New Year, Same You
Hard truth: Over 70% of individuals give up on their resolutions within three months. Gyms are crowded in January and February, and then you might notice the crowds start to thin out a bit by March. Students recommit to their studies at the start of the spring semester, but then the procrastination kicks in around midterms. Why is it that the new year prompts such a need to declare a resolution? More importantly, why is it that the majority of people can't stick to the resolution(s) they've set forth for themselves? Let's dive in...
Like many other temporal landmarks in our calendar, New Year's Eve consciously disrupts the day-to-day life we experience. This cognitive disruption prompts us to examine our lives holistically. More specifically, we are comparing our current selves with the future self we have in mind. This examination often stimulates the creation of aspirational goals—hence the quintessential "New Year's Resolution."
The phrase "Happy New Year" has implications in that it's a "fresh start." A clean slate. Researchers are just now starting to study a phenomenon called the "fresh start effect." So what is the fresh start effect? An individual engages in aspirational or goal-directed behaviors more frequently at the beginning of new periods demarcated by temporal landmarks (e.g., beginning of the month, Mondays, January 1, birthdays, anniversaries, etc.). The emerging research demonstrates that the fresh start effect does indeed increase motivation, albeit temporarily. On the flip side, the fresh start effect may trigger irrational bargaining with ourselves. We do this all of the time, perhaps without realizing this—and it's fueled by the same part of our brain chemistry that is responsible for addictive habits like gambling. Examples: we eat terribly on Sunday because we tell ourselves our diet will start on Monday. We overspend on shopping in December because we tell ourselves we will finally stick to our budget in January. We remain in a toxic relationship because we tell ourselves we will end it next week. In other words: the fresh start effect may often cultivate the behavior(s) we are explicitly attempting to stop. While the fresh start effect helps us initiate aspirational goals, it is still up to us to sustain the motivation necessary to attain any self-initiated goal.
When I see the phrase "New year, new me" as I scroll through social media feeds, I often pause and wish I could remind people that January 1, 2021 does not mark the start of a new you. You are still you, and you are enough. You are not leaving yourself behind in 2020 and becoming a new person. Of course, one may counter that it is merely a colloquial phrase we use to declare that the new year marks new goals for us. The research shows that nothing is merely colloquial when it comes to the story we tell ourselves (cognitive narrative). The more we cultivate this faulty logic of "new year, new me," the more we consciously develop a fixed-trait mindset (cue negative self-talk phrases such as "I'll never change" or "I'll always be this way"). Another common scenario is where our present self is trying to prove something to our past self. How can we possibly be present and live in the moment if all we are doing is trying to prove something to our past? On the flip side, the more we converge on the new year as a fresh start, the more we tend to ignore the past entirely. We must remember that all knowledge is based on the past. Finding the balance between past experience and living in the present moment is perhaps the definition of Nirvana for some.
"What if, instead of all of the resolution planning, we simply let go of 2020 first—the good and the bad (but mostly bad)?"
A series of studies (Dai, 2015) examined the behaviors and motivations of employees in a company where their performance (sales) were rated annually and then reset each January 1—a "fresh start." The study concluded with the following: when employees have an annual performance "reset," it creates a separation from past outcomes that influences future performance. Furthermore, the study found that "fresh starts" improve future performance for those who negatively viewed the previous term. Conversely, "fresh starts" harm future performance for those that viewed the last term positively. In other words: those that did well in term 1 were less motivated in term 2; those that did poorly in term 1 were more motivated in term 2. Here is where the study gets interesting: when individuals who viewed the previous year positively were prompted to find areas where they could improve, their motivation and self-efficacy went through the roof. So, if 2020 was good to you (um), you are positioned to be less motivated in 2021 regarding your self-initiated goals. However, this can be fixed if you spend time examining where you genuinely need improvement despite how good your year may have been. If 2020 was not so good to you (I presume the majority of you), chances are you will experience higher levels of motivation, though, again, it may be short-lived. Another takeaway from the research: any day can be a fresh start. In the words of my former personal trainer: "Make Sunday your Monday." In other words, you don't need to wait until January 1 of each year to have a fresh start. What does all of this mean for us? For starters, we must take time to process, examine, and let go of the year that was before we can dream up that 2021 resolution. And good lord, there sure is a lot to let go. If you truly want a fresh start, you can't have that if you are taking the pains and disappointments of 2020 with you. At the same time, you can't move forward with the knowledge that 2020 provided you with if you don't take the time to process and synthesize it. So, if you want to make a resolution for the new year, here are some tips from the research: Step #1: Really process 2020. And then let go, because it is already behind you. The research shows that this reflective process is essential for your wellbeing. Was it a good year for you? A bad year for you? Somewhere in the middle? What were the highlights? What were the most notable pitfalls? After you've reflected on and let go of 2020, identify areas where you'd like to see improvement in your life. Hint: the aspects of your life that you are least willing to engage and wrestle with are very likely the things you most need to work on. A good test for this: what are the topics you avoid at all costs when talking to your friends or family? Bingo. Step #2: Realize that all resolutions require a change in your behavior(s). For example, if the resolution is to lose weight, that inherently requires a few behavior changes: nutrition, exercise, recovery. This leads us to the next step. Step #3: Identify both the overall goal and the smaller goals needed to meet the overall goal. Those who successfully attain goals identify both the superordinate (overall objective) and subordinate goals (steps required to meet the overall objective). In other words, if you commit to doing better in school and leave it at that (superordinate goal), you are about 70% likely to give up on that goal within 3 months. If you commit to doing better in school by doing X, Y, and Z, your chances increase nearly twofold; only about 36% are likely to give up on a goal within 3 months when both superordinate and subordinate goals are specified. Step #4: Make plans to sustain your motivation. Motivation requires three "gears" that must be in motion at all time:
Active Choice: "I am choosing to do this because it is important to me."
Persistence: "I will continue to do this because this main goal is important to me and my life."
Effort: "I will exert the level of effort required of me to ensure I meet this goal."
Use the research as your guide and plan: you know that your resolution will likely fade away within 80 to 90 days. About 35% of people will say they gave up simply due to choice (again, the three gears of motivation are choice, persistence, and effort). Another 20% attribute it to environmental pressures (work-life demands, difficulty to diet when your partner eats fast food each day, etc.). The remaining 45% said it was because they believe they were pursuing their resolution for the wrong reasons or no longer valued it (again, refer to the importance of Step #1).
What if, instead of all of the resolution planning, we simply let go of 2020 first—the good and the bad (but mostly bad)? What if we truly looked inward to identify areas of our lives that truly need improvement? What if we viewed January 1, 2021 as the continuation of our lives that we shape every moment of every day?
New year, same you.