Girl holding sparklers

How to Make Your New Year Resolutions Actually Work

Sitting at my parent’s dining-room table one Monday evening, Dad asks me about my weekend. I saw Wes Anderson’s new film The French Dispatch, I say. He is not acquainted with Wes Anderson, and I do my best to explain all the details of Wes’ signature with my very limited cinema-vocabulary. He thinks it all sounds very marvellous. Knowing he hasn’t visited the cinema in years, I tell him about the people dressed up in the foyer drinking gimlets and tap beer out of glassware. Right, he says placing his cutlery down so the metal makes a loud sound against the porcelain. Next year I’m going to start doing things differently, I’m going to start seeing movies, he says. Two a month, he says, shouting now. I sink into my chair, conscious of what is coming next. My dad makes declarations of this nature every year in the last weeks of December.

For years he has been saying he is going to start eating dinner earlier and go out for counter meals by himself in the city. The cinema one is a new resolution, at least. I sit opposite him and nod, thinking about my own resolutions for the ‘new’ year.

The New Year can be full of false promises

At the conclusion of 2020, politicians took the stage to farewell 2020 and declare several resolutions on behalf of humankind. These were resolutions for a greener planet and a return to a world which bears some semblance to normality. On the precipice of 2020, looking into 2021, hope ruminated for the first time in a while. One could sense, even smell, the change on the horizon, the departure from the turmoil that was 2020. We all toasted and celebrated, but then the days of the new 2021 rolled into weeks, rolled into months, rolled into seasons and emissions didn’t slow and Covid didn’t so much as disappear as it did change its structure like a crab moulting from its old shell and finding another: We saw the rise of the delta variant. Yet, on the 31st of December we were so sure these things would resolve themselves. I’m interested in why this one midnight of the year, on a rather arbitrary date, is so significant.

There is a humbling similarity in the resolutions we set

From Melbourne to Osaka to Brasov to Milan, there is a fascinating likeness among the resolutions human beings pronounce. I find this humbling, where to me, the commonality of our resolutions is a characteristic of a collective flaw and desire to do better. The way resolutions continue to be made across different cultures suggests this desire to improve is not culturally or economically specific, but a predisposition innate in human kind. However, as a subscriber to resolutions – resolutions I fail to fulfill- I want to know, are we wasting our time? Is this a tradition I should condone?

The precise details of the origins of new year’s resolutions are murky. Research does reveal that Babylonians were participating in similar decrees over four thousand years ago; they held that what an individual did on the first day of the new year had a profound effect on the rest of that year. As I read this, I immediately think of all the New Year’s Days I’ve spent unwell, completely flawed from too much alcohol and not enough -if any- sleep.

It’s the appeal of unchartered, untarnished territory we can fill with the improved version of ourselves

– Write every morning

– Stretch every evening

– Cook out of my cookbooks

– Learn Italian

– Go camping

reads my list from the end of 2019, a list that could easily be bought forward to this year for nothing has been achieved other than one Ottolenghi dish I tried out, nailed and settled with. I haven’t been camping. I shifted the language on my iPhone to Italian for several months but one day, when I needed to navigate a tricky setting I couldn’t locate, I had to flip it back and it’s remained in English ever since. I write when I feel. I seldom stretch and cramp often.

Though, today, on the 27th of December, I bring them forward all the same. What makes me think 2022 will be any different? It’s the appeal of a clean slate, of 365 days of unchartered, untarnished territory that you can fill with the improved version of yourself, Abbey, my developmental psychology tutor, writes me in an email. Psychologically, the turning of the calendar year imposes in us a new mindset. It is both a moment of reflection and regret (what was done, what could have been done better, what didn’t I do at all?) as well as hope and ambition (I will do x, stop y, start z).

‘Intrinsic, not extrinsic, motivation is fundamental to goal setting’

I put the question to those around me and receive a variety of replies. I was particularly impressed by my sister’s, who said she intended to stop using her smartphone around her two children unless it was absolutely necessary. I asked her if she could extend the recipients of this fabulous resolution to include me as well. My friend Daisy’s were more ambitious and vague; she wanted to be ‘healthier’, learn how to say no, not overcommit, be less impulsive, ‘get her sh*t together’. I then put the question to several psychologists at Peaceful Mind who explained to me why Daisy’s resolutions were not destined for success. Noam Dishon, a lead clinical psychologist here at Peaceful Mind, emphasises it’s not a one size fits all. Noam says while it can work for some, for others it ‘runs the risk of increasing pressure too significantly and ends up being counterproductive’. Noam says intrinsic motivators need to be at the centre of resolutions – they are personally rewarding (I want to exercise to feel stronger) – rather than extrinsic motivators based on outside causes (I want big muscles to look good in my swimsuit this year). My take from this is just “wanting” it is never enough. One must bring mindfulness and purpose to the resolution, otherwise we are deceiving ourselves, wasting time.

