In normal years, the beginning of a New Year is marked around the world with exuberant celebration and personal reflection, traditions that may trace back more than 4,000 years to the ancient Babylonians. Every March, the Babylonians held a 12-day festival marking the beginning of their year and made resolutions designed to earn the favor of their gods. Other ancient civilizations followed suit. The Romans, for example, made animal sacrifices and promises to Janus, the god of beginnings, at the start of each new year. Early Christians would also use the new year to atone for last year’s wrong-doings and resolve to do better the following year.
Today, resolutions tend to be less about earning favor with God, and more about motivating ourselves to become better people or to improve our situation/life in some fundamental way. Research shows that most resolutions fall into one of these categories:
Today, nearly 45% of Americans admit to making New Year’s resolutions, but only about 8% of resolution-makers report success and 68% admit to giving up on their resolutions prior to February 1, citing a lack of self-discipline or a lack of time. This leads to feelings of failure and low self-confidence.
So, how can we break this vicious cycle of making resolutions, failing to keep them and then feeling awful about ourselves? Here are some suggestions for success:
Make it personally rewarding. Often we pick resolutions that we think would make us better in other people’s eyes. Our resolutions are grounded in social norms of how rich we should be, how we should look and what society dictates we should want. If we don’t necessarily want those things, they don’t bring us inherent pleasure or motivate us to stick with it.
Ask yourself why you want to make this change. Consider how it will improve your life. Ask yourself what you need to be joyful! Then choose one resolution instead of three to five which is the norm. Pick the resolution that would bring you the most joy or the most positive change! Then, when you succeed at that resolution, you can choose another.
Be specific about your resolution. Many of our resolutions are too ambiguous—like “be a better person.” What does that even mean? You have to get specific: I want to donate more time to a cause that is important to me. Even that is too vague. How much time do you want to donate? How much time do you realistically have? If you don’t have a lot of time, start with something that is doable like two hours a month.
Maybe you want to spend more time being creative. This is a great resolution as it will improve your focus and your mental health. But just wanting to be more creative doesn’t really lead to actual creativity and a successful resolution. Instead try: I want to create a new piece of art every month. I will work on it two hours every Saturday in the afternoons. Have a measurable and an attainable goal in order to gauge progress.
Make do with what you have now. Don’t select resolutions that require you to buy new equipment, join a gym or pick up a new set of paints. These tend to be about the dopamine high from a shopping experience and not really about the goal itself. Work with what you have right now to ensure that you are choosing a resolution that is about the goal not the purchase.
Break the goal into manageable tasks. It’s not realistic to assume you can complete a big goal in one sitting, or a short period of time. Give yourself permission to work on it with little blocks of time. You’ll be more likely to change the desired behavior or create the masterpiece you’re hoping for if you do a little bit over a long period, rather than pushing yourself to do it all at once.
Related to manageable steps is the idea that you need to make small change over time to get to big change. Let yourself ease into it. It’s unrealistic to assume you’ll go from never working out, to working out one hour every day in January, for example. Instead, consider setting a goal to add 90 minutes of exercise a week in January, then 120 minutes of exercise a week in February and March, until you get to your desired outcome.
Talk about it. By sharing your resolution with family and friends, you create accountability as well as a support system. They may be able to help you carve out some time to go to the pottery studio or have someone watch your kids for a while so you can write one afternoon a week. Encourage them to continue to ask you about your resolution, which helps motivate you to keep moving forward.
Celebrate small milestones. Telling friends and family also provides you with individuals to help you celebrate milestones. Instead of only celebrating that one big final outcome that you are trying to achieve, make sure you celebrate small successes along the way. Even if it is just a mental pat on the back, it’s important to recognize when you are taking steps forward (no matter how small) to make your life better.
Along with being brave enough to try, it’s important to give yourself grace and self-compassion when you aren’t progressing toward your goal as quickly as you would like. Adapt your plan by simplifying or changing your resolution and by giving yourself permission to do so! Even if you haven’t started at all, better to take a pause and get started than to abandon it altogether. Self-care and understanding will keep the anxiety and disappointment at bay and leave you with the peace of mind that you may not be where you want to be, but you are further along than you were! There is something to be said for that.
Recently, Christine Chopyak, bestselling author of “Picture your Business Strategy: Transform Decisions with the Power of Visuals,” conducted a workshop for the Thomas S. Kenan Institute for the Arts at University of North Carolina School of the Arts. Her workshop, “Picture Your Passion,” will help you walk through a goal-setting exercise that creates a visual roadmap for your new year. You can view the workshop in the video below. Download the accompanying slides here.