New Year’s Day is unique among holidays in that it doesn’t commemorate religious or historical events or even the birth or death of a cultural icon. Actually, it’s the only holiday that commemorates an immutable law of physics — namely, the passage of time. All that makes for a truly dull jumping-off point for celebration, which probably explains why we overcompensate with all the dancing, feasting, and copious amounts of alcohol followed (before we’re fully sober or have even slept a wink!) by committing to New Year’s resolutions involving challenging self-improvement goals that begin immediately.
When did New Year’s resolutions start?
The Babylonians are to blame for all this. Roughly 4,000 years ago, they set the standard for commemorating New Year’s with 12 days of really hard partying. They also imposed on us the tradition of making New Year’s resolutions. Of course, this all occurred in mid-March when the start of their calendar coincided with the planting season. Later, Roman emperor Julius Caesar continued these traditions but with one modification: In 46 AD, he reset the calendar to begin on January 1, as a way to honor the Roman deity Janus (aka January).
Given more than a few millennia to practice — along with the recent emergence of behavioral and positive psychology — you’d think by now we’d have mastered ways to easily achieve our New Year’s resolutions, but that’s far from the case. In truth, you could say we’re colossal failures at it.
Is achieving New Year’s resolutions even realistic?
According to scientific studies and survey results for the last five years alone — compiled and averaged by motivational site InsideOutMastery.com — we can expect the following grim outlook for 2023: Approximately 38.5% of U.S. adults will resolve to set at least one New Year’s resolution, but only 9% of these “resolvers” will actually achieve success after a full year. That’s a failure rate of approximately 76%.
It gets worse: 43% of adults who commit to a New Year’s resolution admit they expect to fail by Feb. 1. That’s not exactly an optimistic take, but it certainly explains why 23% of resolvers actually quit even earlier, between the first two weeks of January. In fact, within the fitness industry, Jan. 19 has come to be known as “Quitter’s Day” because the vast majority of newbie fitness resolvers who flood gyms during the first two weeks of January generally cancel memberships on that date.
Several surveys that track the progress of New Year’s resolutions reveal that people give up for roughly the same reasons each year. These range from resentment over being pressured to give up something they truly enjoy (42%); to losing motivation (35%); to being too busy (19%); or to having taken on too many resolutions (18%). Respondents also expressed generalized feelings of being underprepared to begin and quickly overwhelmed once things got going.
So why is it so difficult to succeed at our New Year’s resolutions and how can we improve our odds?
How to stick to your New Year’s resolutions
Since there are never any Babylonians around when you need one to provide important life hacks, renowned clinical psychologist Sophia Godkin has dutifully stepped up to explain that “the key to succeeding at New Year’s resolutions is acknowledging the inner struggle between the conscious and unconscious parts of our brain.”
“There is a big gap between our intentions and our behavior,” says Godkin, a sought-after speaker who specializes in motivational and behavioral therapy. “We create the best of intentions and set goals and resolutions using our conscious mind. But 95% of behavior is driven by our unconscious mind. So we do things that are automatic, patterned, easy, and more efficient. If that were not the case, you’d already be doing what your conscious mind wants and easily meeting your goals.”
The critical sum of what Godkin advises about workarounds for this internal mental struggle — and ultimately succeeding at keeping our New Year’s resolutions, or any challenging goal, is best understood when broken down into these five critical parts:
1. Start small and be prepared
“Start with one realistic goal,” Godkin says, and research what you need to succeed. Develop a plan and set yourself up with the necessary items. “If you want to lose weight,” she says, “it doesn’t help to come home to hamburgers. Follow a proper diet, buy the necessary groceries, get rid of the food that’s not helping, and get healthy choices in front of you. It’s very much about designing our lives and our environment to make certain choices easier than others.”
