Goodbye, 2020! Are New Year's resolutions inspirational or self-defeating?

A writer who loves making resolutions and a writer who thinks they're a waste of time make their cases.

Goodbye, 2020! Are New Year's resolutions inspirational or self-defeating?

A writer who loves making resolutions and a writer who thinks they're a waste of time make their cases.

Dec. 31, 2020

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New Year's resolutions are about hope. After 2020, we need them more than ever.

We don't need to fulfill these goals to benefit — setting them can be enough.

By Christina Wyman

I was 16 when I made — and broke — my first New Year's resolution. Nine days before Christmas, I was dumped by my first love, and I was inconsolable. For the next few weeks, I struggled not to cry through family gatherings and couldn't unwrap gifts without thinking that I should have been exchanging presents with him

It was the first time my heart had felt such intense pain, but by the time New Year's Eve rolled around, I was sick of my heartbreak and tears. I was also sick of myself. I went to bed at 8 o'clock on New Year's Eve with one resolution in mind: Stop crying over a dumb boy and move on with your life

More than 75 percent of all people who create New Year's resolutions break them soon thereafter, and I was no exception. I knew I had broken my promise to be over this love when I woke up on New Year's Day with tears in my eyes. I learned the hard way that the heart is going to feel whatever it wants, when it wants, and that the only way out is through. A New Year's resolution was powerless to dictate this timeline. 

But even though my first New Year's promise had been an abject failure, I became a devout resolutionist. More than two decades beyond that breakup, I've never forgotten that creating a New Year's resolution gave me something to look forward to and gave me hope that things would change, regardless of whether I ultimately followed through.  

In fact, I've failed at keeping nearly every resolution I've ever created. I learned the hard way that New Year's goals to "travel more" rely on a robust budget and ample vacation time more than willpower. January promises to "make healthier nutritional choices" depend, in my case, on stable hormones, and at 40 years old, mine fluctuate like the stock market during an election year. 

It also turns out that my perennial resolve to "read more books for enjoyment" requires downtime that my profession (and social media habit) doesn't always afford me. My well-intended vows to make amends with toxic family members in the spirit of the new year may not be the best way forward, and really, who wants to add yet another mile to their already boring treadmill routine, even if only once a week? 

Still, I renew all of these resolutions (and more) on a yearly basis, fully expecting to fail at them. Because to my mind, failure is part of the fun. Resolutions are a reminder of what could be, even if those dreams and goals don't come to fruition. And what good is a life lived without dreams? 

In 2018, I finally made good on my annual promise to travel more and spent the holidays in Rome. It was my first international vacation in a decade, and for three weeks, my boyfriend, Matt, and I wandered the cobblestone paths that twisted and turned through the Eternal City and its breathtaking ruins. 

Three days into our trip, we spent a balmy evening on a food tour with a guide named Francesco who introduced us to expertly roasted porchetta, handmade Roman pasta and fresh-baked biscotti from a local pasticceria. At the end of the tour, Francesco taught us how to tell the difference between authentic gelato and the lower-quality version found in the more touristy parts of the city. 

As our evening came to end, I stood outside a gelateria, inhaling the humid Roman air. Eager to return to our flat, I turned to Matt and found him positioned on one knee, a small velvety box cupped in his palm. Francesco stood behind him, poised with a camera. My resolution to "travel more" had begotten more positive change, possibility and a new beginning. 

Matt and I were married three months later, and we are spending our second New Year's as a married couple together in our new home. We've resolved to take another trip the moment it's safe to do so — this time with our sights on Spain — and will begin planning on Jan. 1.

Believing in the magic of New Year's resolutions is not for everyone, and given their failure rate, some might even consider them a mock-worthy waste of time. I understand this perspective, but I believe it doesn't take into account all that the tradition of New Year's resolutions has to offer beyond their individual fulfillment. 

Next year, as I'm bingeing on the cookies I resolved to ignore, scrolling through social media in lieu of the stack of books I vowed to read and skimping on my perennial plans for a more rigorous workout routine, I'm going to remember how much this year has mercilessly stolen from so many people. And for that, I hereby resolve: 2020 will not take away my resolutions. The new year isn't about making, breaking or keeping promises. It's about new beginnings, which resolutions symbolize. And we've all earned one.

Christina Wyman is an adjunct professor of curriculum, instruction and teacher education at Michigan State University. She is writing a children's book and can be found on Twitter @CheenieWrites.

Can 2020 please be the year that finally kills New Year's resolutions?

This yearly ritual is not just a collective waste of time — it  actively sets most of us up for failure.

By Natasha Noman

We've all been there: Come Jan. 1, we endeavor to embark on a host of life-changing behaviors in the form of New Year's resolutions — from eating less to exercising more, from drinking less to volunteering more. But while it's perhaps well-meaning, I've come to dread this yearly ritual. And a number of studies back me up.

