In Defence of New Year’s Resolutions

There’s a sentiment that’s common today even (or perhaps especially) among intelligent and thoughtful people, which says that New Year’s resolutions are a waste of time.

The better version of this assessment points out that there’s nothing necessarily special about New Year’s Eve, or New Year’s day. If you have a bad habit to expunge, or a good habit that you dream of starting on, don’t wait! Don’t sit around until January 1. If you still have resolutions to make by January first then it means you’ve been doing something wrong all year. I’m sympathetic to this articulation, though I reject it.

The lesser version implies a sort of vicious fatalism. You are who you are. Do you really think you can change yourself this time when you’ve failed so often before? How many friends do you have who have actually managed to change themselves when they said they would? Can’t you just be okay with yourself and find contentment without beating yourself up and trying to be someone you’re not?

I’m sympathetic to this second view as well, actually. I’ve been there. But in the end my life has managed to prove to me that it is not the truth, or at least not the whole truth. Change is possible, though difficult. I hope your own life has proven, or will prove, the same thing to you.

But let’s go back to the first group. These are the people who say, can’t you see that there’s nothing really special about New Year’s?

In the end, I think this account has a decisive flaw to it, although I should start by recognizing what’s true about it.

Here’s what it gets right: If you sit around in February or June talking about what your resolutions are going to be next January, then you should probably stop talking and just try making the change.

However, I’ve never actually met that kind of a person.

Maybe there are people in the second week of December who are enjoying a last gasp of their bad habits before they reform themselves. But for most of the year, January 1 isn’t honestly a factor keeping people from pursuing their dreams, and to suggest otherwise is just misleading.

But that’s not my biggest problem with the view. The biggest problem is that its central premise is precisely incorrect.

“There’s nothing special about January 1.”

If you have to keep trying to convince others (and yourself) that something is unimportant, and if your audience just keeps forgetting the lesson, then it seems likely that you could be very wrong.

January 1 is important because people treat it like it’s important. The very fact that people feel a need to say it’s not important is actually a sign of just how important it is.

So what’s the point? The point is that January 1 is important, and it is a valuable opportunity. Don’t waste it. Don’t miss it. Don’t be embarrassed of it. A good resolution can change a life.

Apparently a huge number of resolutions are abandoned by the end of January, and that’s valuable for us to recognize, but please — don’t let that discourage you from trying. If you told an experienced sales team that most people wouldn’t buy a given product, I’m guessing they’d laugh and say, well then we’ll just need to keep on talking to more people until we get a yes!

If your resolutions fail this year, you can always try again, and maybe that will be the one that changes your life! Maybe the failures you make this month could even teach you the lessons you need to learn in order to be successful at last the next time you try. But if you give up now, you certainly won’t succeed.

Maybe the majority of resolutions get abandoned, but there is a minority that succeed. I made a resolution five years ago to lose some weight, and I started a diet a week later, and over the last five years I have lost (and kept off) over a hundred pounds. It’s been a long and slow process, with many twists and turns, but the most important moment, the beginning, might never have happened without January 1 to inspire me to take the first step.

One last thought. Setting good goals for yourself is itself a good habit. Making a New Year’s resolution isn’t just something that leads to virtuous actions. It is itself a virtuous action.

It’s true that we don’t only want to set good goals for ourselves once a year. But once a year better than never!

If, for several years, an annual goal is all you can handle setting for your personal life, then be glad for that! And stick with it. Maybe eventually your goal-setting habit will stretch itself out and start to grow its way into the rest of the calendar.

A good habit has to start somewhere. It might as well be today. If you put off making a resolution because you’re afraid of seeming silly or credulous or something, you’re helping no one, and the person you’re hurting most is yourself.

Make a resolution for this year. Maybe choose something small that you won’t be afraid to attempt. Maybe choose something big, if you feel like you’d be inspired by a challenge. Pick something that could change your life if it becomes an established habit in your life, and then give it your best shot! Good luck.

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