have the Babylonians to thank for this, who — some 4000 years ago — observed the beginning of the harvest year in mid-March. With new crops to be planted, they would participate in a 12-day religious celebration known as Akitu.
During this time, the Babylonians would make promises to their pagan gods, vows that are not so different from the resolutions we make today. Often, they would promise to pay back their debts or the possessions they had borrowed. Following through with these promises would bestow them with the favour of their gods, a crucial thing to have when your livelihood relied on the gods themselves.
Let’s fast forward to 46BC. Julius Caesar, the Emperor of Rome, introduces the Julian Calendar. This new calendar would place the first day of the year on January 1st in honour of the God Janus, of whom the month is named after.
The Roman God Janus is often depicted in antiquity as a twin-faced God. Regarded as the God of beginnings and archways it was believed that he had the power to look back over the year that had just passed and look ahead into the year to come. Many Romans paid tribute to him along with sacrifices and promises of being a better person.
While the Julian Calendar took some time to gain popularity — and ultimately had some pretty massive flaws — in 1582, Pope Gregory XIII rectified this with the introduction of the Gregorian calendar. Permanently cementing the 1st of January as the beginning of the year in the western world.
For early Christians, this was a time for reflection of their past errors and the resolution to do better in the year to come. These days our resolutions are more secular. Rather than appease a god we now attempt to satisfy ourselves and those around us, by choosing this arbitrary date to set a commitment. Fooling ourselves into a burst of unsustainable motivation.
Why do New Year’s Resolutions fail?
Armed with some explanations behind why we practice this bizarre tradition in the first place, let’s look at some of the reason’s why you’ve made and ultimately forgotten countless New Years Resolutions.
Firstly, you’re not alone. Statistically, only 8–9% of people who make a resolution will stick with and achieve their intended goal. Anecdotally, I was not one of those people. In fact, one year at midnight I resolved to quit drinking only to promptly forget and finish the one I still had in my hand. I had not even lasted 5mins into the new year.
So, what are a few things that could explain this horrendously low success rate?
“Replacing a deeply embedded bad habit with a good one involves much more than being temporarily “psyched up” over some simplistic success formula, such as “Think Positively” or “Try harder”. It takes deep understanding of self and of the principles and processes of growth and change.” — Stephen R Covey, ‘Principle Centred Leadership’
There seem to be recurring tropes brought up amongst the people I’ve spoken to about this topic:
- Long-term unspecific goal setting.
- Lack of accountability to self-imposed rules.
- Human nature of wanting instant satisfaction over long-term gain.
- Relying on an imaginary reset button to offer us a second wind.
Let’s be realistic here, the end of the year is a time of over-indulgence and family stress. We eat and drink too much, exercise too little and put our routine in the bin until reality comes calling, and we drag ourselves back to our daily responsibilities.
Why is it then that we decide that now — with all the stress, shame and guilt that literally feels like a bowling ball in your stomach — is the best time to be introducing a new commitment to our lives? Now should be the time to reflect and assess our current routines and habits, taking the opportunity to recognise what hasn’t been working and plan to change them.
The keyword is ‘plan’. It’s common for people to over-commit and set big, unspecific goals for the new year. One I’ve heard countlessly over my years as a Personal Trainer is to get fit, eat better and lose weight. These are big goals and while they are unspecific, they are certainly achievable with the right plan.
One problem is that these goals give us no short-term satisfaction. Exercising is uncomfortable, exhausting and painful. Dieting feels like a punishment and the scales never seem to move, so what’s it matter if you skip the gym one day or have fast food for lunch occasionally?
Suddenly that ideal body you want doesn’t seem to be any closer, is it even worth it anymore?
What Can You Do to Be Successful in the New Year?
Take some time to contemplate your goal, think about the real reasons why you’re making this New Year’s Resolution. While you’re thinking hard about what you want to achieve next year have a think about some steps you could take to get closer to that goal.
Now think about these steps individually. What small habits can you instil that would assist with each of these steps?
Great, now it’s time to plan how to introduce theses habits gradually into your daily life.
Okay, so you’ve gotten this far, now go tell someone!
By breaking up our larger goals into smaller, more manageable steps, and by sharing this with the people around us, we achieve several things.
For one thing, we provide ourselves with a measure of how we are progressing. The self-validation you get when you present yourself with a list of everything you have achieved so far never wears off. The external validation when others can clearly see what steps you’ve taken to get what you want feels pretty damn good too.
But more than that, by celebrating small wins, we are pandering to our human need for instant gratification from our actions and by involving the people around us, we build a foundation for accountability.
The most significant bit of advice I want to leave you with is to just forget about the New Year’s Resolutions altogether. It’s an arbitrary made-up date that holds no real significant power over your life. There’s no second wind, there’s no clean slate. You won’t magically wake up on January 1st as a new, reinvented you.
Resolutions don’t have a start date or finish date, there’s no imaginary deadline of 365 days, and your current habits do not define you. Habits, much like resolutions, can be made and broken. You have the choice to improve your habits or maintain the same path. If you only improve by one per cent a day, you will have improved by 365% by the end of the year!
So make a resolution to track and improve your habits today! You don’t need an imaginary kick-off date to start being a better, more organised you. Tell your friends and family, download a habit tracker or buy a notebook. Every year is your year, so go out and take it!