If you’re going to make only one resolution for 2014, resolve to make no New Year’s resolutions. Often they don’t work, they’re soon broken, and then the whole year is shot. There is a better way.
The beginning of the year holds some special enchantment for resolutions, but it’s artificial. The first of the year could be any date on the calendar. For example, at one time the year began on March first, which is why September, October, November, and December take the Latin names for the seventh, eighth, ninth, and tenth months. Yes, the beginning of a new year does present a good opportunity to reflect on the year just finished and make plans for the year ahead. But if you couldn’t resolve to
Consider the first of January. You’re tired from staying up late New Year’s Eve. You’re stressed from the holidays. The house is full of leftover sweets, cookies, and gifts of wine. Your wallet is bursting with gift cards that will enable you to indulge in your favourite obsessions. Does this sound like an optimal climate for an exercise in willpower?
So, relax. Here’s what you do: spend the rest of January making a plan for 2014. What do you want to tackle first? Getting up earlier? Studying harder? Walking a block a day? Resisting chocolate? Resisting Facebook? Select one as your February goal. And make it a goal for only one month.
Part of the reason why New Year’s resolutions fail is the overwhelming thought of doing something (or not doing something) for a whole year. That’s 365 days, any one of which could be the day your resolve falters. If you plan for only one month, you’ve made the task much more doable. Compare this: “I’m going to get up 15 minutes earlier every day for 365 days,” to this: “I’m going to get up 15 minutes earlier every day for 31 days.” Thirty-one days (or 28 if you’re starting in February) seems more achievable.
By the end of the month, you’ve developed a new habit, broken an old one, or made a positive change in your routine. You’re getting up 15 minutes earlier each day without even thinking about it! You only need willpower for one month. By the end of the third week your new habit is so well-established you just coast through the last week. You continue on for the rest of the year without any effort.
With that success in mind you can begin your March resolution. Another month, another objective. If you falter and need to begin again then you’ve only slipped for one month, not an entire year. At the end of 2014 you will have fulfilled ten or so resolutions. If you had begun all ten on January first, however, how many would you have expected to succeed at all year through?
Another difficulty with beginning the year with a list of resolutions is that there just isn’t enough willpower to go around. In their book Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength, authors Roy F. Baumeister and John Tierney explain, “No one has enough willpower for that list. Because you have only one supply of willpower, the different New Year’s resolutions all compete with one another. Each time you try to follow one, you reduce your capacity for all the others.” Willpower is a finite resource: use it for one resolution and you won’t have enough for all the others.
One strategy that Gretchen Rubin employed in her best-selling book The Happiness Project was to cluster several resolutions around a monthly theme. Be careful not to overdo it though; remember your willpower will only extend so far. Have one important resolution each month and then add a few one-off tasks to be completed by month’s end. For example, if your main objective is to study three hours every day, a supplementary goal could be to learn to use that scheduling software you’ve been meaning to master. And perhaps you could plan to spend one afternoon cleaning off your desk. All three are related but only the first one requires an ongoing expenditure of your limited willpower.
So, take your New Year’s resolution list and break it down into manageable monthly portions. Apply your willpower to one major resolution per month. Add one or two small tasks to complement your resolution. At the end of each month, congratulate yourself and look forward confidently to the next month. At year’s end, you will have accomplished so much more than if you had run full-throttle with a daunting collection of New Year’s resolutions.