Why we make them and why they’re designed to fail
By Jacey Gibb, Editor-in-chief
You’re at a party. The whole room has erupted in a festive countdown, with everyone chanting in unison. Maybe your midnight kiss is on standby next to you or maybe the only mouth you plan on kissing is on your next beer bottle. As the final seconds of the past year dwindle away, you find yourself looking back on the previous 365 days, inevitably zeroing in on where you went right or wrong. Will the next year be any different? Might this finally be your year when you make nothing but good decisions and finally nix those self-destructive habits?
The defeatist (though realistic) answer is probably not. Predictably—and yet, to some, surprisingly—the chances of you keeping that New Year’s resolution hovers around the eight per cent mark. Out of every hundred people who wish they could make more friends, get a raise, and fit into smaller clothes, only eight of them are likely to succeed. In spite of this depressing wasteland of failure, making a resolution is almost expected of people. So where did these annual goals come from? How did they become a fixture in our goal-orientated mentality? And why is it that despite all the good intentions and resources available, most resolutions go unresolved?
If you think New Year’s resolutions are only for characters in cheesy romantic comedies, you might want to reconsider. Only 38 per cent of the population say they “absolutely never” make resolutions, meaning 62 per cent of them do at least occasionally. However, the daunting failure rate has likely caused people to begin to wane on making said resolutions, as a 2013 poll from CBS showed a 10 per cent drop in people who made resolutions from two years prior.
As for where the act of making a New Year’s resolution comes from, the tradition can be traced all the way back to Babylonian times. Every March, people would set goals for themselves with the intention of doing good for the overall community. However, the tradition was shifted to January by the Romans and it became more similar to the self-focussed resolutions of modern day. Obviously there is no data available for how well previous generations fared in their New Year’s goals, but I’m going to make the assumption that for as long as people have been making resolutions, people have been putting in a mediocre effort and abandoning them a few weeks later.
So why is it that after all these years, people still find themselves mentally mapping out their personal improvements for the coming year? You could easily disregard it as a novelty tradition, but there’s more to New Year’s resolutions than just empty promises. According to Dr. John Duffy, a clinical psychologist and life coach, “Most of us have a natural bent toward self-improvement.” An added bonus is that, by setting a specific starting point (such as January 1), it “gives us time and a goal date to prepare for the change, to fire up for the shifts we plan to make.” It’s a natural thing for humans to want to improve themselves and a shifting calendar year provides the perfect opportunity.
Another reason why people make New Year’s resolutions is, much like the habits they’re trying to break, they’re simply used to making them. Forty-five per cent of people “usually” make resolutions, and because humans can be so habitual, a person might not even stop to consider why they’re making resolutions in the first place.
So now that we know where New Year’s resolutions come from and why people make them, it’s time to answer the burning question: are they effective?
The unfortunate reality here is that by the time of this article’s publishing—a bit over a week into 2014—a significant percentage of resolution makers will have already broken their own self-made goals. Only 75 per cent of people make it past the first week, which plummets to 64 per cent after the first month. At the halfway point in the year, only 46 per cent of people have stuck with their resolutions. If you’re looking for simple pass/fail percentages, only eight per cent say they successfully keep their resolutions while 49 per cent have “infrequent success.” Even if you’re not a math person, it’s easy to see the numbers aren’t in your favour.
While it’s disappointing to hear, there’s an actual scientific reason why we’re unable to stick with our resolutions. The area of our brain that’s responsible for our willpower, the prefrontal cortex, is also in charge of things like short-term memory and staying focussed. Because an enormous amount of willpower is needed to maintain your resolutions, it ends up overloading your prefrontal cortex. This is why longevity becomes a problem if your resolution is long-term orientated.
With all of the statistics and biology working against you, it might be easy to simply forgo making New Year’s resolutions from now on. I personally wouldn’t go so far as to say resolutions are pointless (okay, they largely are) but the intentions behind them are well-meaning, and that’s a good starting point. Instead of setting goals for the new year, you need to focus on building habits. They’re harder than goals because they take more time to develop, but they last longer. Ask anyone who’s a regular smoker; once you start a habit, it’s hard to stop.
Now, I know what you’re thinking. “Developing healthy habits sounds like a lot of work. Isn’t there a faster, easier way to make my resolutions come true?” Through hours of research and personal experience, I’ve come to believe that since resolutions are hard to accomplish, you should simply make resolutions that are the exact opposite of what you want to have happen. For example, let’s say someone tells me that their resolution is to be more involved with the Other Press. After my initial “Awww!” moment, I would likely tell them to tweak the resolution slightly: “Your resolution should be to distance yourself as far as possible from the newspaper and avoid contributing. That way, through the power of reverse psychology, your resolution will fail and you will undoubtedly become a prominent figure in the Other Press community.”
So there you have it. You know where New Year’s resolutions came from, how commonly they fail, why you fail, and my very own signature Quick Fix to New Year’s Resolutions™. What it all comes down to, though, is how you want to approach the next year. Yes, 2014 could be the best year of your life where all of your wishes come true. Or it could be just as shitty as the last year. It’s entirely in your own hands to make it happen.
Oh, and in case you’re wondering: I did indeed make a New Year’s resolution for myself. My goal is to not go parasailing for a whole year. I’ve never parasailed in my life. Wish me luck!
Extra resolution revelations:
According to a study by the University of Scranton, the following are the top New Year’s resolutions for 2014 (in ascending order of popularity).
1) Lose weight: a sizeable 38 per cent of all resolutions made were related to a person’s weight, likely coinciding with the 36 per cent of all American adults who are medically considered obese.
2) Get organized: whether it’s your computer’s desktop folder or the hodgepodge lurking in your medicine cabinet, it doesn’t have to be spring for you to do some cleaning.
3) Spend less, save more: like flossing every day or using condoms, it’s something people love to advocate for but is harder to actually follow through with.
4) Enjoy life to the fullest: not every day is going to be a Mary Poppins song, but I suppose it wouldn’t hurt to occasionally throw a smile instead of shade.
5) Stay fit and healthy: a safer resolution to make instead of the “lose weight” trap. Unlike dropping pounds, there’s no finish line for staying healthy (besides death, of course).
6) Learn something exciting: women are more likely to have an intracranial aneurysm a.k.a. a brain aneurysm. Isn’t learning fun?
7) Quit smoking: except for when you’re drinking, right?
8) Help others in their dreams: just find someone who has the same goal and you’ve got your very own mutually beneficial resolution.
9) Fall in love: for a bit of perspective here, how is it that falling in love—supposedly one of the greatest, most sought-after human experiences—is two spots behind stop damaging your lungs?
10) Spend more time with family: a great feel-good goal in theory, but as someone who just spent time back at my parents’ for the holidays, family time is an activity best kept hypothetical.