The New Year brings with it a lot of psychological connotations. Tabula Rasa. A clean slate. The chance to start over. It’s tempting to make grand pronouncements that “this year is different” and embark upon life-changing endeavors and hey, honestly, I think that’s cool. Life change is important to keep a person from fading away; if you’re not changing, you’re dying, as far as I’m concerned. Anytime a person decides to undertake something new it’s worthy of applause, whether it’s a huge weight loss plan, finally kicking that smoking habit, or writing every day (something that I myself am going to attempt – hey, you didn’t think I was immune to the whole New Years effect, did you?).
The truth is that 88% of all New Years Resolutions fail. That’s just the reality of the situation staring us in the face. Now, I write this post not to discourage people from making changes. Quite the opposite, in fact. I’d love to see everyone continue to examine their lives throughout the year – I just believe that New Years Resolutions contribute to burnout and keep people stagnant. It’s important to keep a grip on the changes that life are throwing at you as they come, not just on an arbitrary calendar date.
That said, let’s look at some of the reasons that New Years Resolutions might not be all that they’re cracked up to be.
5. January 1st is just another date. Seriously. We currently use the Gregorian Calendar, instituted by a papal bull from Pope Gregory XIII on February 24 1582. Previous to that, the most widely used calendar was the Julian calendar, which began with the month of Ianarius. This month lasted 29 days previous to 45 BC. There was also a 27-day month called Mercedonius during leap years. Even after the changes to the calendar following 45 BC, January 1, 2013 equates out to December 19, 2012, and that’s not even getting into the Hebrew, Islamic, or Persian Calendar. Psychologically sure it means something, but in universal terms the date means very little. Every day may as well be New Years, which means every day is just as good as the other for starting anew.
4. We don’t change simply because we resolve to. Psychology has proven this over and over again: a conscious desire to change is great, but it’s not enough. The idea that we can simply say “I’m never doing this again” and have it stay that way is part of the cultural zeitgeist that unconscious drives and desires simply don’t matter – and there’s no evidence that that is the case. I’m not saying that you can’t ever change. I’m living proof that that is simply not the case. What I’m saying is that trying to change something major without addressing the deeper underlying issues is like trying to replace your house’s roof when the walls are crumbling. It’s bound to collapse without the proper support structure to keep that change in place. You have to also focus on new ways of thinking and relating to the world, not just “not doing” something.
3. New Years Resolutions are forward-thinking. No problem with that, but it keeps you from living in the present. That might not seem like such a big deal, but it can lead to a focus on the end result (I’m going to lose 40 pounds!) rather than acknowledging that the pound you lost last week is just as important. This leads to discouragement, which often leads to the resolution failing. This is tied to Reason #1, as we’ll see.
2. Resolutions turn the process of change into an all-or-nothing affair. Black and white thinking is a danger to addicts for a very good reason: it leads to the idea that one little slip, one little failure, and you’re a bad person and thus there’s no reason to continue to evolve and change. You’re destined to failure. All-or-nothing thinking is a primal response, part of the fight-or-flight mechanism. That means you’re equating this with survival, which raises the stakes to an enormous level. Perhaps the resolution in question is a matter of life-or-death on a long enough time scale, like quitting smoking or eating healthier, but in the short time the survival instinct doesn’t do you much good beyond making “failure” a catastrophe. That’s when the process above begins to spiral out of control, and you can see how that’s a problem.
And, most importantly…
1. Change is best implemented in small increments, rather than all at once. Psychology studies confirm this, and reasons 2 and 3 underlie it. Making smaller changes keeps you from seeing these changes as all-or-nothing, survival-at-all-cost affairs. Making smaller changes also keeps you rooted in the present. That means that daily challenges are often the best way to ensure long-term success, as they can better address those underlying structural issues in the unconscious, change thinking patterns, and show that there is a path to progress. It’s far more difficult to be “a failure” when the challenges are smaller and more realistic, which can encourage larger, longer-term change when you see that it’s not an all-or-nothing affair.
And that’s that. I raise my glass to folks who are undertaking change this year! May all your wildest hopes come true – I certainly hope that mine go even farther this year.