Hope springs eternal when it comes to grand plans for the new year.
How to keep your resolutions
What are Americans resolving to do this year?
We’ve set some very broad goals for 2017. This year’s most popular New Year’s resolution is “being a better person,” cited by 16 percent of resolution makers, according to the Marist Institute for Public Opinion’s annual survey. Old standbys “exercising more” and “weight loss” tied for second place at 10 percent, while “spending less money,” “saving more,” “improving one’s health,” and “eating healthier” each received 7 percent. Overall, some 44 percent of Americans made resolutions for 2017, up from 39 percent last year. The “fresh start” effect may explain why the new year brings big ambitions. Research shows we’re more likely to engage in aspirational behavior after calendar milestones, like birthdays or at the beginning of a new month or year. “The mere prospect of turning a calendar page can be enough to make planners forget about obstacles,” say psychologists Benjamin Converse and Marie Hennecke. “Goals look greener on the other side of the calendar.”
Will we stick to our goals?
Probably not. Only 8 percent of people who set New Year’s resolutions actually achieve their aims, according to a study by the University of Scranton in Pennsylvania. Roughly half of New Year’s promises are broken by midyear; a quarter of resolutions don’t even survive the first week of January. Facebook check-ins at locations with “gym” or “fitness” in the name, for instance, drop by 10 percent in February. The annual drop-off is so predictable that Gold’s Gym calculates what it calls the “fitness cliff,” the date after which daily gym visits have peaked. But despite the extremely high failure rate of New Year’s resolutions, there are clear upsides to the annual ritual. People who make New Year’s resolutions are 10 times more likely to achieve goals than people who don’t bother to make resolutions at all.
Why do people fail?
It’s pretty simple: We bite off more than we can chew. Social scientists say “false hope syndrome” is behind our tendency to set unrealistic goals. We wildly underestimate how difficult it is to change habits that may have been built up over years. People also fail because they set too many resolutions, hoping to revamp their life in one fell swoop, or they lack a clear plan for achieving one big goal. “When you say, ‘This year, I will lose 30 pounds,’ but have no real strategy to make it happen, the number on the scale simply isn’t going to change,” says executive coach Tasha Eurich. “As the saying goes, hope is not a plan.”
What’s the best way to stay on track?
Many productivity experts recommend the SMART goals system, pioneered by legendary management consultant Peter Drucker. That is, goals should be specific, measurable, achievable, realistic, and time-based. Not only should your resolution be physically possible, but you should be able to track your progress throughout the year as well. Vaguely vowing to cut down on drinking alcohol “is an admirable goal, but it’s not SMART,” says Mark Griffiths, a professor of behavioral addiction. “Drinking no more than two units of alcohol every other day for one month is a SMART resolution.”
Is that the only way?
No. In fact, setting a goal for the entire year may not even be the right choice for you. Monthlong challenges are an increasingly popular alternative, for everything from establishing a new exercise routine to writing that first novel. Because 30-day sprints are more manageable than a yearlong marathon, you’re more likely to succeed at them, experts say. And even if you stumble, the next challenge is right around the corner. Google software engineer Matt Cutts explained the concept in a popular 2011 TED Talk video that has since been viewed more than 8 million times. “Think about something you’ve always wanted to add to your life and try it for the next 30 days,” advises Cutts, who has tackled challenges like cutting out sugar and bicycling to work. Time management guru Laura Vanderkam is a fan of 90-day goals, or at least breaking down yearlong resolutions into quarterly chunks. “Life changes a lot in a year,” she says. “Goals set annually may not feel relevant in 12 months. Or 12 months seems so far away that you figure you can always start tomorrow.”
What if I fall off the wagon?
The key is to not punish yourself. Slipups are a natural part of building new habits, which is why resolutions shouldn’t be overly restrictive or impossible to achieve in the first place. And don’t be afraid to start over again. “Changing your behavior, or some aspect of it, doesn’t have to be restricted to the start of the new year,” Griffiths says. “It can be anytime.”
Resolutions throughout history
The tradition of annual resolution making can be traced back some 4,000 years to ancient Babylon, home of the earliest recorded New Year’s celebrations. The Babylonians celebrated their new year in the spring with the feast of Akitu, beginning on the first new moon after the vernal equinox and lasting for 11 days. In addition to celebrating the rebirth of the sky god Marduk, the Babylonians sought to curry favor with the deities for the coming year by promising to pay off debts and return borrowed farm equipment. Modern New Year’s resolutions may also have religious roots. In a classic 1951 study, sociologist Isidor Thorner argued that the Western tradition of setting resolutions originated in Protestantism, specifically with watch-night services on New Year’s Eve, popularized by the Methodist Church in 18thcentury England. The late-night services, which continue today in many churches, are an opportunity for worshippers to reflect on the past year and make spiritual resolutionsfor the year ahead.