William Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar was warned to beware the Ides of March. The rest of us should probably shift that caution back by a month or two.
January and February can be dark times. One reason for all this gloom? It’s around this time that many of us realize we aren’t living up to our New Year’s resolutions. We slip up on our diets and ambitious exercise routines. We make our first goofs on the new budgets we’ve set for ourselves. And how can that be the number on the scale?
Sure, there can be reasons to be a little disappointed as we get moving into the new year. But there’s also a lot we can learn from these early fails at our resolutions.
Why New Year’s resolutions fail
One reason we may fail our New Year’s resolutions is because we might not be making the right goals. A 2020 study published in PLOS One found that participants with “approach-oriented goals” (that is, goals made with the intent to attain a desired result) rather than “avoidance-oriented goals” (goals made with the intent to avoid an undesirable result) were more likely to achieve their New Year’s resolutions.
It’s also possible that we’re not making goals in a way that draws on our motivations and sense of self. Think of the difference between goals phrased as, “I want to lose 10 pounds” and “I want to expand my enjoyment of cooking by learning 10 meatless recipes.” In the second case, the resolution draws on a sense of self and ability and connects it to potential for growth, rather than another generic resolution that’s neither inspiring nor particularly meaningful.
How to revise failed New Year’s resolutions
Consider the following self-reflective questions:
1. Is your failed goal actually someone else’s?
Often, we look to external expectations to form our definitions of success, be they social standards of attractiveness, financial targets or glamorous vacations taken by distant friends on social media. The external pressures may give us a sense of what we should be trying to achieve with New Year’s resolutions, or other goals we set for ourselves. However, if we don’t truly care about these measures of achievement, this disconnect may be the reason why we don’t stick to diets or start that side hustle.
For example, while the goal of starting a side business to make extra income may well be a noble ambition, if your heart actually desires to spend your time more creatively, this may be why there’s a misfire in moving your new business plan forward each week. Maybe your vision of success looks more like having a wealth of time to pursue your creative work rather than the wealth affiliated with a certain number in the bank. Chances are, you’d be more successful sticking to a resolution that’s truer to your desires.
2. Does your goal make you feel good about yourself?
While some New Year’s resolutions fail because they are too big—“I plan to pay off my mortgage in one year!”—others may fail because they don’t inspire us with ideas about our better selves. If one of your resolutions leaves you feeling a bit “meh,” perhaps it needs a tune-up. Saving a certain amount each week by skipping Friday lunch out isn’t, after all, the stuff of which legends are made. But maybe surprising a loved one with a special trip for two with the money you’ve made from saving or taking on extra work would make you feel like a romantic vacation hero.
3. Does your failed New Year’s resolution need a revision?
Maybe the disconnect between your stated, resolution and your true definition or goal isn’t quite so broad. Perhaps you do indeed want to be more “healthy,” a nebulous goal if ever there was one. But you’ve made a resolution to be on a strict diet. What if, instead, your definition of health has more to do with bodily movement? You might do better reorienting your goal around an ambitious exercise target that taps into a sense of accomplishment—running a race in a certain time, preparing for a special hiking vacation, etc.—rather than triggering fears of deprivation. It may well be that, when it comes to health, your definition of success has more to do with what your body can achieve than a particular number on a scale.
Rather than beating ourselves up in these early days of the year over a failed New Year’s resolution, we’d do better to brew a pot of tea, grab a notebook and see what we can learn. Building self-knowledge out of our so-called failures is kinder and a lot more fun than simply throwing in the towel on those New Year’s goals.
This article was published in January 2019 and has been updated. Photo by Leszek Glasner/Shutterstock
Katherine Fusco is an assistant professor at the University of Nevada, Reno, where she teaches film, theory, and American literature. She is the author of Silent Film and U.S. Naturalist Literature: Time, Narrative and Modernity (Routledge) and Kelly Reichardt (University of Illinois). Currently, Katherine is working on a book about stardom and questions of identity in the 1920s and 1930s. Katherine has appeared in The Atlantic, Dilettante Army, Harpers Bazaar, Headspace, OZY and Salmagundi; you can find her blog on motherhood and creativity at CreateLikeAMother.blog.