Ringing in the new year is colored with rich cultural and familial rituals. One in particular however, the one that comes after the fireworks and champagne, can feel burdensome: setting New Year’s resolutions. It can get you excited about the year, but actually maintaining such ambitions is no easy task.
New Year’s resolutions do not stem from Americans’ toxic need to consistently better one’s self. Instead, the practice has ancient ties. About 4,000 years ago, Babylonians were the first people in recorded history to celebrate the new year. Laying the ground for our current tradition, they made promises to the gods to pay their debts and return borrowed objects. The Babylonians believed that if they stuck to these promises, their gods would bestow favor on them for the year.
— Dolly Parton (@DollyParton) January 4, 2021
Now, over half of us make New Year’s resolutions, but the amount that actually attain such goals is pretty dismal. Only 8 percent actually make the achievement (we are humans, not machines after all). So if New Year’s resolutions are a steadfast tradition, why is there so much failure? More importantly, how can we be successful?
You can start by taking a cue from the mantra, “enjoy the journey, not the destination.” It’s a simplified, dreamer’s take on the Ralph Waldo Emerson quote, “To finish the moment, to find the journey’s end in every step of the road, to live the greatest number of good hours, is wisdom.”
Life is a highway (and so is goal achievement)
A 2017 study in the Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin found immediate benefits were a stronger predictor of persistence with a goal, as opposed to delayed benefits. The importance of a goal did not guarantee success.
“People who had a better experience were more successful at their goal,” Kaitlin Woolley, one of the researchers, said. “If they found goal pursuit to be more engaging or actually easier to do, they were more likely to be still following through on their goal two months later.”
Woolley’s suggestions included finding ways to better the experience or adding in immediate rewards. She pinpointed examples for exercise.
“You can add in music or watch a Netflix show while you’re working out, and that’s kind of like an easy boost,” she explained. “Having a friend who you work out with kind of makes the experience more fun because now you have that partner in it with you.”
Given there are many resolutions beyond exercising, Woolley also noted gamification and dividing up a big goal into subgoals as helpful. Phone apps can make a chore actually feel fun and setting up regular check ins (weekly, monthly, etc.) can move you forward.
“If you’re able to monitor where you are and think about where you want to be, versus where you are now, that can help you stay on track for your goal,” Woolley said. “Having a way to jump into some goals can be, I think, effective, especially for New Year resolutions.”
The start of something new
However, given the turbulence of 2020, psychologist Dr. Sophie Lazarus warned against New Year’s resolutions.
“It’s probably more useful to look at what’s going on in our lives— and especially given everything that has been asked of us and all of the adaptation we’ve been doing in 2020,” Lazarus told CNET. “This is an especially difficult year [and] we don’t really want to set ourselves up for that kind of disappointment and stress that makes it even harder to cope.”
It all really depends on what works best for you. For instance, research on the fresh start effect suggests the new year is as good of a time as ever to pursue your goals. Research published by the University of Pennsylvania shows that people are more likely to pursue aspirational behavior at the start of “new epochs,” like the beginning of a new semester or even a new week.
“New Year’s is one of these sort of big fresh starts,” Woolley said. “It’s a clean slate and you can start anew.”