Considering their commodification and over-saturation in American culture, it’s hard to see the value in New Year’s resolutions. Companies push people to pick up the newest diet, lifestyle or fashion makeover to ring in the new year— subsequently securing new dollars in their pockets. Social media becomes a tug-of-war between friends, relatives, acquaintances and influencers for the maximum likes on their sparkling, optimistic posts with the caption “new year, new me.” The culture surrounding the holidays culminates with the expectation that everyone should commit to new goals to better themselves.
Yet, according to a Statistic Brain survey of Americans’ resolutions, most people do not achieve their goals. In fact, 27 percent give up within the first week and barely half of the people who make resolutions keep them for at least the first month of the year. These statistics confirm my lived experience. Year after year, I resolve to improve my life in some small way and, year after year, I fail (usually after the first week). Trying and failing to keep resolutions can be demoralizing and can make it seem like the motions of life are cemented and completely out of any individual’s control. The problem isn’t the act of making New Year’s resolutions, however. Rather, it is an issue of the content. People eagerly sign on to big, sweeping goals that are often abstract and unattainable without severely adjusting current habits. The inability to keep resolutions and see the positive changes through to the end stems from making the wrong kinds of resolutions. Instead of giving up on New Year’s resolutions, people ought to try making a resolution that is specific, measurable and attainable. Desiring to grow as a person is good, and we should embrace this aspect of the holiday season that emphasizes the desire to improve. To accomplish this task, far more discipline is needed than simple inspiration— an understated and sometimes uncomfortable reality when it comes to keeping New Year’s resolutions.
The most common New Year’s resolutions are stereotypical, broad and unattainable. According to a Nielsen survey, many Americans resolve to “stay fit and healthy,” “lose weight” or “enjoy life to the fullest.” The problem with these common resolutions is that they are vague, open-ended and difficult to track— they aren’t specific or measurable.
There are so many different ways to stay fit and healthy, and health doesn’t look the same on every person. Due to there being no way to determine when this goal has been attained, many people become so overwhelmed by their options that they end up not doing anything at all. The promise of losing weight can be deceptive and lead people to undergo dangerous cleanses in the hope of dropping a few pounds of water weight. Seeking self-improvement through antiquated opinions about waistband measurements usually just leads to a fear of missing out and a lingering sense of shame and the results are difficult to maintain.
Resolving to “live life to the fullest” is absolutely impossible to measure. There are no standards of measurement about what makes a worthy, fulfilling life. Some people crave adventure, others wish to be settled with a family. Climbing in academia, becoming involved with local politics, learning a new skill— these are all heavy time commitments that might expand the scope of life, but are hard to determine when one has “arrived.” Everyone is different, everyone places value on different things and so it is difficult to compare a full life. Needless to say, this resolution perfectly fits the description of vague and unattainable.
This is not to imply that it is bad to want to be fit and healthy, to lose weight or to enjoy life to the fullest. The problem is that many people make their resolution and never progress past that stage. Deciding that life isn’t satisfactory isn’t enough to create that change of perspective that others make seem so easy. Neither will staring into the mirror in an uncomfortable mix of shame and frustration while committing to losing weight— even going so far as buying a diet book make the pounds melt away like magic. That’s how it works for everyone else, right? Regardless of whether a New Year’s resolution is one of these conventional goals or something new, they must be reframed and paired with a plan so that they can actually be possible.
It can be read everywhere as if it were some kind of mantra, but it is important to really remember that good resolutions are specific, measurable and attainable. Rather than resolving to stay fit and healthy, resolve to pick up a favorite physical activity three times a week for at least 30 minutes (or longer depending on ability, what is important is that it is approachable). This is an example of an appropriately specific resolution— it’s based on doing one activity. It’s measurable— tracking the days with and without workouts are fairly straightforward. This resolution is also attainable— it avoids the unrealistic jump of resolving to work out for an hour every day or to go from couch potato to doing P90X workouts.
These criteria for effective resolutions can even be applied to the more nebulous resolutions, such as the aforementioned “living life to the fullest.” Countless philosophers have debated what it means to live life to the fullest or to be happy, so if a person decides to take on this resolution, it will require a similar interrogation into what it means to live a good human life. For the sake of evaluating resolutions, let’s say that a person who wants to live life to the fullest will resolve to try a new experience once a month. Listing experiences that they’d like to try would slowly make this resolution even more specific and measurable. It would become reasonable to track whether a certain fulfilling activity was checked off the list in any particular month. A list for someone living in Salt Lake City could include things like visiting the Utah Museum of Fine Arts, going on a hike or visiting the Gilgal Sculpture Garden.
My 2019 New Year’s resolution is to read one fun book every month. This resolution is specific and measurable because I will be able to track what books I have and haven’t read. It’s also attainable as it won’t overload me alongside my other commitments. As much as I want to read War and Peace, my list does not include any overly long or intense reads because I will be writing an honors thesis and will not have time for difficult reading. Then again, perhaps the new year is about this slow, incremental progress. My personal resolution is a case study in the idea that resolutions are intensely personal and have to be tailored to particular circumstances. I hope that once I am out of school I will be able to read more books per month, but I recognize that, given my specific life circumstances, one book per month will have to suffice as I begin to build up the habit of reading.