“Just don’t stop there”: Rethinking New Year’s resolutions

With the arrival of the new year each January, people often see an opportunity to start off the year with specific goals for habit development and self-improvement. These New Year’s resolutions have become a cultural norm, with 39% of Gen Zers stating that they feel pressure to set one, according to Forbes. However, New Year’s resolutions are far from a surefire way to achieve your goals. The same article by Forbes indicates that 55% percent of people abandon their resolutions before the six-month mark. 

One reason for the inconsistent success of New Year’s resolutions could be their emphasis on individuality. “The process has the potential to create an overemphasis on individual agency or control that doesn’t acknowledge the relational or communal nature of what it means to be human and the situational factors that impact our behavior,” said Emily Helder, professor of psychology. 

Americans gravitate toward a self-help approach to many things,” Rebecca Konyndyk DeYoung, professor of philosophy, said. “You can follow Jordan Peterson’s ‘12 Rules for Life.’ You can Marie Kondo your dorm closets. While having a healthy sense of agency is good, there are many aspects of our lives that won’t be remedied or improved with self-help (only) or just our own willpower.”

This is not to say that resolutions or goal setting is a hopeless endeavor, but that there are smarter ways to set up goals and pursue self-improvement. One positive change could be rethinking the kinds of goals set. “The literature on habit-formation … will tell you to start very, very small and pursue an incremental approach,” DeYoung said. “The literature also recommends creating ‘default’ structures in your life — where the automatic or more convenient choice is the first one you see or the easiest one to act on.” DeYoung suggests that this could mean tying a new habit onto an old habit. Helder also noted that people should make sure their goals are specific and measurable. 

Both Helder and DeYoung emphasized the need to think in more spiritual and communal terms about self-development, rather than more individual goals like personal fitness or financial management. “I’m more interested in seeing folks invest in relationships, accept care from others and grow in their faith than thinking of behavior change as an individual, self-help project,” Helder said. 

“I think the most typical mistakes are to expect that we can do this well all on our own, without social or structural support or God’s help,” DeYoung said, “and to take on more than we should (e.g. big changes) faster than we should.” 

Both noted the richness that the Christian tradition has to offer when it comes to development and practices, directing attention to resources like Kate Bowler (who will speak at the January Series speaker on Jan. 27), Tish Harrison Warren, Robert Emmons, and Ruth Haley Barton, among others. 

The new year and new semester can provide a valuable opportunity for reflection and prioritization, but it’s one that needs to be tempered by thoughtfulness and practicality. “Ideally, the process of setting goals or resolutions also allows you to think about what you value,” Helder said, “and define ways that you can prioritize those things that are important to you.” 

New Year’s resolutions are often framed in ways that are problematic or prone to failure but taking advantage of the cultural habit could be an important first step. “I think of [New Year’s resolutions] as a useful door through which to enter a richer conversation,” DeYoung said. “You can easily start there. Just don’t stop there.”