New Year's ResolutionGraphic by Esra Rakab/Production Coordinator

Changing our approach to these goals can help us be more successful at New Year’s resolutions

With a new year comes a set of new and often entirely unrealistic expectations we set for ourselves: New Year’s resolutions. Approximately three-quarters of Canadians resolve to accomplish their goals at the beginning of each year, with the failure rate a dismal 80 per cent

Year after year, people around the world look to the changing of the calendar as a sign of hopeful, positive transformation for their lifestyles and circumstances. How did such seemingly useless and quite frankly disappointing, ritualistic behaviour become entrenched in our daily lives? How can we make resolutions that actually work?

Apparently, human beings have practiced this particular brand of masochism since nearly the dawn of civilization. 4,000 years ago, the ancient Babylonians would make promises to the gods to repay debts and favours during their mid-March New Year’s celebration, Akitu. Keeping these promises would guarantee good luck and health while breaking them was sure to invite divine displeasure. If only we had such incentives today!

How did such seemingly useless and quite frankly disappointing, ritualistic behaviour become entrenched in our daily lives? How can we make resolutions that actually work?

Similarly, though a couple of millennia later, ancient Romans offered sacrifices and promises of virtuous conduct to the god, Janus — January’s namesake — in exchange for good fortune in the upcoming year. The practice continued with “peacock vows” in the middle ages, which were resolutions made by knights to uphold their chivalric values. By the 17th century, the habit of annual resolution-making had permeated the common social consciousness and was declared by yearly rituals such as New Year’s Eve spiritual services.

Despite their early religious origins, today’s practice of New Year’s resolution-making is a mostly secular and individualistic activity — concerned more with our ability to commit and achieve rather than chance or divine intervention.

The most common resolutions are decidedly unsurprising: in 2020, 51 per cent of Canadians wanted to exercise more, 49 per cent planned to save money, 48 per cent strived to eat healthier and 42 per cent hoped to lose weight. These goals have been topping lists for at least the last decade and their resilience speaks not only to our recidivism but also to the very nature of our desires themselves.

Making a resolution is important for mental health: having a goal to strive for helps overcome daily fatigue and is motivational. However, failing to live up to your goals — New Year’s or otherwise — can invite self-deprecation and psychological stress.

You can fall short of achieving your resolutions for any number of reasons beyond lack of sufficient commitment. The four main reasons why New Year’s resolutions fail are that they are too vague, they are framed negatively, they reflect societal expectations rather than your own desires or they are incompatible with your routine or lifestyle.

Since 2016, I’ve kept aside all my New Year’s resolutions lists and they are the spitting image of vagueness, negativity, social pressures and impracticality. From a whopping 37 resolutions in 2017 to assertions I would maintain a 12.0 GPA, to plans of learning four different languages in the span of a year, it’s no wonder I have persistently failed to achieve my goals — and thus felt thoroughly dejected every time.

But I haven’t given up just yet. Achieving your New Year’s resolutions is about more than just unwavering commitment, it’s about proper goal setting; a skill whose benefits extend beyond our infamous Dec. 31/Jan. 1 ritual.

The best resolutions are specific: they elaborate on the steps one needs to take to succeed. Unbeknownst to my 2019 self, I wouldn’t suddenly develop the ability to speak fluent Russian when the clock struck midnight. So unfair, am I right?

The best resolutions are specific: they elaborate on the steps one needs to take to succeed. Unbeknownst to my 2019 self, I wouldn’t suddenly develop the ability to speak fluent Russian when the clock struck midnight. So unfair, am I right?

Furthermore, New Year’s resolutions need to be realistic. No, 2018-self, you won’t be able to exercise four hours a day. It’s just not possible. Don’t set yourself up for failure — create ambitious but achievable goals that will make you feel successful while still making a difference in your life.

Lastly, making a good resolution is all about self-awareness. Achieving any long-term goal is directly concerned with the process of habit-forming. Creating a habit requires repetition — anywhere from 18 to 254 days of it, to be exact — and engenders a feeling of “automaticity,” which is the feeling of ease experienced when doing a familiar task.

When behaviours become automatic, they will become routine, undisruptive and habitual. However, forming a good habit requires the self-awareness to notice the environmental cues that facilitate the accompanying bad habit. If a certain place, activity, person or time prompts you to engage in the habit you want to break, recognize the signs and distance yourself or actively work to stay on track. Remember, it’s a process.

Though I haven’t managed to eliminate all traces of wishful thinking from my 2021 resolutions list, I’ve tried to introduce a bit more realism — a half marathon instead of a full marathon sounds about right, don’t you think? In truth, though, our goals matter less than our ability to forgive ourselves for not achieving them. It’s wonderful to aim for self-improvement; just don’t self-destruct along the way. Happy 2021!

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