For the New Year: Resolve how you think about resolutions
As we enter another year, you may be thinking about your resolutions. “What do I want to accomplish this year?” “Last year sucked, this year will be different!” For many, this turn in the calendar year provides a chance for reflection, a personal ‘reset’ to calibrate for the new year. It’s exciting; we finish up a chapter and are excited to begin writing the next one.
Fast forward to February — or even the second week of January — the resolutions are forgotten, and we go back to our existing routines for 11 months, only to restart the cycle all over again. For this article, let’s explore the power of New Year’s resolutions from a psychological lens, why they don’t work today, and 3 strategies to reframe them so they are truly aligned to our personal goals and sustainable over time.
New Year, New Me!
Our sense of new beginnings goes beyond just a calendar change and is rooted in a psychological concept of how we process time, “temporal landmarks.” Just as we use physical landmarks to navigate the space around us, these temporal landmarks distinguish set periods of time within our lives. They can be personal — e.g. birthdays, anniversaries, graduations — or social — e.g. a new month, national holidays, and the big one, New Years. Katherine Milkman, an expert on decision-making and a researcher at the University of Pennsylvania, has explored this phenomenon’s implications, known as the “fresh start effect.” Milkman, Hengchen Dai, and Jason Riis analyzed 8.5 years of data and found searches for “diet” increased ~80% on January 1, and on average increases 14% on Mondays.¹ They found that in colleges, student gym attendance increased after temporal landmarks as well — the start of a new semester, new year, new month, new week, and after birthdays.²
Now these results may seem unsurprising, but why do these temporal landmarks have this effect on our motivation and behavior? They serve 2 key purposes. (1) By creating a distinct inflection point in time, they disconnect us from our past selves and let us feel that we can start fresh. And in doing so, (2) they pause our continuous routines and gives us the space to reflect on our lives more holistically. As New Year’s is generally supplemented with holidays and breaks from our normal routines, this temporal landmark even more so invites the opportunity to take a step back and reflect on ourselves as a whole, through creating a separation of “who we were” and “who we will be next.”
“2019 me would let that fly, but not the 2020 me!”
So around these times, we are highly motivated and reflective. Sounds awesome, but then why after another 12 months do we feel more or less the same?
New Year, New…damn still me
Are you resolving or just wishing?
The New Year’s landmark enables us to think boldly about what we want with its fresh start effect, but it does not include the second crucial step — implementation. Seeking to run your first marathon or lose 10 pounds sounds great, but how will you accomplish it? We cannot simply rely on fleeting motivation cultivated from a temporal event, as they are inherently temporary. That’s why the gym in January is packed, and then clears up in February. We begin to lose that euphoric New Year’s buzz and then go back to our previous routines. This brings up the second key issue —
Are you turning road bumps into full roadblocks?
Even if we do have a clear plan, we can become victim to it and our expectations. The first missed day or issue that arises derails our motivation and interest in our resolutions. As progress sparks momentum and refuels motivation, temporary setbacks can make us revert back to our old ways. That is why 1 missed day can lead to a missed week. High expectations and lofty goals help us get off the ground, but any sense of turbulence returns us to where we were.
So how do we better capitalize on the New Year’s fresh start effect, such that it’s longer lasting and ultimately more impactful? Here are 3 strategies -
3 ways to resolve your resolutions
1. Think iteratively instead of linearly
Before the tactics, we should first consider how we think about resolutions. A lot changes in 12 months. It is impossible to know what your priorities, interests, and environment will be for a whole year. We often make resolutions that are important to us in December and January, but by March we may be in a completely different place — in terms of mindset and external conditions. Or worse, we create resolutions based on external factors which are not truly meaningful to us.
We are not fixed, but are dynamic and continuously evolving. Rather than thinking about set resolutions and a linear path to reach them, we should adopt a designer’s mindset — to be objectively aware of our ambitions, why they are meaningful to us, and continuously iterate. As long as you stay true to your values and who you are, let your evolving interests and priorities guide you as you iterate versions of yourself throughout the year, rather than feeling beholden to what you wrote down January 1.
2. Focus on routines and themes over goals
Goals are great for providing direction and a target, but we do not reconcile these ambitions with our daily schedules. If on January 1, you say you want to lose 10 pounds that year, but maintain the same routines you did the previous year — how can you expect to change? And what happens if you only lose 9 pounds? Or what if you don’t lose any weight but are actually healthier in terms of your diet and general physical well-being?
“Your audacious life goals are fabulous…But it’s possible that those goals are designed to distract you from the thing that’s really frightening you — the shift in daily habits that would mean a re–invention of how you see yourself.” — Seth Godin
Consider the themes you want for the year. “I want to be healthier this year; I want to stretch myself professionally this year.” In doing so, we can then look at the daily routines we have in place, and methodically make small changes to realize our ambitions. By focusing on routines, we become more attentive to our daily activities — the only activities we have control over. This also opens up more opportunities to eventually hit the targets you have in mind — by identifying the routines that help or hinder your ambitions on a daily basis.
3. Use temporal landmarks year-round
Are we limited to reflection and personal adjustments only once a year? As we’ve seen, New Years is a powerful temporal landmark that we naturally gravitate towards, but it is not the only one. In fact, only using 1 a year puts a great burden on that event, and doesn’t give you much support for the year. Consistently reset and set your resolutions on a more regular interval to better sustain and grow over time. We see examples of companies adopting this approach, such as with quarterly reports and semi-annual strategy meetings. Agile software development methodologies have packaged this concept into sprints, a time-boxed effort restricted to a specific set of time, typically chunks of 10 days, to plan, execute, and reflect. This enables development teams to prioritize on what’s most important, focus on those objectives, and then reflect on what was done to prepare for the next round. Consider a similar approach — instead of a single set of annual resolutions, break them down into priorities for more manageable sets of time. Another example, I have a recurring email sent to myself at the end of each month to reflect on how that month went, and what I want to accomplish the next in line with my yearly themes. Depending on your schedule and interest in continuous development, you can use many other temporal landmarks. Some examples are listed below:
- 1st day of the month
- 1st day of each season (fall, winter, spring, summer)
- Independence Day
- Religious holidays (Easter, Eid al-Fitr, Rosh Hashanah)
- Anniversary of a relationship or major milestone (e.g. job start date, graduation date, etc.)
New Year’s comes and goes each year like clockwork. Even without understanding the psychological concepts accompanying it, the event has always held a strong influence over our behavior. Now with an understanding of the fresh start effect, we should capitalize on the surge of motivation this landmark brings, and strategically leverage landmarks throughout the year to sustain that motivation and continuously iterate and adjust our daily actions.
Proposed Next Steps
- Reflect on your ambitions for the new year — now just what you want to do, but how you want to be — and why that’s important to you
- Identify tangible actions you can do on a daily basis to incorporate those resolutions into your existing routines
- Set a regular cadence to check in, reflect, and adjust as needed throughout the year
References & Inspiration
- ¹,² Hengchen Dai, Katherine L. Milkman, Jason Riis (2014) The Fresh Start Effect: Temporal Landmarks Motivate Aspirational Behavior. Management Science ():. http://dx.doi.org/10.1287/mnsc.2014.1901
- When: The Scientific Secrets of Perfect Timing, Daniel H. Pink
- The Role of Temporal Landmarks in Autobiographical Memory Processes, Michael S. Shum
- Success Requires a Change of Mind, Not New Year’s Promises, Gustavo Razzetti
- A Fresh Start (ideas42 blog), David Munguía Gómez & Jaclyn Lefkowitz
- Your New Year’s Resolutions Suck (and How to Actually Create Goals That Stick), Melody Wilding