Besides carefree days, Christmas carols and traditional sweet breads, any respectable December also includes an evaluation of the achievements of the previous year and making plans for the future.

The resolutions most of us associate with the new year are bold and concern various changes we wish to make, from “I will spend more time with the family” to “I will reach the ideal weight” or “I will start working out.” All these carry with them the fingerprint of good intentions aimed at turning all our projections into reality. Unfortunately, over 70% of cases prove that the transition from theory to practice is not as easy as the transition from one year to another, and that between setting oneself a goal and actually achieving it lie willpower, practice and perseverance.

Surveys show that the most popular changes included in New Year’s resolutions refer to improving one’s lifestyle (55,2%), by practicing a sport (31,3%), improving one’s diet (10,4%) or abandoning unhealthy habits (13,5%). The ranking is topped by goals related to work, money, social life, including debt repayment, savings, self-help and other similar purposes.

Irrespective of the preferred direction, commitments like “starting from next year I’ll do X or Y” have a common element: an expiration date. Honest and earnest on the declarative level, the favourite goals generally do not survive, however, in the long run. Numbers show that, by the end of January, a third of people have given up the promises they made around the winter holidays, and that by the end of February, only 20% continue to honour their commitments.

Why does this happen and how can we take action even under current circumstances, when fear, instability and uncertainty attack the very idea of goals?

Resolutions and the credibility of change

Beyond the objective factors influencing the realization of annual resolutions, an interesting study brings into question the value of self-confidence as an active change agent.

According to the study, individuals who recognize the power of change have a better chance of success due to the fact that they set high goals which they follow faithfully. They believe self-control is a dynamic and valid refining instrument of daily habits, a way to achieve their goals. I can quit smoking!, I can give up fast-food!, I can do a better job! and other similar convictions define the attitude of those who believe in change and vigorously act accordingly, without waiting for good things to fall from the sky.

At the opposite end, pessimists doubt their capacity to attract and maintain change and so they abandon their annual goals more easily. These people tend to believe genetic inclinations or basic personality traits are much too strong to allow for behavioural improvement, so they neglect the interior resources needed to reach the desired outcome.

This is who I am, I cannot help it!, I cannot overcome my weaknesses!, I tried but this is just not for me! are just a few of the lines we invoke when we feel that progress is lightyears away from us. From this point of view, Christians have a big advantage deriving from the desire to perfect oneself spiritually.

Resolutions and the ambiguity of change

An article published in The New York Times also identifies other factors which prevent us from walking the talk:

The ambiguity of our desires — we know we want something, but we don’t know what we want.

Lack of internal motivation — we know what we want but we don’t know why we want it.

The absence of a realistic plan for achieving results — we know what we want but we don’t know how we’ll get there.

A valid alternative to this approach is based on the famous model inspired from the field of management, the SMART objectives model, which, by being Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Relevant and Time-bound, facilitate the desired results.

Therefore, no matter how magical the idea is of celebrating the end of the year with the promise of the next one being better, the approach must stir up the practical, informed and clear vision of a veritable business plan. If, for instance, we want to adopt a balanced diet, we must follow certain steps which are indispensable for the realization of this not-so-easy-to-attain goal:

  • To restrict and personalize the dimensions of our purpose (going from general to particular, from vague to concrete, from what is suited for everybody to what suits me);

  • To understand the need for change and its real benefits (an external motivation based on “that’s what the doctor ordered” or “all my friends are vegan” will only stand for a short period of time);

  • To conceive a realistic plan, with small, progressive changes, adapted to our needs (consulting reliable information and, preferably, an expert’s opinion in the field).

Resolutions and the necessity for change

Another condition for success is the removal of the idea that we “must” do one thing or another. The word “must” is associated with a feeling of guilt and/or shame or the absence of a decision and implies that the desired change is a possibility (something we could do) rather than a reality (something we will definitely do). Dry and coercive, the term carries a negative connotation which undermines the internal motivation needed for the cause.

Proposing a two-pronged approach, Professor Seppo Iso-Ahola from The University of Maryland in the USA, suggests the trick of “forced choice” as a technique to motivate us in making a less desirable choice.

