New Year’s resolutions: How to make them useful

2023 has arrived. The New Year brings with it a sense of renewal – a collective reset, often accompanied by grand ideas and promises we make to ourselves about what the next twelve months will entail. We’re going to run a marathon, lose ten kilos, get a promotion, find love, start our own business, become the world’s first trillionaire, and probably cure cancer as a side hustle. There’s something endearing in the lofty aspirations we wheel out each January, unkeepable promises that our poor future selves are made to feel slovenly for not fulfilling until we get the chance to do it all over again this time next year. But it doesn’t have to be that way. There are more reasonable targets we can set ourselves – and more practical ways we can go about achieving them – so that when the chiming bells usher us into 2024, we can look back at our year and say we really did something worthwhile with it.

Our promises in numbers

The figures vary but tell a similar story: as many as 80% of New Year’s resolutions are given up on by February1. And only 8% of people are thought to stick with them the entire year. But don’t take that as a reason to discount resolutions entirely. One study2 found that people who set New Year’s resolutions – whether they achieve them or not – are ten times more likely to change their behaviour than people who don’t make any yearly goals. YouGov also found that people who make New Year’s resolutions were more optimistic about the future than those who don’t3.

So, where are the people who fail to achieve their goals potentially going wrong? Two big mistakes that one should look to avoid are setting targets that are plainly unachievable or trying to do too many things at once. For example, let’s say your goal is to start your own business. That’s great. But if your goal is to start your own business and end the year one million pounds in profit, you’re probably reaching for something unattainable. On a smaller scale, let’s say your goal is to learn French. With commitment, reaching a decent standard over the course of a year is certainly attainable. But if your goal is to learn French, Spanish, Cantonese, and Ancient Greek, chances are you’ve cast your net too wide and will end up not getting started on any of them. The goal can be challenging, but make sure it’s within reach. And if you really want to achieve it, you’re best off not hampering its progress by getting distracted with a litany of additional ambitions on the side. Better for your targets to be SMART4. As first noted in the Journal of Management Review in 1981, a SMART goal is one that is specific, measurable, achievable, relevant, and time-bound. If you’ve set targets for the year ahead, it’s worth checking that they meet that criteria before you set yourself up for disappointment.

Practical advice: Writing down your goals

It may sound oversimplistic, but studies show that physically writing down your goals as opposed to holding them in your head as keepsakes makes you more likely to achieve them. A study5 in the Journal of Applied Psychology tested this theory with university students, with resounding success. Over a four-month period, students who wrote down their goals were found to display “significant improvements in academic performance” compared with those who did not. Similarly, Sheldon and Lyubormirsky (2006)6, writing in the Journal of Positive Psychology, found that writing down one’s life goals was likely to “improve self-regulation because it allows an opportunity to learn about oneself, to illuminate and restructure one’s priorities, and to gain better insight into one’s motives and emotions.” While a separate study7 showed that doing so also induces an immediate enhancement of positive mood.

Practical advice: Setting deadlines

Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy author Douglas Adams famously said he loved deadlines because of “the whooshing noise they make as they go by”8. But utilising deadlines should not be underestimated as a tool for achieving whatever goal you’ve set yourself for the coming year. Parkinson’s law8 dictates that “work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion.” In other words, without a deadline looming, chances are you will put off whatever it is you’re trying to achieve until it seems more pressing. It’s a foible of the human race to which none of us are immune. To fight it, set yourself a deadline and be strict with it. Better still, write it down or make it public so you feel that you will be held accountable if you miss it.

Practical advice: Forming habits

Research suggests it takes between 18 and 66 days to change a habit or form a new one10. James Clear – author of Atomic Habits11, probably the definitive book on habit forming – notes that building a habit can be divided into four simple steps: cue, craving, response, and reward12. The cue is essentially something we want (money, love, satisfaction, whatever it may be); the craving is the motivation (you do not want to turn on the TV; you want to be entertained); the response is the habit itself and usually comes in the form of a thought or an action; the response delivers the reward, that thing we are ultimately chasing.

Clear posits that just as we can (and often naturally do) form bad habits, so too can we form good ones. His suggestions for doing so involve making the cue for whatever you want to achieve obvious, making its craving attractive, making its response easy, and making its reward satisfying. For example, you could say that when you close your laptop for lunch (cue), in order to get fit (craving), you perform 10 push-ups (response), and then have your lunch break (reward). That’s specifically fitness related, but for pretty much all goals, if the habit you form is simply setting aside a certain amount of time to do it each day (ideally at a certain time, in a certain place each day, as this helps the habit stick) then you will make progress.

In conclusion

The only thing easier than making goals is breaking them. To not fall into the trap this year, focus on tangible steps you can take. Pay particular attention to the process rather than outcome. “I will work on this project for 20 minutes every day” will get you further than “I will finish this project by the end of the year”. The finish line will come when it comes; better to think instead about the step ahead of you.

Build a SMART system, write down your goals, set deadlines, and form the right habits. Do that and there’s every chance 2023 might just be your year yet.

References

1 https://time.com/6243642/how-to-keep-new-years-resolutions-2/

2 https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1002/jclp.1151

3 https://today.yougov.com/topics/society/articles-reports/2021/12/23/americans-who-plan-make-new-years-resolutions

4 https://www.nytimes.com/guides/smarterliving/resolution-ideas

5 https://psycnet.apa.org/doiLanding?doi=10.1037%2Fa0018478

6 Sheldon KM, Lyubomirsky S (2006) How to increase and sustain positive emotions: The effects of expressing gratitude and visualizing best possible selves. Journal of Positive Psychology 1: 73–82.

7 King LA (2001) The health benefits of writing about life goals. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin 27: 798–807.

8 https://www.theguardian.com/science/brain-flapping/2015/apr/20/the-power-of-deadlines-voter-registration-election

9 https://www.bbc.com/worklife/article/20191107-the-law-that-explains-why-you-cant-get-anything-done

10 https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/abs/10.1002/ejsp.674

11 https://www.hive.co.uk/Search/Keyword?keyword=Atomic%20Habits&productType=0

12 https://jamesclear.com/three-steps-habit-change