How To Make A Resolution

I have never once made a New Year’s resolution. I have never decided to change something significant about my life, starting on January 1st.

That isn’t to say that I’ve never decided to change something significant about my life. I decided I was sick of being overweight and out of shape, and I started hitting the gym. But I did that in April. I decided that I wanted to learn how to speak Japanese. But I did that in September. I’ve resolved to do a lot of things, but I never hung around twiddling my thumbs until January to start actually doing them.

This seems, at least to me, to be the reasonable course of action. If something about your life needs changing, it makes sense to start changing it as soon as possible. If you decide you want to quit smoking, program in Python, speak Mandarin Chinese, lose thirty pounds… start right now, not at year’s end.

Now, perhaps people make resolutions on New Year’s because the start of a new year prompts people to look over their life and actually make the decision that they want to change their lives. This seems like a reasonable argument at first, but then you have to consider that the culture of making resolutions on New Year’s is really more a method of putting people under the gun and demanding that they find a Grand Way To Change™, rather than a way of sparking consideration or discussion on the possible ways one’s life could change direction.

Furthermore, a lot of people don’t even keep their New Year’s resolutions. Actually, a frankly huge number of people don’t keep them, to the extent that I frequently wonder whey people even bother setting them. (I read a statistic that around 8% of people keep their resolutions, which seems likely, but I can’t find the original research, so I won’t tout that as fact.)

What’s wrong with people? Why do we have a societal expectation where, once a year, people will set goals, then fail to follow through with them? Why do we harbor a culture of annual disappointment?

Part of the reason people don’t keep resolutions is that there is no actual change happening between December 31st and January 1st. They’re two days which are right next to each other, just like March 18th and March 19th. The only significance to that particular collection of days is the cultural expectation we’ve attached to them: that is, a new year should be a quantum shift of progress.

The cultural expectation of some kind of quantum shift, coupled with the fact that no such quantum shift actually happens, leads otherwise reasonable people to set incredibly unrealistic goals for no good reason. People who, if they made this kind of goal in mid-March, would say “I’m going to try and start hitting the gym once a week on Sunday afternoons”, suddenly go off on ridiculous moonshots like “I’m going to start hitting the gym every single day as soon as I get home from work, and I’m also going to cut my carbs in half and become a vegan” as soon as December 31st rolls around.

As such, my best recommendation for how to set resolutions and then follow through on them is to not set them on New Year’s. Any other time of year will have much less pressure attached to it.

Actually, I amend that statement. It’s probably better not to set resolutions at all. Just decide that you want to improve in an area, and get started with the baby steps right away.

A big goal like “I want to become conversationally fluent in Mandarin Chinese”, even if you have a pretty good idea what ‘conversationally fluent’ means, can be incredibly daunting. That kind of thing will absolutely take you years, maybe decades, and looking at the whole thing at once can just make you want to quit outright. On the other hand, googling “beginner Chinese lessons” and watching a handful of funny animated Youtube videos on the subject is easy.

This works with every big goal. “I want to lose thirty pounds”. Okay, how about we start with keeping track of what you’re eating? “I want to find a life partner.” Okay, how about we start with making a list of qualities you find attractive in another human? Break it down until you’ve found a thing you can do right now. Then do it. Right now.

These kinds of “resolutions”—goals with no particular time limit that you’re setting purely for self-improvement—should theoretically be the easiest kinds of goals you set. Whereas in the work world, you have specific deadlines and deliverables, you don’t have any of those in your personal life. You don’t need to learn Chinese in five years. Maybe you want to, but that’s not actually the same thing. Personally, I’d like to learn Japanese in less than a decade. But I’m not going to be fired from my job if I don’t achieve that goal on schedule.

A resolution should be a matter of fun, personal self-improvement, not of disappointing annual self-loathing. So, even and especially if you’re not reading this on New Year’s – what’s your new resolution?