Are Your New Year’s Resolutions Faltering?

By Jenna Hennessy

It’s that time of year again. The time of year where we start to realize the idealistic images we had of ourselves happily sweating in the gym, effortlessly putting our phones down, or contently saying no to that second (or third?) glass of wine aren’t manifesting themselves quite as easily as we thought they would. 

If you’re anything like me, you may be partaking in another New Year’s tradition around this time in January. That is, the tradition of questioning your sense of willpower for falling back into old habits that you resolved to change, once and for all, this year.

Why is it so much harder than we anticipated? Did we not sit down a mere few weeks ago and make a pledge to our future selves to “stick to it!” this time? Is it possible that we all just don’t have what it takes?

I wouldn’t be too sure. The problem may not be with us, but instead may be in the way we think about New Year’s resolutions. Many people look at the New Year as a clean slate, a chance to start over. But what we fail to realize is that this is not the way human behavior works. Our habits and lifestyles do not just develop overnight, and therefore the expectation that we can change them once the clock hits midnight may set us up for failure rather than success.

Statistics bear this out: virtually every study tells us that the majority of those who make New Year resolutions abandon them within the first month.

So, what can we try instead?

Figure Out Your “Why?”

The first thing we can begin to explore is our “why?”  Why is it that limiting my screen time is important? And why do I feel so bad after trying to delete the Instagram app off my phone, watching the little logo wiggle back and forth on my screen before ultimately deciding to “just keep it for a few more days”? By delving into this question, we come across answers that help clarify our values.

As compared to goals which give us an endpoint, our values provide us with a purposeful direction in which to proceed through life. I know that when I spend hours scrolling through social media, that is time I am not spending being present with those I care about. My value of being present with loved ones gives me endless opportunities to succeed as compared to the goal of “putting my phone down,” which is only measured by whether my phone is physically in my hand.

Shift Our Language

When I ask people about their New Year’s resolutions, they often answer with a behavior they would like to stop engaging in or something in their life that they want to reduce. “Cut back on the wine after work” sounds great in theory but it’s likely that when we think of this resolution, the only thing we are picturing is a glass of wine.

These types of resolutions are framed in such a way that they end up demonstrating the inadvertent effects of thought suppression. This common psychological phenomenon states that the more we try to not think, or feel, something, the more of it we tend to get. Sure, we may be able to stave off that urge to pour a second glass temporarily, but the “no more!” we vowed turns into “okay, one more” soon enough. Pesky thought suppression! 

But there is hope. Simply by shifting our language to measurable, specific behaviors we want to be engaging in more, rather than less, we create opportunities for our mind to dwell on those behaviors instead. For example, explore what images or thoughts come to mind when we think about the goal of “drinking two glasses of water after work” instead. 

Throw Up Your Hands; Congratulate Yourself for Making it Through the Past Two Years

If you have the energy to put into practice the tips suggested here, power to you! But you may also be falling into the growing subset of people who don’t even want to think about resolutions or goals for this upcoming year, and that is completely okay. It makes sense that with all the uncertainty and constant need to change course that trying to think of a resolution fills us more with dread than determination. 

If you find yourself resonating with this group, then I hope you can take a moment to acknowledge the sheer strength and resilience it has taken to make it to this point and allow that to be more than sufficient. 

If there is anything this pandemic has forced us to reconsider, my hope is that it is the mentality that if you’re not striving for more, you aren’t doing enough. Somehow, you found the curiosity and attention to read an article that interested you, let’s consider that a New Year’s win.

Jenna Hennessy is a clinical psychologist at Columbia University Irving Medical Center who  specializes the treatment of anxiety disorders, mood disorders, and trauma.