New Year’s Resolutions don’t work.
As of writing this article, it’s currently a month into 2021, and every single one of my friends has broken their New Year’s Resolution.
They’re not alone — studies show that only 8% of Americans who make a New Year’s resolution actually keep them all year, and 80% have failed by the start of February.
If you are part of the 80%, don’t worry! The problem isn’t due to self-control or mental fortitude — we fail because we misunderstand what resolutions are and how we can avoid breaking them. Through SMART goals and concepts from James Clear’s book Atomic Habits, anyone can create resolutions with effective incentives and progression.
Resolutions are, in essence, ultimatums, designed to reward your subconscious for making a change. To figure out where we go wrong, let’s start with a basic statement: “From the beginning of the New Year, I will exercise every single day.”
While this may sound like a good resolution, it is a terrible ultimatum. Immediately after its conception, your subconscious begins to poke holes in it.
- What amount of exercise counts as enough?
- When do I exercise? Could I push it back a bit?
- What is the punishment if I don’t exercise?
It is human nature to analyze rules for their boundaries and loopholes — it’s what allows us to minimize work and find minor advantages in our daily lives. While you might assume keeping your resolution vague allows you to avoid breaking your resolution, in reality, it opens up more ways for your subconscious to weasel out of work.
To address this, brainstorm answers to these questions, and if need be, write them down on a piece of paper.
- I will complete exactly 30 minutes of a HIIT exercise video.
- It will begin within an hour of arriving home every evening.
- If I miss a session, I will not go on social media or watch TV until the next time I exercise.
Having strict rules streamlines thinking — eventually, you should move from task to task without even thinking about it. Building signaling networks to do this subconsciously requires effort — and many repetitions. James Clear recommends what he calls “implementation intentions” — writing statements that fix actions at a time and place.
“I will [BEHAVIOR] at [TIME] in [LOCATION]”
Written commitments force your subconscious to acknowledge your prior intentions. While you may no longer be in the mood to exercise when the time comes, having a physical representation of your broken promise can often be the last push needed to get butts off of seats.
Now that we know how to avoid breaking commitments, let’s work on brainstorming strong resolutions. To assist with this, I recommend SMART goals. SMART is a mnemonic for Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant, and Time-bound.
Specific: if requirements are vague — or unmeasurable — how do you know if you are fulfilling them? As an example, two vague goals:
- “I will go to the gym” — How often? When? What exercises?
- “I’ll eat healthier” — At all meals? How much does your diet change?
Goals need to be specific and direct. You shouldn’t divert energy into considering whether an action is allowed — going back to streamlined thinking, adding ambiguity allows internal conflict and detracts from your ability to resist temptations.
Measurable: when results are unquantifiable, you don’t know if you are succeeding or not. Goals such as, “I will manage my anger by 45%.” How can you conclude if anger has been managed by 45% or only 40%?
Without data, it is easy to become unmotivated. Numbers fascinate our mind — counting each push-up you do, or calorie you cut can become an addicting habit. Even on Medium, “7 Ways To…” and “10 Things To…” headline half of the daily top articles (Look at Buzzfeed if you need further evidence). Use quantifiable goals and data tracking devices to add accountability and reinforce positive actions.
Achievable: This one explains itself. Missing targets can cause discouragement and negatively impact self-confidence and the ability to accomplish future resolutions and goals.
Figure out what is are realistic objectives that will challenge but not exhaust you. If you have a previous resolution that failed, see if you can initially decrease the goal’s intensity and move on. Avoid goals that depend on others (“I will make my friends like me more”) or subject to luck (“I will win the lottery this year”).
Relevant: For resolutions to matter at all, they need to apply to you. I know learning Norwegian every day would be difficult for me to maintain because I don’t have the necessity or inclination to learn that language. For people living in/near Norway or are interested in Norwegian culture and media, that goal may be highly relevant.
Current events and climate can also promote or restrict certain resolutions — partying at nightclubs weekly, for example, may not be the best goal during a pandemic.
Time-bound: It’s easy to disparage incremental progress, especially in a society of instantaneous gratification. For example, while fad diets may appear promising, first look into taking small steps to replace parts of your meals with healthier alternatives.
If you advance carefully, only increasing intensity when you feel comfortable, falling back is much harder. What is essential is not scaling up intensity as fast as possible but focus on building consistent habits day-by-day.
Losing half a pound per week is preferable to losing twenty in the first half of the year and gaining it back in the second — set easily measurable, realistic goals you can commit to regularly and gradually scale up. A New Year’s Resolution has a fixed timeframe, so ask yourself:
- What can I do in a year?
- How about in six months?
- When the next year comes around, where do I want to be?
If you feel overwhelmed, you aren’t alone — planning is tough. Take some time to digest everything, and don’t be afraid to write down reflections and notes!
One final recommendation I’ll make is to find a resolution buddy (or several people) you can work on goals together with. Having a partner to keep you company and accountable can make resolutions far more comfortable to maintain, and a support network can give help and advice when you hit road bumps during the year.
Every habit’s intent, every resolution, is to cause ingrained change — a subconscious routine that has become a part of yourself. As long as you focus on the long-term mentality shifts required and the advice of SMART goals and forward-thinking planning, I believe next year you’ll be keeping two New Year’s Resolutions.