After the last of the wrapping paper’s been taken to the recycling bin and all that’s left of the holiday season is a mile-long credit card statement, thoughts invariably turn to the new year. Many people spend the days leading up to January in a state of reflection, wondering what’s to come and, more specifically, what changes they want to come. That’s often when resolutions are born, ranging from health-related goals like “lose weight” or “stop smoking” to altruistic aims like “volunteer more” or “be a nicer person.”
The past year’s hopes and disappointments, as well as the optimism and promise that the new year symbolizes, can serve as one big motivational force. Yet the majority of people don’t make it to the end of the year with their goals achieved or their missions completed; the force putters out sometime in between. Why isn’t January 1 a good time to enact positive change in our lives, and why are we driven to do so anyway?
A Bad Time for Change
A 2009 Marist poll found that of the people who made resolutions the previous year, 35 percent ditched them by the year’s end. A study led by Richard Wiseman, professor and author of Quirkology: The Curious Science of Everyday Lives , produced even more dismal results: of the three thousand resolution-making participants Wiseman and his colleagues tracked from the beginning to the end of 2007, only 12 percent of them achieved their goals. When you consider that 52 percent of them felt completely confident at the start of the study about their objectives’ coming to fruition, their ultimate failure seems even sadder. Obviously, people want to succeed, and they often make resolutions with their well-being in mind. For example, the Marist poll showed that weight loss is the most common one among both men and women. But for some reason, trying to make changes like that happen on January 1 seems to actually increase the risk of failure.
It’s easy to see why so many of us make resolutions for ourselves at the start of a year: the beginning of any new endeavor is inspiring, whether it’s the start of a new week, new season, new career, and so forth. With the birth of a new year comes a chance to begin anew, to shed any negative thoughts or events of the past and move onward and upward. But if you think about it, there are a lot of conditions related to the new year that make keeping resolutions especially difficult. First of all, it falls right after the hectic holiday season, which leaves most people feeling frazzled and utterly drained. And then there’s winter—cold, dark, dreary winter. When seasonal affective disorder (SAD) hits, it hits hard. Depression, sluggishness, and exhaustion are all common around this time of year, thanks to chilly temperatures and dwindling daylight hours.
Beyond the rolled-over stress of the holidays and winter’s physical and emotional tolls, there’s a lot of pressure revolving around resolutions near the new year. Because of this, some people make them just for the sake of making them, without giving much thought to the hows and whys. The pressure to succeed increases as other people around us make goals for themselves as well, and then it becomes more about not being the one to fail, rather than about committing to what it takes to get real results. Granted, plenty of evidence shows that making goals jointly with other people increases one’s chances of succeeding, but where lifetime changes are concerned, the motivation ultimately has to come from within. When goals are made simply because a new year is coming up, that’s not the case.
The Factors That Separate Success from Failure
Even though the odds seem stacked against New Year’s resolution makers, there are factors that help make them more successful—as well as factors that tend to lead them toward failure. A 1997 University of Washington survey found that when it comes to health-related goals, coming up with solutions to potential problems that might arise during the resolution journey, keeping tabs on progress, and having a strong will to succeed beforehand are all key to keeping resolutions. Choosing a goal at the last minute or haphazardly (as in, based on how you’re feeling at the moment, rather than on actual changes you’ve wanted to make in the past) pretty much ensures that you’ll ditch it a few months down the line.
Making too many goals might be an issue as well: the survey showed that 67 percent of the respondents made at least three resolutions at the start of the year. Spreading oneself too thin will most likely lead to burnout. Instead of feeling pressured to make as many changes as possible starting January 1 (another downside to New Year’s Eve resolutions), focus on the most important one, come up with a sustainable plan of action, and commit to it fully. If you have many issues you want to address, consider making short-term goals throughout the year instead. The start of a new day offers just as much of a chance for change as the commencement of a new year does. Go by when you feel ready for a resolution, rather than by when a social tradition deems it appropriate. That might mean January 1 or June 1—either way, you’re that much closer to victory.