New Year, New Me?
Written by Alejandro Neufeld
2024 is here, and along with a new set of numbers to write on the dateline of assignments, many use the new year as a starting point for developing better habits or cutting bad ones out of their lives. Logically, the beginning of the year would be the time that people declare their resolve to change something about themselves or their lives. We call them ‘New Year’s Resolutions’, and go on and on about how, this year, we will stick to our resolutions and finally better ourselves.
If you gagged while reading that opening, I do not blame you, as I myself cringe when I hear the same new year, new me schtick on social media or in conversation with friends and family.
“It all feels artificial like you are reading from a script.”
And it would not be this way if people stuck to their resolutions. But most people will admit that they are not as vigilant as they could be when trying to stick to their resolutions. I can attest to this, as my resolution last year was not to drink pop for a year. Needless to say; when February rolled around, I bought a 12-pack of Coca-Cola, and my resolution went down the drain while the pop went into my mouth.
A quick Google search will give you a range of popular resolutions and stats about the success or failure to adhere to resolutions. Those stats have some variety, so I will give general conclusions based on an article by Sara Davis, an editor for Forbes Health magazine. Again, these stats are based on a single poll, so do not take them as gospel.
Davis’s stats weave an interesting tale about goals and the general attitudes of a population:
“For 2024, the Forbes Health/OnePoll survey found some resolutions to be more common than others, with the most popular goals including:
- Improved fitness (48%)
- Improved finances (38%)
- Improved mental health (36%)
- Lose weight (34%)
- Improved diet (32%)
Less popular resolutions include traveling more (6%), meditating regularly (5%), drinking less alcohol (3%), and performing better at work (3%).” (Davis 5).
“Notice how most of the popular resolutions are directly or indirectly related to how we believe others perceive us.”
If we are unhappy with how we look, we will want to change our body composition, which usually means exercising more and eating healthier. If we want to appear wealthy and well-off, we will naturally want better financial stability. The only resolutions in the poll that were not based on projecting an image of ourselves were mental health, travel, and meditation. Every other resolution is based on a desire to change how others perceive us. So, do we make resolutions for ourselves, or do we do it for others?
Davis’s stats on resolution success rate are even more eye-opening as the poll found that the average resolution lasts only around three and a half months. Only 8% of respondents stick with their goals for one month, while 22% last two months, 22% last three months, and 13% last four months (Davis 6). So, we seem to set resolutions to change how people see us, but not many of us can follow through on these resolutions. This gives me two different conclusions. Either we eventually realize that other people’s perceptions of us should not matter as much as the way we perceive ourselves, or we grow unhappy when others do not notice the supposed physical changes a resolution causes, and we become apathetic and unmotivated to stick to our resolutions.
But my conclusions are just the musings of a university student with too much spare time. So, what do the experts theorize to be the reasons why so many New Year’s resolutions fail? Dr. Cynthia Vinney, an expert in media psychology, interviewed licensed counsellor Jennifer Kowalski and clinical psychologist Terri Bly for an article on the site Verywellmind. In the article, “The Psychology Behind Why New Year’s Resolutions Fail”, Kowalski and Bly cut to the chase regarding humans and habit-forming behaviour.
“Where we go wrong with New Year’s resolutions is there’s this idea that it’s supposed to be some big, sweeping change because that sounds kind of sexy. [But] as humans, we’re not wired to make big, sweeping changes”(Vinney 2). This is the response that Bly gave Dr. Vinney when questioned about resolutions. Kowalski agreed and added that changing behaviour involves being uncomfortable for a sustained amount of time, and humans hate being uncomfortable (Vinney 2). Dr. Vinney breaks it down to another level of simplicity. Her idea is that resolution fail mainly because people think too big when making a resolution, they do not have a ‘why’ for their resolution, and sometimes they are simply not ready to make a change in their lives (Vinney 1).
Dr. Vinney’s idea of ‘thinking too big’ coincides with Bly’s statement that big, sweeping changes are sexy. Take the popular resolution of improving your physical fitness. Many people go about getting in better shape by purchasing a gym membership and making a workout plan. But then Christmas break ends, they go back to work or school, and for a while, they go to the gym regularly as well. All is good until the soreness from the workouts starts to impede on job performance. Next thing you know, you dread the gym because, along with the soreness, you aren’t making the progress you thought you would. By the end of January, you feel disheartened, as that waistline has not gone anywhere, and the gym membership is not worth the prices you are paying to torture your muscles. So you abandon that resolution, cancel the gym membership, and tell yourself that you will compensate by doing push-ups and cardio at home.
