This year, I didn’t celebrate New Year’s Eve with a party. Instead, I participated in one of the holiday’s other traditions: setting aside time for self-reflection.
I sat at my brother’s desk and wrote down goals for 2022 in my journal. While reading over what I’d just written with so much hope, I came to a realization: my goals were the same as the ones I’d written for 2021. Back then, I promised myself to start exercising. One year later, I was stealing posture exercises from YouTube.
I was discouraged by my apparent lack of progress. The most irritating part of my frustration was that I didn’t know where to place the blame — was I just undisciplined, or are New Year’s resolutions nothing more than a blatant lie?
A history of New Year’s resolutions
New Year’s resolutions are thought to have first been used by the Babylonians in around 2,000 BCE. Their customs consisted of a 12-day religious festival, during which they made promises to earn the favour of their gods at the beginning of the new year. During that time, they also vowed to pay their debts and return the farming equipment they had borrowed.
As the years passed, yearly resolutions continued in a variety of locations. For instance, during the middle ages, some knights took ‘peacock vows,’ where they renewed their commitment to chivalry toward the end of each Christmas season.
However — with all due respect to New Year’s resolutions enthusiasts — a new year does not equate to a fresh start. When midnight passes, we do not become blank slates. Instead, we carry our fears, habits, aspirations and coping mechanisms with us into the new year, whether we acknowledge them or not.
This doesn’t mean that intentions to become better versions of ourselves are naive. It just means that we shouldn’t expect to receive everything we desire solely based on our intentions. Instead, we should examine our current selves to note behaviors and beliefs that could be hindering us from achieving our goals.
Why do we fail at keeping resolutions?
On average, people give up their resolutions in the first couple of months of the new year. This is because they have false hope syndrome, which is defined as a tendency to set unrealistic goals by miscalculating the amount of time and energy it would take to achieve them.
In basic terms, most of us fall into the trap of expecting shortcuts. The instant gratification we’re used to — whether from hitting the snooze button on our alarms, buying products we don’t need, or eating junk food instead of balanced meals — makes the long efforts of establishing a new lifestyle seem unnecessary.
But nothing ever comes from miracle solutions, with the poor exception of diarrhea. Resolutions are also difficult to maintain because we focus on the goal instead of taking actionable steps toward our outcome. For example, we’ll keep our “I should read more often” mentality instead of placing a book on our pillows as a reminder. We’re not enamoured by reading at any one particular moment because it’ll mean interrupting our Gossip Girl marathons.
How can we make resolutions maintainable?
Let’s be honest — New Year’s resolutions are often naive at best and delusional at worst. In Atomic Habits, writer James Clear explains that the secret to establishing good habits is to build a system of small but consistent gestures that will make you one per cent better each day. In other words, be realistic and start small. The secret is to make space in your daily routine for these tiny habits to exist. Humans love to obsess over the results of our efforts. However, we often fail to understand that we must strive for better habits regardless of their result. Don’t exercise because you want to have a smaller waist — exercise because wellness is your right, even if you’re not a suburban mom of two.
Think about it: what happens after you’ve reached your goal? Do you put those newly developed habits back to sleep? Our resolutions must be attached to lifelong improvements, not a set date on a calendar. After all, there’s no deadline for self-growth.
Ultimately, New Year’s resolutions can only work with focus. Every day, we must make decisions that align with our goals. Don’t base your approach on sporadic motivation — if you do, you’ll be like me and set the same resolutions every year.
On that note, I wish you the best for this year. I hope that you’ll establish small habits that’ll make you happy. I hope you’ll revisit your resolutions not only with hope, but with strategy. In the meantime, I’ll be dusting off my yoga mat and reminding myself not to snooze my life away.