The benefit of breaking your New Year's resolutions

January's opressive perfectionism

The beginning of the year has become the temporal landmark for setting out new goals and making promises of transcending our old faulty selves. But this practice is accompanied by the all-too-familiar disappointment of broken new year's resolutions. Rebecca Roache warns about the oppressive perfectionist ideology animating this ritual, offering an alternative, kinder approach to self-improvement.

 

On 1st January 1863, Mark Twain wrote, ‘Now is the accepted time to make your regular annual good resolutions. Next week you can begin paving hell with them as usual’. Presumably, like the rest of us, Twain signed up for a cheap new year gym membership deal and then never went back after mid-January.

There are good reasons for cynicism about new year resolutions. There’s the thought that, if you’re willing to wait until the new year before you implement some positive change, then making that change can’t be very important to you. And the thought that if you’re serious about self-improvement, you’d be thinking about it throughout the year, not just at the beginning of January. Another reason is that tying your good intentions to the new year is a good way to set yourself up for failure. If you’re going to make improvements, isn’t it better just to get on with them quietly when the time is right, whether or not it coincides with the new year? And at least in the Northern Hemisphere, January already comes with its own sets of challenges: it's cold and dark outside, the festive season is over, and the daily grind is back with a vengeance. Why make life even harder for ourselves by throwing resolutions into the mix? There is, however, a way of committing to change that doesn't follow the Mark Twain recipe for disappointment.

Using the new year to inspire positive changecan be a good idea, as it capitalises on what psychologists have called the ‘fresh start effect’. In a 2014 paper, Hengchen Dai, Katherine Milkman, and Jason Riis showed that people are more motivated to set goals and work towards them following ‘salient temporal landmarks’. We divide our lives into different ‘mental accounting periods’ that begin with these landmark moments. That makes it natural for us to consign bad habits that we’d like to change to the ‘old me’ and move forward into a new phase where we do things differently.

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Sometimes we’re successful at making important positive changes on an otherwise unremarkable day.

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 Even so, new year isn’t your only opportunity to benefit from the fresh start effect. The start of the month, the start of a week, the first day of spring - these are all temporal landmarks that you can use to kick off your good intentions. But the fresh start effect is not always necessary. Sometimes we’re successful at making important positive changes on an otherwise unremarkable day. Coordinate your goal-setting with temporal landmarks if you think it might work for you - but don’t let it constrain you.

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The new year is a temporal landmark that can prompt positive change, but it’s not a software upgrade for your personality.

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What about Twain’s wry observation that, notoriously, lots of people who make new year resolutions quickly abandon them? Here’s where new year resolutions have become a victim of their own success. Making new year resolutions is such a huge and well-established cultural phenomenon that lots of people make them even if they don’t feel strongly motivated to change. And since they’re not strongly motivated to change, they don’t stick with their resolutions. That doesn’t mean that new year resolutions won’t work for people who are seriously motivated to change.

But doesn’t linking your good intentions to the new year set yourself up for failure? Fixating on the ‘temporal landmark’ of the new year can encourage us to view our bad habits as part of the ‘old me’, not part of the new, improved version that arrived at midnight on 1st January. When we take this view, it can be especially disheartening when we don’t manage to live up to our new year standards. This is exactly what happened to me on the first weekend of 2024. I had made a new year resolution to stay off my phone at weekends. 2024 started on a Monday, and unfortunately, by the time the weekend rolled around, my resolution had slipped my mind and I ended up using scrolling through my phone as usual. Late afternoon on Sunday, I remembered my resolution and felt annoyed at myself. In circumstances like these, the hopes we’d pinned on the new year crash down to earth and many of us react by abandoning our resolutions. What can we do about this?

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Is the squeaky clean new year, in which you haven’t messed up or disappointed yourself yet, simply an opportunity for you to indulge perfectionist fantasies about how this time you’ll get it right?

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The answer is: more self-compassion. The new year is a temporal landmark that can prompt positive change, but it’s not a software upgrade for your personality. If you don’t demand perfection by expecting yourself to make dramatic, abrupt changes, it’s easier to forgive yourself when you falter. New-year-you might not be as impressive as you’d hoped, but old-year-you wasn’t as disappointing as you feared either. What matters isn’t the change of year, but the positive changes you make, imperfectly and with self-acceptance, whatever the time of year.

Take a moment to reflect on why you’re making resolutions in the first place. Is the squeaky clean new year, in which you haven’t messed up or disappointed yourself yet, simply an opportunity for you to indulge perfectionist fantasies about how this time you’ll get it right? Are you ignoring the probability that you won’t get all of it right, and will you be mean to yourself when you inevitably slip up? If your answer to any of these questions is Yes, add self-compassion to the list of things to work on in 2024.

related-video-image SUGGESTED VIEWING How to use philosophy for a better life With Rebecca Roache

One of my favourite strategies for taking a self-compassionate approach to making changes involves embracing the idea of ‘lives’, like in a computer game. When you slip up and don’t stick to your resolution, it’s not game over. You just lose a life. So, in my case, the fact that I’ve so far failed in my attempt to have phone-free weekends doesn’t mean that I give up and stop trying. I’ve lost a life, but I’ll try again next weekend, and maybe I can learn from my slip-up and set a reminder on Friday to ensure I don’t forget again.

Another practical suggestion is - and hear me out - break your resolution immediately. Then, after you’ve broken it once, see if you can keep it (giving yourself as many lives as you need along the way). That way, perfectionism doesn’t get a look-in, and you don’t fall under the spell of the ‘new year, new me’ mindset. Twain’s road to hell may have been paved with new year resolutions, but your road to success can be paved with slip-ups, stumbles, and wrong turns.

 

Reference:

Hengchen Dai, Katherine L. Milkman, Jason Riis. 2014: 'The Fresh Start Effect: Temporal Landmarks Motivate Aspirational Behavior', Management Science 60/10:2563-2582.

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dome vad 10 January 2024

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