This resolution was a failure because you were thinking too big. Instead of an intense workout regimen and an overpriced gym membership, you should have made a personal goal to do a fixed amount of push-ups, sit-ups, or other at-home bodyweight exercises. If this doesn’t sound appealing, maybe hire a personal trainer or find a training partner that will motivate you to get a little better every day. The goal should not be to lose 20 pounds for the summer, or to get that sick superhero physique in 6 months. No, instead, you would be wise to follow Bly’s advice and aim smaller; maybe set a goal that by the end of the semester, you want to be able to do 50 push-ups, 50 sit-ups, and 10 pull-ups in a row without a break. Believe it or not, being able to do that will put you ahead of most of the population, as the average person today can do about 10 push-ups before they need a rest. I am reminded of a line from Clint Eastwood’s semi-accurate biopic American Sniper. “Aim small, miss small”. Setting a small personal goal and failing to meet it is a lot better than trying to change everything about your life in a month and being utterly drained when that doesn’t happen. Plus, a small personal goal is easier to achieve, and if you tell yourself to achieve that goal daily, you will be astounded at how much it improves your mood and self-perception.
Dr. Vinney’s next point is that most of us do not have a real reason for our New Year’s resolutions. This goes back to my idea that we make these resolutions not for ourselves, but for how others will perceive us. Take the fitness resolution. (This has consistently been a popular resolution over the years, so I keep returning to it.) Bly says that most of our resolutions involve doing something we are not used to, or something that we abhor. So, of course, forcing ourselves to do something we do not like to do is going to suck. Now imagine you torture your body in the gym without a clear reason in your mind as to why. Of course, you will not follow through on your resolution then. Bly goes on to say that having an established personal reason will make sticking to a resolution much easier because when you care about doing something, you will not let small bumps in the road stop you from sticking to your goals (Vinney 4). I remember a lecture I had in my 2nd year, the professor made the claim that if we truly want to do something, we will almost always follow through and do that thing regardless of what others around us will think or say. I am sorry that I do not have a reference to the instructor or the course, but that idea has stuck with me since then, and it has opened my eyes to make lasting changes in my life.
Dr. Vinney’s final reason for resolution failure is that some of us are simply not ready to change. She cites Bly’s Stages of Change model to illustrate this:
“The model consists of the following stages:
- Precontemplation: You’re starting to become aware that there may be something to change
- Contemplation: You’re thinking about making a change
- Preparation: You start putting a plan together to make a change
- Action: You make the change
- Maintenance: You determine how to maintain the change” (Vinney 5).
Until you have taken all of these factors into account, the chance of any major change you make sticking will not be as high as it could be. Now, not every resolution needs to be planned out and contemplated thoroughly, but it is a helpful map that shows just how hard changing our behaviour can be. I do not fully agree with Dr. Vinney’s idea that some of us are not ready to change, as we all adapt to different situations every day, even if that change is as small as taking the tunnel to get to UHall in the winter because it is -45 with wind chill. But she does have a point when it comes to bigger, more serious changes. It would be beneficial to use Bly’s Stages of Change when contemplating whether or not you should move to a different apartment or move into a different stage of a relationship, to name a few examples.
The fact of the matter is that we are creatures of habit that are slow to change our ways. This is not a bad thing; imagine if your morning routine was always different; you would probably never get to lecture on time, and being employed is out of the picture. Another cool thing about habits is that once you do them long enough, they become automatic to the point where you do not even think about them while you do them. To reach this level, you have to really dedicate yourself to the goals you set. A good model that is streamlined for success is given by Bly in Dr. Vinney’s article. “Bly suggests that New Year’s might be a good time to create a timeline for the next year that sets a variety of small milestones that will help us get to a bigger goal over time” (Vinney 7). I like this strategy; by using the new year as a starting point within a larger plan, you take some pressure off of yourself and are less prone to give yourself a resolution that will require you to drastically change your habits. After all, life is a journey, not a race.
Davis, Sarah. “New Year’s Resolutions Statistics 2023.” Forbes Health, 11 Jan. 2023, www.forbes.com/health/mind/new-years-resolutions-statistics/.
Vinney, Cynthia. “The Psychology Behind Why New Year’s Resolutions Fail.” Verywell Mind, www.verywellmind.com/why-new-years-resolutions-fail-6823972#:~:text=Why%20aren.
American Sniper. Directed by Clint Eastwood, Warner Bros. Pictures, 25 Dec. 2014.