In the article, dedicated to the failure of health and sport-related resolutions (published in the Journal of Nature and Science), the professor recommends manipulating the environment so that it encourages the desired behavioural change. If, for instance, you aim at working out after work, but fatigue, indisposition, or the habit of being inactive in your free time sabotage your intentions, you can resort to a few useful strategies: promise a friend to go together for a run; place your sports clothes on the tempting couch in front of the TV; buy an expensive gym subscription—finding ingenious ways to force good choices, when applying them tests your will.

Although the standard of 21 days necessary for forming a habit represents a rather optimistic estimate, it is true that practice makes perfect. Acquiring a new behaviour requires, on average, 66 days. Individual limits, however, vary from 18 to 245 days, as detailed studies show. Charles Duhigg, author of the book The Power of Habit, strengthens this idea, declaring that, if we want to form a new habit, we must plan for the next ten years, not only for the next two or three months.

Immediate rewards and the enthusiasm they bring support changes in the long run. If we dislike physical activity but know its benefits and want to experience them ourselves, we must identify the type of movement which we can easily integrate into our personal routines, and choose a pleasant training type (using favourite music, the energy of group training, less demanding physical exercises, etc.). Any small joy or pleasure associated with the new activity is extremely important, because it accelerates the formation of good habits.

Resolutions and the power of change

Although it has been more than two years since its publication, articles in the field still quote the theory of psychologists Miller and Marlatt, who enumerate three essential conditions for the realization of New Year’s resolutions:

  • Commitment to change

It is hard to reach the desired goal if we don’t leave our personal history behind us and rise above past failures. Commitment to change means treating the set goals with the utmost seriousness, whether we aim to change something minor, like reading more often or walking once every three days, or if we aim to reform our entire lifestyle.

  • Formulating strategies to cope with the problems which arise along the way

The enthusiasm generated by the beginning of a new year decreases as we move further and further away from this milestone which causes a mental reset. As time goes by, one realizes that one did not reckon with reality. Obstacles and delays occur, and excuses come barging in: we don’t have time, we lack energy, motivation has disappeared completely, there’s nobody to help us, we do not like it, we do not need it, we don’t want any more useless “no’s”.

What can we do to stand our ground? Specialists say anticipating obstacles (negative moods, circumstance or attractions) and formulating a backup plan (or several) bring us closer to our goal.

  • Monitoring progress

This last step suggested by psychologists Miller and Marlatt works both ways: 1) it allows us to identify the project’s weaknesses and to step in and make the necessary adjustments, and 2) it gives us the opportunity to appreciate intermediate results, using them as incentive for later efforts.

Underlining all these conditions, we can observe that this trio plays a paradoxical role in the change process—paradoxical in the sense that while it helps us understand its complexity, it also simplifies our work by helping us cultivate responsibility, avoid obstacles, and continually adapt to our needs.

Assuming that our goal for 2021 is to save more, for example, we can begin the process by transforming the concept of “save more” into a specific and measurable objective based on:

  • Commitment to adopting a balanced consumption behaviour and cultivating responsibility in relation to expenses incurred;

  • Formulating strategies regarding the management of potential problems (impulsive and/or unforeseen purchases, diminishing monthly costs, etc.), after previously having anticipated these obstacles;

  • Periodic monitoring of the financial situation and adapting the initial plan to changes that have occurred.

Using similar principles, the American Psychological Association advises us to carefully draft our end-of-the-year wish list and:

  1. Begin with baby steps, in a comfortable and progressive rhythm;

  2. Adopt healthy behaviours one by one, successively focusing on planned changes, rather than simultaneously;

  3. Talk about our personal experiences with those close to us, sharing our successes and failures;

  4. Don’t aim at perfection, because excessively high standards create obstacles and frustrations;

  5. Ask for help in moments of physical exhaustion.

Besides approaching our resolutions in a realistic way, proving our willpower and perseverance over time, another aspect, equally important in the economy of success, is the influence of those around us.

“But if you build up a process where you’re thinking harder about what’s good for you, you’re changing the structure of your life, you’re bringing people into your life who will reinforce that resolution, then I think you have a fighting chance,” says psychiatrist Michael Bennett.

Being around people who already practice what you want to achieve, it will be much easier to embrace change, regardless of the calendar date. It’s thus a good idea to physically and virtually surround yourself with people who can become true sources of inspiration and who can encourage you, by their own example, to be more devoted to fulfilling your desires.

Genia Ruscu has a master’s degree in counselling in the field of social work.