Not a Fan of New Year’s Resolutions? Try Making a List Instead.

Each New Year begins with great hope and promise. It’s the chance to reinvent oneself, transform habits, and make a fresh start. But when it comes to New Year’s resolutions, studies suggest we are set up for failure before the year even begins. Psychology Today cites a University of Scranton study that found only 19% of individuals manage to keep their resolutions, and most are abandoned by mid-January – just two weeks into the new year. 

But why? 

Most people don’t fail to keep their resolutions because of a lack of willpower. They fail because they shouldn’t have started them on a specific, arbitrary date – in this case, January 1st. The fact is, people don’t make changes in their lives until they are ready. A recent New York Times piece suggests that failed resolutions are tied to ambiguity, poor planning, and setting resolutions for external reasons–not those driven by our own personal desire to make a change. If you haven’t committed to the change, you won’t stick with your resolutions.

Our Resolution Ritual

New Year’s resolutions often feature themes promoted by our peers and society alike, including exercising more, losing weight, saving money, and adopting healthier habits for body and mind. These vague resolutions sound enticing and achievable on the surface, but in reality, they are so high-level in nature that they become easy to forget after a few weeks. While “saving money” is a smart undertaking any time of year, without concrete and tangible steps outlined to achieve this goal, the resolution becomes more of an idea than an action plan and gradually loses force. With that understanding, it’s no surprise that we let ourselves off the hook.  

If we could attach less of our self-worth to these resolutions, they may simply be considered an interesting ritual we indulge in around the first of the year. But they are built up into so much more. The new year and its resolutions make us feel compelled to make monumental changes. Scientists have attempted to trace the origins of our annual resolution practice. While explicit reference was made to resolutions in the 1860s, others argue that the practice of goal-setting and reforming bad habits around the New Year can be traced back 4,000 years.  

While originally resolutions were religious in nature, today they are largely secular. ​​Whatever the motivation, psychologists suggest that the practice of setting resolutions around a specific calendar date, in order to catalog and mark the passage of time, is central to our autobiographical process of memory and narrative. By regularly using the new year to reflect and goal-set for the year ahead, we effectively “turn the page” on our last year and create a division of time. That allows us a sense of freedom in rewriting the script and starting a new chapter in our lives”The fresh start effect” is attributed to the boost in searches for “diets,” “healthy lifestyles” and “goal-setting,” around specific dates, such as birthdays, holidays, and especially, the New Year. 

Accomplishing Your Goals

Despite the widespread annual motivation for goal-setting, the rate of accomplishing these goals is much lower. One study showed that 80% of those who set resolutions in the first week of January broke them by the second week of February. That build-up, along with other failed past experiences to keep similar goals, can leave you feeling guilty, unmotivated, and overwhelmed.  

It turns out that how we frame our resolutions directly correlates with their longevity and overall success. A 2017 study conducted at the University of Stockholm tracked resolutions among a broad population. Upon review, scientists noticed a distinct pattern based on how the goals were framed. Participants who set “achieve” goals, or those who were actively working toward building on something, such as starting a new hobby or developing a skill, were 25% more likely to complete their goals as compared to those setting “avoidance” goals, such as cutting out sweets or alcohol. The authors suggest we focus on how to add to our lives, rather than what we want to remove quickly or take away.

Overall, healthy goal setting can be a positive practice for boosting self-esteem and improving overall mental health. The key to setting yourself up for success is to think about the bigger changes you want to make, then dream up how to achieve those goals in your everyday life. By releasing the impromptu, superficial ritual of New Year’s resolutions, and embracing thoughtful habits for a gradual and healthy change, you can embrace a new form of resolution that invests in your well-being long past the first of the new year.   

Try a “Tasks List” Instead

One healthy alternative to resolution setting is the idea of writing a list of realistic tasks for the year ahead. Gretchen Rubin, a New York Times bestselling writer, spent years researching and sharing tips for living a happier, healthier, and more productive life. She writes that “people who construct their goals in concrete terms are 50% more likely to feel confident they will attain their goals and 32% more likely to feel in control of their lives.” 

Small victories help remind us that we’re capable of accomplishing big things. By setting “bite-sized,” achievable tasks, we can build confidence throughout the year that will help form new habits and accomplish real change. While the idea of creating yet another task list might have you feeling overwhelmed, don’t despair. 

The tasks on your list can be as minor or routine as making an overdue appointment with the vet. Others can be things that bring you simple enjoyment, like watching the latest release on Netflix or visiting the new neighborhood bakery. The point is to focus on fun and meaningful tasks that can be checked off for a sense of accomplishment, instead of setting resolutions that may cause you to wallow in negative thoughts and feelings, especially if they aren’t achieved. At the end of the year, you may find yourself checking more boxes than you could have ever imagined with a traditional New Year’s resolution list.   

Below are some ideas to get your list started:

  • Call a friend instead of texting them 
  • Host a small outdoor gathering 
  • Test a new recipe you’ve been wanting to try
  • Volunteer at your local food bank
  • Schedule annual health appointments for the family  
  • Print out family vacation photos that have been stored on your phone 
  • Pack an “in case of emergency” bag for the entire family (and pets) 
  • Mentor a student right out of school
  • Donate your unused clothing to Goodwill or a homeless shelter
  • Clean up your email and unsubscribe from lists that are clogging up your inbox
  • Take a mental health day and go on a “staycation” 
  • Plan a date night at a new restaurant in town
  • Schedule a family game night  
  • Take up gardening or photography, or learn to play a new musical instrument
  • Play a new sport or learn how to ice skate
  • Join a book club
  • Try a virtual yoga class 
  • Write down one thing you are grateful for every day

Looking Ahead 

As the new year comes into view and we’re inevitably bombarded with “resolution pressure,” take a pause. Use this time to reflect on the past year, identify a few accomplishments or moments you are grateful for, and allow yourself to feel proud of where you are today. 

Ultimately, it’s important to remain grateful for all we’ve accomplished in the last year and to embrace hope for positive change ahead. Whether it’s setting New Year’s resolutions, making a list of realistic tasks, or simply rolling into the new year with an open mind – remember to enjoy the little victories, and give yourself grace in times of disappointment. Embracing change and practicing kindness with others and ourselves will allow us to continue moving forward in health and happiness.  

Annual holiday season depression and loneliness tend to keep behavioral health agencies busy this time of year. To help keep your organization’s financial and clinical operations running smoothly in the face of increased demand, consider an EHR designed especially for practices like yours. NextStep Solutions is purpose-built to help behavioral health practices operate at their best. Contact us today to learn more.

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