2. Be specific
“It’s not enough to say I’m going to exercise beginning Jan. 1,” Godkin says. Instead, she suggests getting specific by planning to go from smaller increments to larger, more difficult ones. “Maybe you start with 10 push-ups for a bit and then 20. Or you anchor the entire behavior to something tangible in order to create a habit. You tell yourself, ‘I’ll do a set of push-ups and increase it each day after I have my morning meeting.’ The brain understands anchors and helps make what your conscious mind wants more automatic.”
3. Be accountable but know thyself
Being accountable can be as simple as marking an X on your calendar each day or journaling. Or it can be as comprehensive as spreadsheets and data-crunching apps. It can also mean asking a friend to hold you accountable or even inviting them to join you in your goal. “But that works only if that’s the kind of person you are,” Godkin stresses. All of that can help to focus on productive behavior, but the reverse is also true.
Godkin warns there are people who’ll just run away from the chore of bookkeeping, especially after reviewing less-than-stellar results. Likewise, assigning someone to hold you accountable or to work in tandem with you can have the potential to be really motivating or really stressful, especially if things get competitive. “So while there’s research demonstrating the sponsor or buddy system can be helpful,” she says, “it’s critical to know if you can handle that kind of extrinsic involvement.”
4. Stay positive and make it fun
“It’s not enough to feel excitement and optimism at the outset; you have to feel that way throughout the entire process,” Godkin says. “That’s tough because those are emotional states that waver depending on what’s going on in your life.” One way to stay positive is by rewarding yourself for incremental successes. Such positive reinforcement doesn’t mean buying an ice cream sundae to celebrate losing some weight, but it could mean buying a novel instead. “The key is to reward yourself intermittently, adjusting the variability so it stays effective.”
5. Normalize setbacks and try again
Godkin emphasizes that dealing with setbacks is another key component of the resolution process, and it can’t be overstated. “Most of us fail because we take an all-or-nothing approach,” she says. “But achieving our goals involves experimentation in real time. When we stumble, we tell ourselves we’ve failed permanently rather than temporarily. We tell ourselves ‘I can’t do this, and I’ve failed again.’ And we sell ourselves the false narrative that failure is a reason to hate ourselves, that we are not worthwhile and that we should quit. How can we succeed in this mindset? To be truly successful, we must learn to normalize setbacks in combination with trying again.”
Most popular New Year’s resolutions
One constant about the annual accounting of popular New Year’s resolutions is the lists always reflect the times, but experts say significant changes can only be observed in terms of decades rather than just a few years. For most of the last century, New Year’s resolutions trended heavily toward what’s known as “morals based” resolutions and were therefore not quantifiable. Another way to express that is that they were easy to achieve. A national poll from just after the close of World Word II illustrates the point nicely. Among the list of popular resolutions Americans committed to included those “to be kinder,” “to curse less,” and “to forgive more.”
Similar morals-based resolutions still populate modern lists, but they continue to decrease in frequency. This follows a trend that began with the self-improvement book boom of the early 1960s, when people began committing to resolutions whose results could be assessed and measured by year’s end. For instance: you either quit smoking or you didn’t; you either made your savings goals or you didn’t. Pass or fail. Not surprisingly, lists of popular New Year’s resolutions continue their march toward self-improvement and with special emphasis on curbing vices and wrangling personal finances.
Here, then, is a list (averaged and weighted from several recent polls, surveys, and websites) of the most common contemporary New Year’s resolutions made by American adults, including this year. It’s interesting to note that they top five are shared by both men and women.
Here’s to achieving any or all of these top resolutions in 2023!
1. Eat healthier
2. Exercise more
3. Lose weight
4. Get organized
5. Get finances in order (save money and spend less)
6. Pursue a specific career ambition
7. Learn a new skill or hobby
8. Quit smoking
9. Drink more water
10. Drink less alcohol
11. Spend more time with family and friends
12. Stop procrastinating
13. Travel more
14. Break digital addiction
15. Get more sleep
16. Reduce stress
17. Read more
18. Volunteer more
19. Live life to the fullest
20. Take better care of teeth (floss more)