New Year’s Resolutions Suck
I’m not being dramatic – the classic New Year’s resolution is a statistically poor method for enacting change, and they prevent you from becoming a better version of yourself.
In this discussion, I want to help you make the most of this powerful moment and use New Year’s to work for you, using the latest research and wisdom on resolutions.
Work Smarter Not Harder
Growing up, motivational speakers and guilt police have emphasized the value of a strong work ethic. It sounds like if something doesn’t work out, it’s because you didn’t work hard enough.
As someone who struggles with ADHD, advice about having a good work ethic and being a workaholic is counterproductive and destructive. And I’d argue the same is true for neurotypical people. While guilt and brute force can be powerful motivators, these tactics are poor solutions that decrease overall life happiness.
Instead of relying on motivation, I’ll offer some practical science, paradigm shifts, and actionable items for those of us who are weaker humans.
Three Practical pieces of Advice for Resolutions to Suck Less
To really make the most of your New Year’s resolution, focus on these three things: (1) the “fresh start” effect, (2) a New Year theme, and (3) behavioral nudges.
These three pieces of advice will lower the cognitive load. Instead of defaulting to motivation as the go-to solution, these three pieces of advice respect your willpower as a scarce resource and give your brain other tools to improve your New Year.
Taking Advantage of the “Fresh Start” Effect
While I was at Wash U, I learned about a researcher’s contribution to studying the “fresh start” effect. The “fresh start” effect states that humans are more likely to tackle their goals at landmark events such as New Year’s, birthdays, or anniversaries.
The fresh start effect is a cognitive bias, but biases can be used to our advantage. December 31st is inherently the same as January 1st. However, the human brain sees those two dates very differently. According to research, “Google searches for the term ‘diet’ (Study 1), gym visits (Study 2), and commitments to pursue goals (Study 3) all increase following temporal landmarks (e.g., the outset of a new week, month, year, or semester; a birthday; a holiday)”1.
The fresh start effect is remarkably powerful and easy to use. The New Year is just one of many “fresh starts” we have throughout the year. The strategy is to make all the biggest changes and check in on significant days, times, or anniversaries. In addition to January 1st, we can leverage many other “fresh starts” throughout the year.
Let’s create a hypothetical person, Brian, who really wants to feel better about his body in 2023. Here’s an example of all the potential “temporal markers” that can be Brian’s guideposts for 2023.
New Years Day
Commit to the theme of the year (see the next section). Use it as the first day of all the big lifestyle changes. Since New Year’s Day is the most salient day, Brian should make the largest pivots on this day.
For Brian, New Year’s Day is a good time for a new gym membership, a set of exercises, new outfits, new shoes, and new people to work out with.
Use the first of each month to re-adjust ongoing goals. As Brian will soon discover, life circumstances and human folly don’t care about his January 1st ambitions. Use the monthly beginnings as a checkpoint and fresh start to readjust your assumptions, goals, and tactics.
In our example, Brian will attempt to visit the gym three times a week at the local gym at 7 AM. By January 18th, Brian realizes that he’s coming up with excuses in the morning to skip the gym.
Is all his hope and dreams over? No. He should use February 1st as the day to change things up.
On February 1st, Brian switched it up. He started going to the gym right after work. On March 1st, he reevaluates and adjusts to a new plan again.
Weekly “fresh starts” are some of the most important and frequently occurring fresh starts to take advantage of. Even God rested on the seventh day, so we should too.
It’s easy to overlook the significance of these weekly rituals. They give us a clean, new slate. I’m religious, so I have built-in institutional rituals every Sunday where I review my week and vow to improve.
When I expend my limited willpower to focus on my Sunday religious renewal, I notice a greater sense of “fresh start” and empowerment.
For those like Brian, who don’t have an organized religion dedicated to weekly renewal, I suggest finding one or creating your own private practices. The weekly ability to discard the baggage of imperfection in preparation for another week is probably the most important “fresh start” mentioned so far.
Birthdays and Other Significant Anniversaries
Monthly check-ins and weekly rituals are important for steady progress toward an annual goal. Sometimes, you need a boost that’s more novel than a regular monthly and weekly review. Significant anniversaries such as wedding anniversaries, birthdays, festivals, holidays, and other celebrations are great opportunities for an uneven and powerful boost of motivation.
For example, I have Chinese ancestry, so the Chinese Lunar New Year is like a bonus fresh start for me. I’ve also used arbitrary things like a new school year (even though I’m not in school right now) in September as deadlines for my entrepreneurial goals.
It Should Emotional
Cognitive biases like the “fresh start” effect should be emotional. Instead of avoiding them, we can embrace that reality and really make the emotion work for us. We need to recognize that changes are just easier and better during fresh starts.
