Resolutions go hand-in-hand with New Years Day. As the year turns to a fresh start, this motivates many people to make resolutions, promises or intentions that they mark with 1/1 as the start date. Yet every conversation about resolutions inevitably turns to the low success rate, and lack of follow through that most resolutions contain. Why do we keep making resolutions, and how can we improve our ability to keep them?
To start, the history of resolutions is tied to the history of our calendar. It was the Emperor Julius Caeser who changed the calendar and marked January 1 as the start of the new year. The month, January, was named for the Roman god Janus, who looked both backwards and forwards with his two faces. This symbolism, of looking behind and ahead, marked the tradition of making intentions and promises for the new year. As religions evolved and changed, the New Year Day was marked as a day of prayer and resolution, and this then evolved from making promises to the gods to making promises closer to home, to our loved ones and ourselves.
Humans, and Americans in particular, are drawn to the idea of self-improvement, and this is likely the reason why over 40% of American’s admit to making New Years resolutions. Yet only 8% of Americans achieve their goal. Part of the reason for this is that the goal may be unattainable. Believing erroneously that this is the last chance to make a resolution until the new New Year’s Day comes around, many people make too large of a resolution, such as wanting a complete job change, or losing an unrealistic amount of weight. The advice here is to tackle just one behavior at a time, with shorter goals. Rather than cutting out all sugar from your diet, instead try to replace one dessert per day with a more healthy alternative.
Focusing on behaviors and habits rather than the outcome can also help. If your goal is to improve your body strength, aim to visit the gym three out of seven days per week. If your goal is to increase your social presence, make an effort to reach out, and then ask for help and support. Research shows that having support from those who care about you can help you stick to a tough goal or task. And professional help, such as a therapist, can be helpful in identifying thoughts and emotions that may create obstacles in reaching your goals.
It also can help to have shorter end dates. If you have a goal of visiting the gym more frequently next year, set the end date of that goal six weeks from when you start the goal. Even though it won’t be a full year, six weeks is enough time to see if the habit has been established, and it allows you to tweak or modify the goal. Maybe in your self-improvement efforts you have learned that you prefer running outside to running indoors on a treadmill. Don’t let the resolution lock you in to something that will ultimately be unsuccessful. Instead, allow yourself to tweak and modify the goal in a more short-term format, and have the next six weeks focus on maintaining the running habit, increasing water intake, or preparing for a race.
Resolutions are a way to take inventory of what is going well, and what could be improved. It can help to make small, specific, and attainable goals. It also can help to have frequent check-ins, and support along the way. Remember that resolutions don’t have to wait for January 1, and the ultimate end goal is what works for you.