As 2023 slowly approaches, so does the recognition that I have made little headway on this past year’s resolutions.
From resolving to exercise more, eat better, and tackle a (now even longer) list of household tasks — I fell way short of what I felt at the time were reasonable (albeit recycled) goals.
Despite wallowing in these failures, I’ve also realized, however, that I’ve made some major wins this past year, too. No, they weren’t the lofty goals I made last January. But they are achievements I’m proud of.
And by reflecting on these successes I’m recognizing the ways I need to change my resolutions for the year ahead, so they don’t end in disappointment.
Why So Many New Year’s Resolutions Fail
Research from the Society for Personality and Social Psychology indicates that as few as 9 percent of people in the United States achieve their New Year’s resolutions by year’s end — calling into question how useful this ritual actually is.
While the practice of setting annual resolutions is a long-standing one (a 2021 report from The Old Farmer's Almanac claims the tradition dates back more than 4,000 years), research around why the majority of goals fail is scant.
An oft-cited older study from 1988 focusing on resolution makers found that those unsuccessful in maintaining their goals were more likely to “self-blame” or have “wishful thinking” that their problems would settle on their own. On the other hand, having supportive relationships, environments, and interpersonal systems (such as people holding you accountable to your goals) was associated with resolution maintenance at the two-year mark.
Or, in other words, setting up the community and space around you toward reaching a resolution leads to better success than going at it alone.
A review (PDF) of research about self-change (New Year’s resolutions are just one type) attributes failures to unrealistic expectations of the goal itself — specifically regarding the degree, pace, ease, and idealization of the change being made. That means people often make their resolutions either too sweeping or intense.
Another study that looked at what made people more likely to stick with New Year’s resolutions specifically, found that people who were more successful tended to be more mentally ready to start that change, and were more confident in their ability to make progress toward their goal and continue to do so. This research suggests that attitude about a behavior change goal matters.
As a psychiatrist, I have found similar patterns when it comes to behavior change in my work with patients. While the goals I work on with patients aren’t always annual resolutions, they do often involve behavior change goals to improve quality of life: losing weight, socializing more, and drinking and smoking less.
Strategies That Do Help Us Succeed at Behavior Change
Those who achieve their goals often do so by understanding their strengths, recognizing where they need some extra support, and putting in place the things they need to supply that extra backing.
A key tool that psychiatrists, psychologists, and other therapists use to help people with these types of behavior change goals is motivational interviewing.
Often done with the aid of an experienced therapist, the goal of motivational interviewing is to explore the underlying reasons and rationale patients have for wanting to change certain behaviors.
Utilized by both primary care and mental health clinics, motivational interviewing works less as a drill sergeant’s megaphone commanding you to stay on task at all times, and more as a detective’s magnifying glass — examining why you want to make a change, uncovering how driven you feel toward achieving it, and identifying your particular strengths to help get you there.
And it starts with recognizing your inherent strengths, and the wins you have previously made when it comes to behavior change.
Essentially, motivational interviewing makes the resolution less about the resolution, and more about you and how you’ll get there.
Research validates this approach. Interventions incorporating motivational interviewing have been linked in studies to people’s success in decreasing cigarette use, lowering blood pressure, and losing weight.
In my clinical work, motivational interviewing — among other things — often shines a light on previously unrecognized progress. Instead of seeing unmet goals as a failure, we look at what was successful about that attempt and the effort that was made, which ultimately helps us map out a more personalized (and more realistic) path forward.
3 Ways Celebrating Last Year’s Wins Is Helping Me With Next Year’s Resolutions
In using these types of motivational interviewing principles and analyzing why my previous New Year’s resolutions failed, I was reminded of the things I did actually change. This process revealed a lot about what worked for me, what didn’t, and why.
No, I did not exercise three times a week (or barely ever). But I did read more, spend less time on screens, and had more meaningful engagement with my family.
Dissecting why those successes happened — and why my resolutions didn’t — is helping me structure a more solid path toward better fitness for this upcoming year, in the ways below.
1. High-Value Resolutions Tend to Be Easier to Stick With
During my post-twenties adulthood, I can’t count the number of times I had the vague goal of exercising more without any real thought about why it was important to me. Somewhere in my youth, being physically fit was never an explicit goal in itself, but the byproduct of always wanting to play basketball or football. As life got busier though, time and accessibility for the sports I love dwindled, and exercise in any form became the primary endpoint — one that has become elusive.
Since starting residency, spending more time with my parents has also been difficult. But when my son was born, family time became essential for all of us. This required more intentionality of my time, which became self-sustaining. Today, my son expects to see his grandparents frequently, and though the scheduling requires effort, I wouldn’t have it any other way.
Those successes remind me that I have to be intentional about my exercise as well, which means I’ll probably have to find a basketball hoop nearby.
2. SMART Resolutions Are Indeed Smart for Me
“SMART” goals — the acronym stands for specific, measurable, attainable, relevant-realistic, and timely — were characterized by a group of management researchers in an article published in 1981. Their utilization by mental health care providers has been more recent.
When COVID-19 upended my schedule back in early 2020, I started spending way too much time on my phone, and was appalled to learn my daily average of screen time was up to more than five hours early last year.
But that indignation turned into action, which was subsequently tracked by an app on my phone that measured my progress and offered helpful suggestions to realistically limit my screen time. I was unintentionally creating SMART goals for myself, and within weeks I got my screen time down to under a couple hours a day.
That success reminds me that making specific, measurable goals (following the SMART approach), as opposed to generic ones, may help when it comes to actually accomplishing things. For starters, rather than setting out to be more active in 2023, I’m making a goal to play basketball for one hour three times a week.
3. Support From Others (and Yes, Spreadsheets) Help Keep Me on Track
While I enjoy reading, digesting books over the last couple years has been languid. My partner, who has much more success in behavior change endeavors than I do, introduced me to the idea of tracking progress toward personal goals and setting quarterly benchmarks that build toward an annual resolution — a strategy that research promotes.
While I find her Excel spreadsheets terrifying, they also hold me accountable in meeting subtargets months after we ring in the New Year.
Simultaneously, clueing her into what my goals are and sharing the overarching goal of reading more, serves as another source of accountability (in that just by vocalizing my goal to someone else, I’m more likely to feel a need to keep up with that goal) — and of support — a successful approach also backed by research.
Other data indicates exposure to those performing similar-minded goals reinforces the goal for yourself — which my book consumption has certainly benefited from.
I’ve never read so much these days. I’m lucky she exercises more than I do, because I’m banking on being in better shape in 2023.