A Psychologist's Advice On How To Conquer Your New Year's Resolutions
Unsure of how to make meaningful resolutions? Here's four tips for the new year and a new you.
By Mark Travers, Ph.D. | February 01, 2024
It is around this time of year that many of us find ourselves thinking deeply about what we've accomplished over the past twelve months. We may think about all the new places we've traveled, the friends we've made or advancements we've made in our career. We may be satisfied with our yearly progress. But, more likely that not, we probably feel some degree of regret for not achieving more.
At the same time, we start thinking about the year ahead and all of our grand plans for making it our best year ever. We convince ourselves that we'llcommit to our exercise regimen—and not just for the first three weeks of January. We map out how we'll find "the one" by year's end. We finally figure out how we'll make our voice heard at work. We repair that relationship with an estranged family member.
Engaging in this type of self-reflection, planning, and goal-setting is a very healthy exercise. However, it's important to put some guardrails around it so that our wheels of thought don't start spinning too fast. Remember, whenever we're dealing with the big emotions of optimism, regret, ambition and longing, all rolled up into one, psychological distress can ensue.
Here are four ways to keep your New Year's aspirations in the realm of the possible and productive.
1. Start With The Easy Fix
When our minds start to think about things we can improve in the coming year, our natural tendency is to lean into our deepest issues and propose a solution (e.g., "I'm going to find the man that I love this year" or "I'll have a job that pays me double by 2025" or "That nagging health problem will be resolved for good this year.") This may sound well and good on paper, but we should have the sense to know that life's biggest problems and solutions rarely follow a set schedule.
A better approach for mapping out our New Year's resolutions is to start with an easier fix that points you in the direction of your long-term objectives. Perhaps it's making a schedule with a friend to try out a new event or experience each month. Maybe it's making the commitment to work with a recruiter to explore other job options. Or perhaps it's committing to staying on a better weekday sleep schedule. Micro-resolutions, such as these, can be the start of big life changes.
2. Add Something New
All psychologists will tell you that change is hard. Simply telling yourself "I'm going to change my eating habits" or "I'm going to change my dating habits" can be more self-punishing than self-enhancing.
A better approach, therefore, is to add something entirely new into your life—and make that your resolution. Tell yourself, "I'm going to sign up for that three-day yoga retreat and see what happens" or "I'll try that new activity that my friend has been bugging me to try."
By making space for something new we can phase out other habits that are no longer serving us.
3. Take Something Away
Our brains are hardwired to think in terms of categories, boxes and boundaries. You're either young or old, democrat or republican, introverted or extraverted. For example, it's easier for you to conjure up an image of a young-extraverted-democrat than a middle-aged-independent-ambivert, right?
We have a natural aversion to ambiguity—it makes us feel unsettled. In the spirit of capitalizing on our brain's affinity for hard lines and clear boundaries, consider making your resolution an experiment in simplicity by removing something from your life. "I'm no longer going to go to X place" or "I'm removing Y food from my diet" are a couple of thought starters.
This type of resolution can be easier to stick to than more nebulous ones, like "I'm going to approach life with more patience in 2024" or "I'm resolving to be more joyful next year."
4. It's Okay To Not Make A Resolution
Finally, it's always okay to not make a resolution. Not making a resolution is one way of saying "I'm content with where I am"—and there's no better feeling than that.
A similar version of this article can also be found on Forbes.com, here.