New Year’s ResolveWhat if I told you that NYRs were more likely than non-resolutioners to stick to a goal? What if I told you that there are simple and effective (not easy) strategies to make your resolutions more likely to stick? What if I told you that today's resolution could, five years from now, be a daily habit? They are, there are, and it can. Here's how.
New Year’s Resolve
For those of us in the fitness world, New Year’s resolutions are a running joke. Every first Monday of the year, diet books fly off the shelves, and gyms are flooded with new members as hordes of hung-over penitents chase after their New Year’s resolutions.
Big box gyms survive each year by exploiting the New Year’s wave and desperately holding onto them for as long as possible. Within a couple of months, the diet books start collecting dust on the shelves, and the Monday line for the bench press slows to a trickle. A few fitness bloggers and newspaper columnists will write “I Told You So” snark pieces then snuggle into hibernation until it’s time to write “Resolutions are Stupid” articles in the winter. Even Google searches on fitness blow up around January 5th only to deflate like New Year’s dreams.
As a culture, we take it for granted that New Year’s Resolutioners (NYRs) will fail. After all, “if you were really committed, it wouldn’t matter whether it was January 1st or August 14th, right?”
What if I told you that NYRs were more likely than non-resolutioners to stick to a goal? What if I told you that there are simple and effective (not easy) strategies to make your resolutions more likely to stick? What if I told you that today’s resolution could, five years from now, be a daily habit? They are, there are, and it can. Here’s how.
Don’t Ever Tell Me the Odds
Odds, probabilities, and statistics are funny things, especially when they’re based on bad data. We see NYRs fail all the time, so we assume they are doomed to fail. When your friend starts drinking again on January 24th with a “#yolo” Instagram selfie, you shake your head and sigh. You saw it coming.
What about your friend who starts with a low-carb diet January 5th, sees steady results until April 10th, gains a few pounds back, steadies out at a spot they’re happy with, and makes that the new, healthier normal for their life? Do you count that as a success? Do you notice? Or do you see that partial regain as just another failed resolution?
This error of focusing on bad outcomes and forgetting good or neutral ones is so common that it has a name in psychology—negativity bias. On top of that, when we expect something to be true, we look for and remember observations that confirm our bias rather than those which would disprove it. This bias double-whammy blinds us to the truth:
Resolutioners are more (not less) likely to meet their new goals. Using a six-month follow-up survey, researchers at the University of Scranton found that between matched groups of goal-setters—one starting at the New Year and another later—the non-resolutioners had only a 4% chance of sticking to their big goals for six months. The resolutioners, on the other hand, had a 46% success rate.
This is incredible: a single factor driving an 11X increase in goal achievement! Why didn’t this go viral? Because the public clicks things they already believe to be true, so the headline read like this: “How Fast You’ll Abandon Your New Year’s Resolutions.” Bah humbug.
Forty-six percent may not be the best success rate, but it’s a great start, and with a little bit of work in advance, you’ll be even more likely to succeed.
Today’s Resolution, Tomorrow’s Lifestyle
Most people’s goal plans resemble a Jackson Pollock painting. Just throw something on paper and make up a good-sounding explanation. To channel your New Year’s resolution into a success, treat your plans more like a Michelangelo and thoughtfully strategize while capitalizing on the excitement of the season.
At 11:59 on December 31st, when you flipped 2020 the bird and promised to make 2021 “your year,” you were in a “Rebirth” mindset. That has its pros and cons:
As for me, I’m not a fan of “ra ra” “passion” and “motivation.” I’ve been excited about many projects that fizzled out, and none of the achievements I’m proud of came because I “hit rock bottom” or “lit a fire under my ass.”
Still, motivation has starting power, especially for people who have failed before or who are conflicted between choices. In the heat of the New Year, there’s plenty of passion and motivation to go around. The downside is that it can lead us to overreach and make goals that, when sober, seem unreachable.
When faced with the daunting, impossible peaks they promised on New Year’s Eve, many novices to dieting and fitness will cut their goal down into something less daunting, sapping some of the energy from their passion. I recommend this instead:
- Keep your booze-laden, “I’m going to be the next Arnold Schwartzenegger” goal.
- Build in a short-term goal, something you can do in 1 year that points you in the direction of your Big Hairy Audacious Goal.
- Build in a process goal, a routine that will move you in the right direction, rather than just fixating on the goal itself.
- Build in a ‘low-hanging fruit’ goal, a target you can put on your calendar to execute in the very near term.
Most NYRs sincerely take real steps towards their desires, and that’s great! Indecision and perfectionism kill dreams. The problems arise shortly after that first step.
First, it can be tempting to see that first action as the complete solution. “All right, I got a gym membership! Whew!” Without further direction, that action can satisfy the need for change without leading to any real progress. To get around this trap, don’t commit to doing “A Thing.” Instead, commit to a first action knowing it’s only the first step in a chain of successes.
Second, committing to that first action without a plan can cause the tail to wag the dog. If your goal is a vague “get fit” or “get strong,” and you sign in to your nearest gym, your routine will be limited to whatever that gym is limited to (which may consist of little more than treadmills, Tootsie rolls, and tears of regret). If you’re not sure how to get to your goal yet, commit to future action. Make your New Year’s resolution to “Start a diet on January 8th,” and spend that first week looking into getting the information, equipment, and help you need to establish habits that will work. Your results will thank you for the time spent.
A big piece of the New Year mindset is ‘getting over’ the previous year. We do our best to forgive ourselves for mistakes and treat the next year as a brand new experience with limitless possibilities.
In many ways, that’s great. We have to give up something of our old selves to change. It’s not great for planning, though. In the ‘fresh start’ frame of mind, you might forget or ignore the obstacles that prevented you from reaching your goals in the first place.
At new beginnings—birthdays, New Years, new jobs—remember two things:
- You are only in control of you.
- The obstacles that faced you before will still be there, and new ones will arise.
What’s new is how you approach those obstacles, new and old. The ‘new you’ mindset frees you from the need to be consistent with your previous habits and mistakes.
You can’t do it alone. If you already had the skills, knowledge, habits, confidence, and motivation to succeed effortlessly, you wouldn’t be considering a resolution.
In general, people who succeed tend to make their initial resolution in private, but after they have a plan in place, they follow through as part of a group.
Join a sports team, a powerlifting gym, or a diet support board. Surround yourself with people who are on your side and want to see you succeed. Get your family and close friends on board, and get away from those who are indifferent—or even hostile—to your success. Some people can’t help but discourage you because they’re uncomfortable with their own unwillingness to change. They may not belong in your future.
Get a competent coach who you can trust. If you can’t find one locally, consider online coaching to help provide you the accountability and expertise you can’t always offer yourself. The support structure is there if you have the humility and courage to accept it.
Resolve to be Resolute
Change is tough. That doesn’t mean you’re ‘destined to fail’ or that you should make yourself feel better by mocking those who try.
If you’re on the fence about making a resolution, do it right:
- Be passionate about your commitment because it’s worth being passionate about, not because New Year’s is the time for it.
- Make your resolution December 21st, not December 31st. Plan when, where, and how you’re going to start in early January.
- Reflect on your current obstacles. Why haven’t you already made this change? How is the status quo working for you? 2022 will be a new year, but there’s no “new you.” Respect your past choices and the reasons you made them, but choose differently now.
- Make it as easy as possible to succeed. Surround yourself with the people, tools, and environment that will help you ride the New Year’s wave into a big success.
The new year is just around the corner. What will you make of it?