Every start of the year many optimists make a list of the things they want to change in their life. “New year. New me”, is the old adage. This year won’t be any different. If any, there will be probably more new dreams, initiatives and changes manifested, visualised and penned down, since we kind of gotten out of the pandemic in 2022. In itself it’s a wonderful process, people trying to better themselves. The reality is often that it is a bewildering process where people keep fooling themselves year after year. While some don’t care, others might feel a deep sense of defeat when they pick up a cigarette again in the third week of January. Or perhaps you have already done that. Don’t worry, you are not alone.
How successful are we actually?
Not Very Succesful. At All.
British Professor Richard Wiseman did a year-long study in 2007 amongst 3,000 men and women trying to improve their lives. At the start of the year, weirdly, only 52% felt confident about achieving their goal. That is not a good start. Not surprisingly only 12% managed to achieve their goals. And they even got tips from the research team how to keep their resolutions.
Across the pond, in the land of self-development, research from the University of Scranton cites an even more depressing number. Only 8 percent of Americans that make a New Year’s resolution (which is 45% of the population) are successful in achieving their goals. Which leaves 92% disappointed and possibly depressed.
A similar 2016 study for the US, presented during the annual congress of the Society for Personality and Social Psychology, showed similar results. 41% of Americans make New Year’s resolutions and only 9% feel they are successful by the end of the year.
And we don’t have to wait till the end of the year to find these astonishing numbers. According to a US News & World Report, 80% of the resolutions are already broken by mid February!
Who do we have to blame for this tradition?
According to History, humans have been doing this dance for over 4,000 years!
The people to thank for starting this tradition are the Babylonians, who were the first to celebrate a new year – although then the new year started mid March. Part of their celebrations was making promises to their pagan gods; “to pay their debts and return any objects they had borrowed”. Keeping your word was good. Breaking your word meant falling out of favour with the gods. And you didn’t want that.
It was Julius Caesar who moved the start of the year to January 1. Around 46 B.C., January was named after the two-faced god Janus, who “symbolically looked backwards into the previous year and ahead into the future”. It prompted the Romans to offer sacrifices and make promises of good conduct for the coming year.
This tradition was also adopted by the early Christians. The start of the new year was used “for thinking about one’s past mistakes and resolving to do and be better in the future”.
Which brings us to today, where it has become mostly a non-religious activity and people make promises to themselves instead of to the gods.
What do we want to change?
What big resolutions do we generally make, considering the success rate is so low?
Health is consistently the number 1 resolution across time and the world. The first 4 resolutions in Australia for 2022 where health related (improve fitness, eat healthier, lose weight, sleep more). To be more sustainable was the only other resolution ranked with more than 10% of the respondents. Interestingly, these findings are the same across gender and generation, although there are, logical, differences. Sustainability is more important for Gen Y and Z. Finding love is more important for Gen Z. The younger generations want to take more risk and change their jobs. More than half of the Baby Boomers don’t have any resolutions.
In the US, health is also category number 1 for the 2023 resolutions, according to data from Statista. The pandemic has had its effect on resolutions for 2023 as “saving money”, “spending more time with friends” and “being less on social media” are important goals for 2023.
Interestingly, goals related to the top side of the Maslow pyramid such as finding new hobbies, learning new skills or meditation are not often associated with New Year’s resolutions.
Why are we so bad at it?
British Professor Richard Wiseman says that bad habits are hard to break and impossible to break if we try to break them all at once. His colleague Bas Verplanken, Professor of Social Psychology at the University of Bath agrees with him. “Changing your habits is very difficult, including finding the right moment to make a change”.
Timing is important. The first of January is of course a forced date. Just because it’s the start of a new year doesn’t mean it is the right time for you to break an old or start a new habit.
A 2014 report from Australia’s most visited financial comparison site Finder, showed different reasons for the failures amongst Australians. 35% of participants had unrealistic goals, 33% did not keep track of progress, and some (a whopping 23%) even forgot about their resolution! 10% claimed they had too many resolutions.
British activewear brand Sundried asked 4,000 people why they failed to keep their resolutions. Considering the brand, most resolutions where fitness related. 43% already expected to give up their New Year’s resolutions by February. Respondents listed practical reasons as “not enough money”, “not enough time”, “no plan” as well as deeper issues such as “expectations to high”, “no motivation” and “no self belief”.
Kathy Caprino, a career and leadership coach, lists down 3 reasons of failure. Firstly, people forget to make changes on a deeper, conscious level, before they make a change in their behaviour; making a link between one’s habit and character. People also often don’t have an accountability structure. Sometimes you need to involve other people to help you stay on track. Especially with big goals. And finally she is of the opinion that people can actually be scared of a goal and hence resistant to it.
How to keep your promises?
Let’s not start the year on a negative note. On average 10% manages to be successful and you can be one of them. So here are some tips.
Don’t make your resolutions on a whim. It’s easy to utter resolutions but if you really don’t want to change, it’s not going to happen. Take time to look deep inside yourself before you commit. Is this really important for me or is this what society or the people around me want me to do? Can you actually make this change considering your circumstances? Do you need a support system? Basically, you need to make a plan, like a project.
Make your goals specific so you can measure the progress and reward yourself. Vague goals will disappear like a ship in the mist. Don’t have too many goals. As we saw, changing behaviour is difficult. Start small. A small success is still a success. And success motivates.
Word your goals in positive terms. Language is important. Positive goals motivate more.
Most Resolutioneers break within the first 2 months so don’t give up when you slip. Give yourself a break and continue. Changing habits is difficult. It takes time. If you want to be successful, tenacity is important. For some it will help if there is flexibility in your plan.
There are also differences between how men and women deal with their resolutions. Professor Wiseman found that men were significantly more likely to succeed if they set goals (break it down and set smaller goals) and associate the goal with something positive (be more attractive). For women, sharing helps. Tell you friends and family about your resolution. Create a community.
New Year, New Me? Go for it we say, but think it through, make a plan and don’t give up! Here is some motivation: if you make it till mid February, you are already in the top 20%.