People will change when they are ready to change

Another psychologist as Peaceful Mind, Harriet Dakis Rofe, says personally she doesn’t do resolutions. ‘I think because the world is constantly changing and we as humans have to try and be flexible with this change, and sometimes concrete goals don’t allow for as much flexibility. If anything, I’d say I make more ‘monthly’ goals for myself because it feels more realistic’. I find this insight on ‘monthly goals’ incredibly helpful and relevant to the dilemma of 2022. I take issue with the proclamation of a ‘New Year New Me’ mentality. Sure, it can be nice to say at the beginning of the year but people will change when they are ready to change. We all know that when we wake up on the 1st of January, we are still the same person as the day before.

Set macro goals so you won’t feel so hopeless all the time

All week, podcast episodes on the New Year and resolutions circulate my feed. Today, on a late morning walk, I click play on a Vox Conversation about making a new habit stick. Set macro goals so you won’t feel so hopeless all the time, the podcaster says of making a habit stick. His habit was to start doing regular push-ups. I did one push-up after every wee, he says. And if I did more I’d feel like a legend, like I’d really accomplished something. Three years on and he still does at least one push-up every time he uses the bathroom. Since hearing this, I’ve been writing every day, only a few small sentences, every time I hop into bed in the evening or board the number 70 tram. Occasionally, there is a flow-on effect. The podcaster also suggests bringing the acronym SMART to this year’s resolutions, which outlines the psychological principles of goal setting.

‘SMART’ goals

SPECIFIC:

A broad goal may look like Daisy’s ‘get my sh*t together’, whereas the SMART version of this zooms in on a particular outcome or behaviour. This could look like buying a diary, making sure she writes in all her assignment due dates before the semester begins, asking for holiday leave from work in advance or tracking her data usage throughout the month to avoid exceeding limits and hefty bills. (All things that might make her sh*t feel ‘together’; all things she did not do in 2020*)

MEASURURABLE:

It is impossible to know if you have achieved your New Year’s resolution if the goal cannot be measured in some way, shape or form. It is great to want to focus on work-life balance, but what does this statement truly mean? How can you measure it? It might mean making it home for dinner every weekday, getting X number of weekends away with the family or turning your emails off over the weekend. Measurable goals allow us to know exactly when our goal is/isn’t being achieved and when we might need to make a change to meet them.

ACHIEVABLE:

In Daisy’s pursuit to be what she calls ‘healthier’, she probably shouldn’t enrol herself to run a half marathon at the start of the year with no running experience (and pull out last minute) like she did last year. Perhaps 30-60 minutes of rigorous exercise 3 times a week is a good start or drinking a minimum of two litres of water a day. Reaching these more achievable goals instils a sense of positive accomplishment and will likely motivate further goals.

RELEVENT:

Resolution needs to align with what you’re about; we’re talking character and values. I want to do really well in my studies this year but for me this goal doesn’t manifest in wrote learning, high distinctions or a certain grade point average. My priority is to have a sound understanding of everything I am exposed to at uni, to think deeply about the content and comprehend its relevance to the everyday world I walk among.

TIMEBOUND:

A lack of time frame increases ambivalence around the resolution. The goal needs to have some structure otherwise it will be put off to an uninhabitable tomorrow, a future that is what we call ‘soon’. A time frame is the only thing that’s going to get us moving, hold us accountable but be sure to set the time frame in line with the first three principles: specific, realistic and achievable!

All in all, the literature suggests we keep our lists short and be kind to ourselves in the pursuit of our resolutions. Be flexible and don’t place too much pressure on yourself, otherwise great intentions turn into chores. I have since tweaked my own resolutions for the new year to avoid the uncomfortable cognitive dissonance my previous ambitious lists have conveyed in me. The new list reads:

Sit down and write a sentence every day

Slow down and don’t rush

Learn to conjugate 5 verbs in Italian

Take Dad to the movies.

For more on goal-setting using intrinsic motivators, you may like to read blog post Why Your New Year Resolutions Don’t Work and A New Plan for 2021 to learn how to start to learn how accept yourself.