New Year's resolutions are silly

Every February you get to see so billboards with fitness center advertisements. Because by then most people have already given up on that this year (for real!) they wanted to work out more.

Because New Year’s resolutions generally don’t work, I thought it was a silly tradition. If you think there’s something you should do better, you shouldn’t wait for the new year to start! But even someone who reflects on their lifes on a daily or weekly basis may miss bigger developments. Because big changes sometimes these take weeks or months to happen. So I think it’s a good idea to take some time once a year to think about some bigger topics and make them actionable.

I like to split up the year’s review in three sessions, so it doesn’t become a big daunting project.

Session 1 - Reflection

What has worked really well for me is writing down what happened in the past year using the following structure:

  1. Highlights: things that were particularly good and I experienced as amazing!
  2. Things I’m grateful for. The difference with a highlight is that it’s not necessarily something to enjoy, but still good. These can be the same things every year—things you may start to take for granted. A special one for me this year was getting the COVID-vaccine. Which was not particularly fun to do, but it did help to feel much more at ease.
  3. Things that went surprisingly well: things I did intentionally and had good outcomes.
  4. Things that didn’t go well: things I did or wanted to do that didn’t lead to the outcomes I desired.

For each I write down five to ten items. And that’s it. That’s the template. The simplicity makes that I don’t have to rush filling it out. It’s easy and fun and doesn’t feel like homework. Although I don’t have a proper journaling habit, I do write quite a bit throughout the year. Going through everything and reflecting on it takes me a couple of evenings. I really enjoy doing it. Especially this year. The joke is that because of the lockdowns, it felt like the year only took four months. But looking back how thing were a year ago, made me very happy.

Session 2 - Setting goals

But what has that to do with New Year’s resolutions? While writing down my reflection, I always find things I want to do different in the future. This is how I process these:

  1. Mark the problems and finish my reflection.
  2. Collect all the problems, redefine them as goals. It can a clear action or project, like making an appointment for a vasectomy. More often than not, it’s about bigger goals, that require me to change habits. Like feeling less stressed, by, among other things taking 15 minutes each day to relax.
  3. Sort goals by theme, like health, work, or relationships.
  4. Find ways to achieve those goals. This is the creative part! It takes time and doesn’t need to be done in a single session.

Session 3 - Action

For the solutions I defined in the previous step, I assess whether it’s one-off thing or something I have to (not) do repeatedly.

  1. Prioritize and try to keep the number of items below thirteen.
  2. For everything I can do when I have the time for it (a task or project) I create a calendar event. Important things are time-sensitive and don’t belong on my many task lists that may never get prioritized! Adding the thing to the calendar is more important than getting the date right straight-away. I often end up front-loading a lot of things in the first quarter and end up moving calendar events to later in the year. That makes me feel like I don’t have things under control, but in reality, it just means I don’t forget about them.
  3. For everything that requires me to do things repeatedly, I redefine it as a new habit.

And that’s where it really gets interesting to me, because this part took me several years to get sort of right. Almost everything we people do is engrained in habits. After all, to consciously think about every decision every day just requires too much time and effort. Imagine a normal work day and having to think about what finger to use to switch off your alarm clock, to decide whether you first shower, brush your teeth, or eat breakfast—what breakfast, where would you sit to eat it, or would you rather order something in, etc, etc. Now the trick of my New Year’s resolutions alternative is that I make a habit out of developing new habits and losing old ones.

Losing habits can be particularly difficult. It’s easy to write down ‘eat less than 20 g sugar per day’. But in my case that meant changing my breakfast, not eating chocalate when walking past the office chocolate jar, not eating something sweet with my coffee, eating fruit for desert—you get the point.

Changing habits takes time and conscious effort. It’s easy when you move to a new place, because then at first you actually have to think about all the little things. But I don’t move house that often anymore, so I just change one habit at a time. I go through my list of prioritized habits and start with the first one in January. In the Momentum app, I write down the goal as a short sentence and set a daily reminder. Many stock apps and spreadsheets let you do similar things, so don’t let that bit discourage you.

It takes about 4 weeks to gain or lose a habit, so every month I add a new one. I keep the number of habits I track low though. After 3 months, there’s no need to track it—either I’ve successfully changed that habit, or I need to redefine it (or give up).

That’s it!

I still act like New Year’s resolutions are silly. But I do think it’s a great to regularly look back on longer periods of time. Set new goals and, more importantly: define tasks and new habits. For me, the break at the end of the year has become a natural moment to do this. I’m not saying you should be like that for you too. But, when you see those fitness center billboards in a month or two, at least you know where to find a plan!

An empty gym in black and white
Photo: Risen Wang