New Year’s resolutions seem like a great way to take stock of the last year and set goals for the next one. Unfortunately, by February around 80 percent of people have failed to stick to theirs. Life-changing commitments are just hard to, well, commit to. If most people can’t stay at it for six weeks, something must be wrong with the whole process.
It starts with the resolutions themselves. Both wishy-washy promises, like “lose some weight” or “write a book,” and over-the-top commitments, like “drop 20 pounds by the start of March” or “become a New York Times best seller,” are bad kinds of New Year’s resolutions. They’re either too vague to be useful or too hard to get done, so they don’t motivate you at all. Instead, resolutions work best when they are specific, measurable, achievable, relevant and time-bound.
And while making good resolutions is important, you still have to stick to them — which is hard. One way, however, to give yourself a leg up come Jan. 1 is to stop waiting around and start practicing your New Year’s resolutions right now. Here’s why.
Why people fail to stick to New Year’s resolutions.
There’s no single reason that most people fail to stick to their New Year’s resolutions. It’s a combination of factors and life just getting in the way.
A big part of it is that many people take on too much, too fast. By resolving to eat nothing but salads, run five miles to work every day and get three gym sessions in a week — plus write that novel they always wanted to — in January, the month right after the holidays, they are setting themselves up to fail dramatically, burn out and finish the month binge-watching Netflix and binge-eating Twinkies.
Another reason is that, at least at the start, sticking to resolutions tends to stink. One 2016 study from the University of Chicago found that the biggest predictor that people would keep to their long-term goals was whether they received an immediate reward. Delayed gratification just wasn’t much of a motivator. Everyone swears they’re going to the gym for the health of their future self, but if they’re not enjoying it in the moment or seeing quick results, they tend to drop out. Those first few weeks of doing something new are almost always the worst. You’re unfit, unpracticed and just unable to cope. Combine that with the often-miserable January weather, post-holiday blues and work stress, and almost nobody is having any fun until at least St. Patrick’s Day.
A lot of people also approach New Year’s resolutions with an all-or-nothing attitude. They go straight from zero to 100 with no warm-up or consultation with reality. If someone hasn’t run in years, resolving to run five days a week is a ludicrous goal — it’s practically unattainable. And when they (entirely predictably) don’t meet it, instead of reassessing their goal, they chalk it up as a failure. There’s always next year, right?
It’s a quirk of human nature that we’re so obsessed with these hard start lines. Every exercise program begins on a Monday or the first of next month — or on Jan. 1. It’s understandable: 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.
If you have found yourself falling into any of these binds, you’re not alone. But let’s consider a solution.
Why you should start now.
No marathon runner ever steps up to the start line in a big race without putting in the training miles. He or she has been practicing for months, if not years. You should do the same with your New Year’s resolutions. It will make it much easier to stick to them.
Decide that, after finishing this article, you’re going to start practicing your New Year’s resolutions now. Use the remaining weeks of the year as a trial period. It doesn’t matter if you mess up or miss a day, you haven’t committed to anything yet — you literally can’t fail.
By starting now, you will get a much deeper understanding of what you’re resolving to do. It’s better to find out in December that a five-mile run is a bit optimistic for your current fitness level, so you can dial it back and start with two-mile runs in January. And to make sticking to your New Year’s resolution even easier, with a few weeks of occasional warm-up jogs, you won’t be starting from scratch on Jan. 1. You’ll already have gotten over the worst of the starting period. You might even be beginning to see results.
Whatever your resolutions, there is a lot to be said for using the next few weeks before the holidays as a practice period. If you’re planning to eat healthily in January, use the time to find meals that you love and that are easy to cook. If you want to write a journal or take a photo every day, start now, and sticking to your resolution will already be part of your daily routine. If you want to write the next Great American Novel or Hollywood hit, get the plot worked out and the outline written; in the New Year, you’ll be ready to go.
And, if you miss a few days or binge over the holiday period, what does it matter? You’re just practicing. The big event doesn’t start until Jan. 1. And by then, you’ll be ready.