Making and Keeping New Year Resolutions
At some point, we have probably all made at least one New Year resolution, fired with enthusiasm for a new start. However, how many of us can honestly say that we are still keeping to our resolutions by January 31st? It seems likely that the answer is very few—and fewer still by the end of the year.
Making ambitious statements is all very well, but genuine personal change takes commitment. This page explains how you can make more realistic New Year resolutions, to give you a much better chance of keeping to them, and delivering real change in your life.
Setting New Year Resolutions in Context: Personal Development
Our page on Personal Development explains that there are a number of stages to making personal change, and particularly to a ‘personal development’ process.
The Personal Change Process
The stages to any personal development process are:
Developing a personal vision and goals: setting out where you want to be.
Planning your personal development: working out what you need to do to get to your vision and goals.
Starting to make changes: actually doing something to move towards your goals.
Reflecting on your learning, to see what you have achieved, and what remains to be done.
Revising your plan if necessary, to reflect your progress, and even changes to your vision and goals as a result of the reality of making changes.
New Year resolutions are, effectively, simply a personal vision or goals: how you would like to be in the future.
They are, therefore, only a part of the process of making personal change.
They are the starting point but, on their own, they are not enough. There is also an art and a science to setting a personal vision and goals—and if you do not make them appropriate, you will not find them motivating enough to keep!
Why Might New Year Resolutions Fail?
One way to help you understand how to set New Year resolutions that you are likely to keep is to look at the reasons why it might be hard to keep your New Year resolutions.
Your goals did not really motivate you: you were not really interested in achieving them. This is often the case with New Year resolutions, because they are often things that we think we ought to do, not that we want to do. Goals have to excite and motivate you, or you simply won’t achieve them.
Your goals were too ambitious: you may have struggled to know where to start, or simply given up in despair at the size of the task.
Your goals focused on processes, not outcomes. It is much easier to motivate ourselves to do something if we think about the outcome we want to achieve, not what we have to do to get there. For example, saving a bit more is much easier if you think about why you need to save: to buy a house, or a car, perhaps.
Your goals did not help you move towards a broader ‘life goal’. You could not see how they were going to help you get where you really wanted to be in life.
The timing of your goal was not defined, so there was no incentive to get started. We often need some kind of ‘kick-start’ for personal change, and a time-bound goal can help.
You did not stop to think about what steps you needed to take to achieve your goals. Having a clear idea about what you need to do is essential.
It should, therefore, be clear that setting the right resolutions or goals is an essential part of being able to keep your New Year resolutions.
There is more about how to set effective personal goals in our page on Setting Personal Goals. You may also find it helpful to read our pages on Developing a Personal Vision, and Refining Your Personal Vision.
Making Personal Change: Developing New Habits
But what about when you think you have made the right resolutions? You set time-limits, you were definitely motivated, you even got started, but somehow you just never found enough time?
Is there anything you can do about that? The answer is yes—and it lies in understanding how we develop new habits (see box). It also means staying committed, but forgiving yourself the occasional lapse.
The Science of Developing Habits
There is an old saying that ‘practice makes perfect’.
Few of us ever actually attain perfection, but there is no question that practice is essential to developing any new skill. It turns out that practice is essential to developing any new habit, too.
Research shows that we need to do something for about 20 hours before it becomes a habit.
This is not an absolute, it is just a broad ‘rule of thumb’: some people, and some habits, take longer, and some can be developed more quickly. However, you should not expect to develop any new habit without putting in this kind of time. In other words, if you only go to the gym once a week, you can expect it to take a good few months before it becomes a habit.
Once you understand that it takes a good 20 hours to develop a new habit, it becomes clear that you have to do something regularly for quite a while before it will become second nature.
This explains why it is hard to start doing something new and fit it into your day: it is not yet a habit.
You therefore have to work much harder at it for the first few weeks, especially if you don’t do it very often, because you have not yet ‘hard-wired’ it into your brain. You have to think about it consciously, and make time for it, or it won’t happen.
If you put this together with the setting good goals, you have a much better chance of making New Year resolutions that will actually ‘stick’ (see box).
Worked example: “I will go to the gym once a week next year”
Suppose that you decide that you want to go to the gym once a week. Let’s pick that apart and see how that can be made easier to achieve.
Focus on outcomes. You don’t actually want to go to the gym once a week. You want to be fitter and feel healthier. You might even want to be able to enter a particular event: a fun run, say, or a swim. This can be helpful because it also sets a time limit and makes sure that you will keep going. This is therefore much more motivating.
Make it precise. You are going to the gym one day per week—but when exactly? You may find that it is better/easier to say that you are going to do it on a particular morning, before work, rather than just ‘once a week’—otherwise, you are likely to get to Friday and find that you have not done it. You will also find that blocking out a particular morning is easier because both you and other people will get used to it and will stop trying to fill that space in your diary.
Keep going—and don’t worry if you occasionally miss a session. The key to developing a new habit is to keep going. Tell other people and get them to encourage you too. Don’t worry too much if you can’t make it to the gym one week, just go the next week (or even, go twice the next week). The key is to keep trying, because this will ensure that it becomes a habit. If you really struggle, try booking a session with a personal trainer, or arranging to meet a friend, because it is much easier to make the time when you are otherwise going to let someone down.
Keep track of progress. Using a fitness tracker can help you see how far you have come, but it is not necessary. Just looking at what you can do, or even how many weeks you have managed to get to the gym, can be a very good progress-tracker.
Reward yourself for success. Don’t forget to celebrate your success!
It is important not to give up if you have not achieved your New Year resolutions within a few weeks.
Personal development is very much a marathon, not a sprint. Realistic and worthwhile goals take time to achieve, but may lead you to lifelong changes. They are worth pursuing, and worth working hard on.
Further Reading from Skills You Need
Learn how to set yourself effective personal goals and find the motivation you need to achieve them. This is the essence of personal development, a set of skills designed to help you reach your full potential, at work, in study and in your personal life.
The second edition of or bestselling eBook is ideal for anyone who wants to improve their skills and learning potential, and it is full of easy-to-follow, practical information.