Resolve to Create Smarter New Year's Resolutions for 2023
Written by Erin Michel, Graduate Assistant for the Graduate College; updated January 2023.
Happy 2023, Bearcats! A new year means a new chance to reinvent yourself. And while almost all of us have new habits we'd like to form, it’s difficult to stick to resolutions in the long term. By choosing, constructing, and sticking to goals in a more thoughtful and intentional way, you can set yourself up for success in the new year. Read on to learn about what behavioral research and psychology has to say about New Year’s resolutions.
What is it about the dawn of a new year that makes so many of us want to sit down and reevaluate our lives? There’s something about this chronological reset that creates the illusion of freshness and potential. It must be natural to feel this pull to change, since the practice of New Year’s resolutions is far from an exclusively modern one. According to The Economist, New Year’s resolutions are thought to have begun almost 4,000 ago with Ancient Babylonian religious tradition. This practice has continued with various groups throughout human history, and for good reason—self-improvement can help us adapt to our changing environment. And yet, somewhat paradoxically, another thing has become apparent: we are not very good at following through on these promises to ourselves. According to US News, more than 80% of resolutions fail by the beginning of February. Other research indicates that only about 8% of people report having actually achieved their resolutions a year later.
These rather discouraging statistics should in no way dissuade us from trying to improve our wellbeing. Rather, we should broaden our understanding of what resolutions can look like and turn to behavioral and psychological research to guide us in forming and implementing more feasible goals. Whether you have yet to form resolutions for the year or whether you can feel yourself starting to falter two weeks in, it’s not too late to set yourself up for success by forming or reforming goals that fit with your values and lifestyle.
Choosing your resolution
The first step in forming a good New Year’s resolution involves answering this question: What do I want to change? According to a New York Times article, one of the main reasons a resolution might fail is if it reflective of something that another person (or society as a whole) is telling you to change, versus something that is actually coming from within. And if you're not sure what you want to choose, don’t push yourself into making a resolution just for the sake of doing so. Ambivalence about what to choose might be emblematic of your readiness to change, and psychology tells us that degree of readiness is a key component of successful behavior modification. Current evidence-based models of behavior change conceptualize readiness to change in a series of stages, including precontemplation (total lack of awareness of a need to change), contemplation (weighing the pros and cons), preparation (forming a plan), action, and maintenance. Clearly behavior change isn’t as simple as “just doing it,” regardless of what Nike might say.
You can help yourself become more ready by spending time increasing self-awareness through reflection or mindfulness, considering how the behavior in question effects yourself and others, and finding supportive relationships that will help encourage change. Research shows that confidence is also key in readiness to change—if you don’t truly believe that the change is possible, you are hampering your progress before you even begin. Increase your confidence by reflecting on times in your life where you have successfully changed, even if only for a little while—what worked? What did you do right? Rate your confidence on a scale of one to 10, and reflect on why you chose that number. For example, say you picked a five. Why not a four? If you picked a one, why not a zero?
Think outside the box when considering resolutions. Your goal doesn’t have to be a standard one like “lose 20 pounds;” in fact, it might be better if it is not. Behaviors are more likely to stick if they have intrinsic value in addition to extrinsic value; that is to say, the behavior itself has some kind of payoff in the moment versus only in the long term. Psychological research shows that enjoyment may actually be the biggest predictor of successful resolutions, even more so than perceived importance of the goal, making enjoyment and intrinsic motivation a key consideration in resolution selection. What does this look like in practice? Say you resolve to go to the gym 3 times a week—the payoff here is that you increase your health and physical fitness down the line. But maybe you are not someone who enjoys the gym, and it becomes an activity that you dread, something you force yourself to do. Instead, you could resolve to join a recreational soccer team, an activity that brings you joy while you’re doing it (intrinsic value) and also has physical health benefits (extrinsic value).
It is just a reality of life that sometimes we have to do things we don’t enjoy because they are good for us. By the same token, there are often ways to make the activity more in line with what you like with just a little creativity. Choosing resolutions that you actually enjoy is also a wonderful way to practice a bit of self-compassion in the new year. As graduate students, we push ourselves constantly. We are working towards a degree in the midst of a global pandemic, which is no small feat. Part of goal formation should be recognizing when you are pushing yourself too far. Wellbeing has many important but oft-overlooked aspects beyond just physical health—social, spiritual, cultural, and creative, to name a few. Consider setting a goal that is consistent with a more holistic approach to wellness. Check out this Parade article for a list of out-of-the-box resolution ideas. You could even choose an acceptance-based goal, like “learn to be happy with my body the way it is.” The point of a resolution is to improve your happiness and wellbeing long-term; while this could be achieved by making actual changes regarding the concern, it could also potentially be attained by learning to accept and embrace the perceived shortcoming.
Map out the goal
So you’ve decided on your resolution, you feel ready to make the change, and you’re confident in your ability to succeed. What’s next? You probably have a more general idea of what you’d like to do, but in order to implement the action, you need to get specific. You may have heard of SMART goals—it's an acronym consisting of criteria for a planned goal, standing for Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant, and Time-bound. Any kind of goal (even the out-of-the-box goals discussed above) can (and should) be transformed into a SMART goal, and it is a good idea to jot it down on paper—one goal-setting study showed that you are 42% more likely to achieve a goal that has been physically written out. So jot your goal down, and make sure that it fits the SMART criteria. Check out this article for some specific information on each of the criteria and examples of SMART goals. You could consider building some reinforcements into your goal setting to incentivize yourself—for instance, each week that you meet the goal you will treat yourself to a nice coffee. Consider your history (what has worked or tripped you up in the past?) when mapping out the specifics of your goal; not every attempt to change behavior works, but you always learn something about yourself that can be useful in the future.
Things are going well; you’re a few days, weeks, or even months into the new year and your resolution is still going strong. You may think that you’ve gotten past the hard part of behavior change, and in some ways, this is true. However, no one is perfect, and people still get tripped up and deviate from their goals at times no matter how long they’ve been meeting them. It is simply part of being human. It may seem a little strange, but one of the most important ways that you can set yourself up for success long term is to embrace the little failures. Oftentimes, people who experience a slip-up feel that they have failed and use it to justify further slip-ups. This is an example of all-or-nothing thinking, and one that really gets in the way of progress. Think about it this way: say you were learning a new language. If you messed up a verb conjugation, you wouldn’t just say “well, that’s it, I’ve failed,” and abandon your learning completely! In behavior change just as in language learning, failure is simply part of the process. Try to keep a big picture view in mind of all the progress you’ve made—don't hyperfocus on the one step backward to the detriment of noticing the ten steps forward. Choose good goals, map them out well, and be kind to yourself in sticking to them, and you’ve set yourself up for success to reinvent yourself in this new year.