Identity and Themes
Instead of a New Year’s goal, we should build on personal identity through a New Year’s theme.
Growing up, I was told to make SMART goals1. It never resonated with me, and SMART goals philosophy has been a great source of anxiety throughout my life. Thankfully, I’ve gotten over it. CPG Grey’s video on New Year’s themes did an amazing job of changing my perspective.
In this video, Grey suggests that themes are much better than goals at making our lives better. Here are some of my own justifications for New Year’s themes instead of SMART New Year’s goals:
- Themes are emotionally potent
- The brain has a really hard time delaying gratification. New Year goals are far too long.
- SMART goals are rigid by design. It requires you to commit beforehand, and these goals do not consider future changes.
- A goal is simply a direction, but it lacks a purpose.
A good New Year’s theme leverages identity as a powerful motivator for long-term behaviors.
For example, Brian wants to exercise more. He could set a normal SMART goal of exercising 3 times a week at the gym in Provo, UT from January 1st to December 31st. This plan has a 99.9% chance of failing.
Instead of setting a rigid goal, Brian should focus on a theme: “I will become an athlete.”
There are several advantages to an identity-based theme. Identity is a powerful motivator. People have committed great atrocities or accomplished great feats of mental strength because of “who they are.” An identity defines strong boundaries for acceptable and unacceptable behavior. Even with these strong boundaries, identity is flexible enough to adapt to unexpected life circumstances.
For example, suppose Brian adopts the theme “I will become an athlete” for the year. Unfortunately, Brian gets a leg injury on February 28th. If Brian only had a rigid SMART goal, he would have to give up on his goal of exercising 3 times a week.
Fortunately, Brian had a theme of “becoming an athlete.” He has many options going forward. Athletes get injured all the time, and the road to recovery can be a fulfilling path for any athlete.
Focus on Nudge, Not Motivation
We can’t call for motivation like a taxi when we need it. Believing that you can change your life through pure motivation is unrealistic. Instead, we can create psychological nudges that push us slightly in the right direction.
To identify the correct nudges, you need to first identify the biggest obstacles to your success.
Brian, our hypothetical athlete, can anticipate potential problems for his New Year’s theme. For example, he may struggle with waking up in the morning, be afraid of the cold in January, or get bored with the same old routines.
To overcome these obstacles, Brian can pre-commit to future behaviors through behavioral nudges. For example, he can lay out his shoes and gym clothes by the door every night and charge his phone in the bathroom instead of by his bed.
This way, Brian goes to bed on time without doom scrolling on social media before bed, and by the time he shuts off the alarm, he’s already in the bathroom with all his clothes ready.
There are whole books on nudges and behavioral economics, but the above examples demonstrate a pattern of pre-committing to a future behavior through behavioral nudges. In general, a behavioral nudge or design should be as mindless as possible (preferably automatic, like banking autopay).
Your Resolutions Can Suck Less
New Year’s Resolutions suck. They can be frustrating and often lead to disappointment, but there are ways to make them more effective and meaningful. By leveraging the “fresh start” effect, adopting a theme for the year, and using behavioral nudges, you can make the most of your New Year’s resolutions.
The “fresh start” effect refers to the fact that people are more likely to tackle their goals at landmark events like New Year’s, birthdays, or anniversaries. By taking advantage of these fresh starts, you can channel your willpower toward important changes.
Instead of setting specific goals, it can be more effective to adopt a theme for the year that aligns with your personal identity. This provides a framework for guiding your actions and allows for flexibility in the face of unexpected life circumstances.
Behavioral nudges are small, simple changes that can help you overcome common obstacles to success. By pre-committing to future behaviors, you can minimize the use of willpower on important daily activities.
By considering these three factors, you can make your New Year’s resolutions more meaningful and achievable. Remember to focus on significant dates and fresh starts, adopt a theme that aligns with your identity, and use behavioral nudges to overcome common obstacles.
New Year’s Resolutions suck, but we can make it better. All three topics can be elaborated on and built upon, but here we have the basics. Let me know if you want to learn more about any of these things.
For our New Year’s theme CTNRD, we will be working on refining and fattening our work here. We are hard-working at a new product CultureRaid, which is a play-centric approach to consulting.
Good luck and Happy New Year!
1 SMART is an acronym that stands for specific, measurable, actionable, realistic, and timely goals. Many productivity gurus claim that this is the key to a successful fulfilling life. I have strong opinions about how this is actually toxic and the source of much human suffering, but I digress. New Year’s resolutions suck because they can’t be done. At least the way that they are.
2 The better communicator in me uses beforehand and after hand, but the stupid academic in me wants to use words like ex-ante and ex-post to help my self-esteem gloat.