New Year’s Resolutions get a “bum rap.” They’re often derided as deluded wishful thinking and as rarely successful. But I think they provide us with a wonderful opportunity to reflect and reevaluate, to engage in self-forgiveness and acceptance, and to rekindle hope and commitment to important goals—and, if approached carefully, they can be very successful.
Resolutions often involve things we know are good to do, but which either get lost in the mire of our daily obligations—like spending more time with loved ones or dedicating time to charitable work, or which are downright unpleasant—like controlling overeating or spending responsibly.
New Year’s Resolutions can serve as a reminder about our values and priorities. Each day is filled with obligations and stuff that has to get done. A special date, like New Year’s Day, can remind us to step back and take a look at where we are and where we’d like to go in life.
Even more importantly, resolutions provide us with a chance for a “fresh start.” Renewed hope. A chance for a “do-over.” We stop to reflect on what we should be doing—and haven’t done. We have an opportunity for self-forgiveness for our failings and acceptance of our selves, as we strive to do better. We can be empowered and reenergized.
How to Make Them Successful
But we can’t just wish something to be and expect it to happen. We must develop strategies to ensure that we can accomplish these goals.
Having a significant marker—a clear and special start date—is a good start. We share New Year’s as a culturally recognized “new beginning.” Social psychology notes the importance of culturally prescribed “rites of passage”—as in weddings, Bar and Bat Mitzvahs, Confirmations, etc.—to help mark new beginnings and to solidify new roles. New Year’s celebrations occur annually and are certainly not as profound as these other rites, but can provide a boost for starting a new journey.
But the excitement that comes from renewed hope is likely to wane as the year progresses. Identifying other motivators is important. We need to identify exactly why we want to pursue this goal. So family members will be happier? Which ones? So we’ll feel more connected to humanity? In what ways? So we’ll feel healthier and more comfortable? How will we experience this? It’s important to be as specific as possible in answering this question.
And then we must visualize these positive outcomes—as clearly as if we were watching them occurring on a video. Research on procrastination tells us that we relate to our “future self” as if it were someone else (Pychyl, 2013). Eating the cheesecake brings us immediate pleasure—that unfortunate “other person” can deal with the consequences in the future. So, it’s helpful to look for ways to make our future self salient in the present. We must visualize ourselves as that fit person, published author, or runner in a marathon.
We must also identify reasonable, realistic, and concrete steps to achieving the goal. If we wish to lose 20 pounds, write a book, prepare for a marathon, etc., we’ll need to identify the steps on the way to the goal, translated in behavioral terms. What would one have to do to lose 20 pounds, for example? On Week 1? On Week 2? Again, small steps, defined in terms of behaviors.
Of course we’ll lose track of our goal—“fall off the wagon”—from time to time. So we also need to establish regular times to reevaluate and reconnect to the goal. Maybe a weekly time, marked in our calendar, to see how we’ve been doing and the next steps to take.
The “20-second rule” (Acher, 2010) is also very helpful. We need to create an environment where it will take no more than 20 seconds to begin doing the behavior. If we want to go for a run every morning, we need to have our running clothes ready and set out so that we can get out of the door before getting distracted from (or talking ourselves out of) the activity. If we want to be sure we eat more fruits and vegetables, we should have them all washed, prepared, and visible in the refrigerator.
Finally, research tells us the positive impact of social support, both on well-being and on attaining goals. We should declare our resolution to others. Perhaps others can be supportive of our journey and maybe even join in.
You can find more on making even dreaded tasks work in Facing Dreaded Projects.
Acher, S. (2010). The happiness advantage. NY: Crown Business.
Pychyl, T. A. (2013). Solving the procrastination puzzle. LLC Gildan Media.