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January is always the most optimistic time of the year, as millions of people make resolutions to improve themselves. Whether it’s better health, smarter spending, career progress or learning a new skill, changing the calendar provides a fresh start for a better future.
All that optimism fades quickly, however. Most people never achieve their New Year’s goals. One study found that 80 percent of New Year’s resolutions are abandoned by February.
Why there’s debate
It’s clear that the typical way we go about making resolutions doesn’t work for most people. What’s less obvious is whether resolutions can still work with the right adjustments or if the entire concept is inherently doomed to fail.
Many experts say that simple changes in how you approach your resolution can significantly increase your odds of success. The most common advice includes focusing on simple measurable goals, being realistic about what’s possible, emphasizing process over results and avoiding abstract resolutions like “eat better.”
Others argue that we should abandon New Year's resolutions entirely. Choosing an arbitrary point on the calendar to declare sweeping lifestyle changes is completely antithetical to self-improvement, some psychologists say.
For those who are motivated by a little friendly competition, you may only need to last a few weeks to do better than the average resolution maker. The fitness app Strava analyzed its data to find the date when users are most likely to give up on their new exercise routines. In 2019, “Quitter’s Day” came on Jan. 17.
Ditch the resolutions
Resolutions do more harm than good
“New Year’s resolutions are notoriously useless. Promises of change made to oneself on New Year’s Eve quickly and routinely dissolve into dithering, failure, and regret.” — Psychologist Noam Shpancer, Psychology Today
Goals based on external societal pressures don’t work
“The problem with this lies in the concept of intrinsic versus extrinsic motivation. With intrinsic motivation, we are driven to achieve our goals because they reflect our most personal values, our truest aspirations and our most authentic selves. Extrinsic motivation means we base our goals on what other people think we are supposed to achieve.” — Behavioral coach Nick Frye to HuffPost
Resolutions run counter to how our brains work
“If we look at cognitive neuroscience, giant, sweeping, sudden changes that overwhelm our ability to cope with them are known as trauma. So effectively, when we attempt giant, sweeping changes, especially without adequate support in place, we are effectively self-traumatizing.” — Behavioral psychology expert Krista Scott-Dixon to InStyle
Linking self-improvement to a specific time means putting off goals for most of the year
“The New Year is a good time to reflect and set goals. But it also makes things harder. When we mess up, we tend not to get back up and continue where we failed; we reset at the next hard start line.” — Harry Guinness, New York Times
Achieving a resolution won’t necessarily make you happier
“I’ve noticed that the 20% who do manage to reach the finish line don’t feel much better off. I’ve had plenty of clients admit that they aren’t any more relaxed or content than they were the year before, even after accomplishing the goals they set for themselves.” — Kathleen Smith, Forge
Make them more effective
Be willing to give up on parts of your goals
“Remember, your resolutions are there to serve you, not the other way around. Some goals are meant to be abandoned, and in doing so, you’re creating room to make more progress on the goals that actually improve your quality of life.” — Anisa Purbasari Horton, Fast Company
Forget the ultimate goal and focus on the day-to-day process
“Conventional wisdom says you need to maintain a laser-like focus on your goals. Yet one of the biggest reasons people give up on huge goals is the distance between here, where they are today, and there, where they someday hope to be. … That's why almost all extremely successful people set a goal, and then focus all their attention on the process necessary to achieve that goal.” — Jeff Haden, Inc.
“If you want to make 2020 the year you finally organize your finances, get in shape or complete any other monumental task, you may want to forget New Year's Resolutions. Instead of writing down grandiose goals, turn your attention to your daily habits.” — Caroline Roberts, CNet
Make gradual progress instead of immediate changes
“Rather than a full stop, consider easing into a new routine with sustainability in mind. Creating a strategy where small steps are the focus helps you to see the successes while encouraging you to move forward.”— Maya Feller, Good Morning America
“New Year’s resolutions can motivate us to create positive change personally and professionally, but experts advise: To make those resolutions stick, make both your goals and steps to achieving them attainable.“ — Michelle Gabrielle Centamore, Long Island Press
Focus on addition, rather than subtraction
“A body of research has found that when people must exert extreme willpower, a function of the prefrontal cortex, it exhausts other functions such as mental endurance and the will to follow through. Willpower is a mental muscle that must be trained, so consider choosing a resolution that adds something to your life.” — Jordan Rosenfeld, Mental Floss
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Cover thumbnail photo illustration: Yahoo News; photo: Getty Images