It's not exactly breaking news. A longitudinal study over two years more than three decades ago found that 77 percent of people kept their resolutions for one whopping week. More recently, and specific to exercise-related resolutions, "quitter's day" — or the grim date when these dramatic self-promises are abandoned — typically falls between the second and third weeks of January (far more promising than the longitudinal study's results), according to data gleaned from hundreds of millions of entries in the fitness app Strava over the past few years.

New Year's resolutions are not just a waste of time in terms of how few people actually see them through; I would also argue that they actively set most of us up for failure and are, therefore, more likely to discourage us from meeting our goals. 

Part of the issue stems from how we think about making life changes. It seems both the scale of change and the source of motivation for New Year's resolutions are problematic.  

Changing our behavior is a difficult and complex task, and it's most often successful when it's done in small, quantifiable steps (e.g., "I vow to eat one raw vegetable per day" or "I'll exercise an hour per week"). One of the prevailing theories about changing behaviors is the Transtheoretical Model of Change, which, according to the American Psychological Association, includes the five stages of "precontemplation, contemplation, preparation, action, and maintenance." This requires considerable investment in both time and emotion. It is far more involved than the bifurcated approach to resolutions: deciding to make the change and then making it. In short, changing behavior in the long run is a huge commitment. 

And all too often, the motivation for our resolutions, like losing weight or quitting vaping, comes from a place of fear rather than hope — a problem I believe extends into other areas of our lives. 

"One potential roadblock: too often we're motivated by negatives such as guilt, fear, or regret," according to a paper about New Year's resolutions published by Harvard Medical School in 2012. "Experts agree that long-lasting change is most likely when it's self-motivated and rooted in positive thinking." (Though, it should be noted, while the paper acknowledges the difficulty of following through on resolutions, it doesn't openly discourage them.) The paper also notes that the five psychological stages of change, which can be thought of as building blocks, aren't to be rushed through, lest you create a weak foundation in behavior and relapse. 

And then there's the issue of timing.  While it has symbolic significance, practically speaking Jan. 1 is an arbitrary time to try to overhaul our lives. Many people will have just spent the previous day partying, perhaps waking up sluggish or even ill. And I literally can't think of a less motivating time than the dead of winter after the holidays are all done. January is supposed to be one of the most depressing times of the year, not least because of seasonal affective disorder, or SAD, a kind of depression likely to be precipitated by less exposure to sunlight, which affects an estimated 10 million Americans. 

But even if you don't officially suffer from SAD, January just tends to be kind of, well, sad. 

"There is generally more sadness in the winter time and January is not uncommon at all for overall more sadness among folks," Dr. Ravi Shah, a psychiatrist at Columbia University's Irving Medical Center, told CNN. Add that we're going through a pandemic, which is essentially a societywide trauma, and the whole prospect feels doomed. These are not, on the whole, the conditions that will set us up for success. 

For all these reasons, I think it's time to stop forcing this collective aspirational spasm. As I get older, I've become more aware of when I'm setting myself up for failure — and I try harder to avoid it. 

This isn't to say that change is impossible. It's good to try to motivate yourself to correct or ameliorate unhealthy behavior. I've adopted a three-pronged framework that works for me: choose a motivating time of the year to institute changes (I find late spring and summer very energizing), attempt to positively frame the motivation for changing my behavior and try to be really rigorous about making any changes incrementally. In addition, I try to be kind to myself if I have little relapses here and there (i.e., don't throw the baby out with bathwater and give up entirely). 

It should be emphasized that there are no hard and fast rules — which is kind of my whole point. Implementing changes in behavior is incredibly specific to the individual (we all have different barriers to making change and triggers for relapsing, for example), and it tends to require trial and error. 

If you want to change, to try to make a positive life change, I will gladly be your hype woman (I'm serious!). But just remember that self-improvement journeys begun on Jan. 1 are, statistically speaking, very likely to fail. Sure, the start of a new year — and saying farewell to the dumpster fire that has been 2020 — feels like a good time to hit the restart button. But perhaps, instead, you can use this period for self-evaluation, embarking on the first three stages of the Transtheoretical Model of Change (precontemplation, contemplation and preparation) in anticipation of instituting lasting adjustments once winter's fog of gloom ascends. That will give you time to internalize the need for whatever change you want to introduce in your life, as well as make a comprehensive plan of how you'll achieve it. 

This year has been hard enough. Don't continue the disappointment by buying into the fallacy of New Year's resolutions.

Natasha Noman is a journalist who has worked as a writer, producer and presenter for publications such as Mic, Bloomberg and Brut America, with a focus on the Middle East and South Asia. She is working toward a master of philosophy degree in South Asian studies at the University of Oxford.

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