So it’s a new year, which means it’s time to do something different. At least that’s what everyone else seems to think. So half the world has just joined a gym, or bought some language-learning program, or maybe signed up for those piano lessons they’re constantly putting off, and this is going to be the year!
Except it won’t. Most New Year’s resolutions fail – but not, I think, because most people can’t stick with something. I think instead the reason New Year’s resolutions so commonly fail is because it’s such an arbitrary reason to make a resolution in the first place. What’s it matter that it’s a new year? Aside from putting a new number on the calendar, nothing fundamental changes. Which means it’s no more intrinsically meaningful to make a New Year’s resolution than it would be to make a February 27th resolution.
In other words, changing because we are supposed to change is a terrible motivator. Of course all of us can change when we’re forced to, as the pandemic so thoroughly proved, but those are the kinds of changes that we generally end up resenting. Self-directed change, though, really only works when the motivation isn’t arbitrary. In other words, change works we want to change.
And just as importantly, change also works best when our goals aren’t arbitrary either.
Let’s take ‘losing weight’ for example, since that’s always a fan favorite when it comes to New Year’s resolutions. If the goal for losing weight is “because I probably should” then you’re probably not going to stick with it, because there’s no proper motivation there. If the reason is something like “because I want to see a certain number on the scale” then you will probably also fail because that number is arbitrary and not intrinsically motivating. But if the reason is something like “because I don’t want to spend money to buy an entirely new wardrobe” or “because I want to look my best for my upcoming wedding,” now suddenly your motivation is more concrete. It has some logic to it. And goals are easier to achieve when they are easier to quantify.
The same is true in the other areas of our lives as well. Let’s say you have a goal of becoming a millionaire. Why? A million dollars is an arbitrary number. Will having an arbitrary amount of money in your bank actually satisfy anything meaningful in you? Probably not, or else rich people would eventually be comfortable in their wealth and give the rest to people who actually needed it (which, spoiler alert, doesn’t happen that often). But what if instead your goal was “I want to have enough money to buy a home in Phoenix and retire there at 61 years old without compromising my current standard of living”? There is a dollar amount associated with that goal, or any other similarly specific goal, but now there’s an actual reason for you to work toward achieving that goal.
Simply put, you should only make changes when you have a good reason to, and your goal should be clearly defined. If either of those conditions is absent, the odds of you sticking with the change and achieving what you set out to achieve are pretty low. And of the two, the goal is the more important. It’s probably fine to pick an arbitrary date to begin a weight-loss program, as long as your goal isn’t equally arbitrary.
So this year, I hope you decide to get into shape in order to be able to keep up with your kids, or save up for a down payment on a $320,000 house, or learn to cook souffles because your grandparents were French and you want to feel connected to your roots. I hope your New Year’s resolutions are ridiculously specific. That’s the best way to ensure you’ll actually get what you’re going for.