You Need to Ditch New Years Resolutions. Here are 3 Much Better Alternatives To Make You Happier.

Ash Jurberg

Photo by Sebastian Pociecha on Unsplash

Five. Four. Three. Two. One.


Now quick rush to make your list of 2021 New Years Resolutions. Make sure you post it so everyone can see it. It seems the first thing people do after celebrating the New Years Countdown with their friends and family is to make a list of resolutions. Start a new hobby. Join a gym. Become a vegan. Write a book.

All are commendable, but in most cases, they won't be accomplished. In fact, according to Psychology Today, less than 10% of New Year’s resolutions are carried out. Fitness platform Strava even predicted that January 19 would be the day most New Year’s resolutions would end by. They even called it “Quitter’s Day after analyzing more than 822 million online global activities from the previous year. When there is such a thing as ‘Quitter’s Day,’ it seems obvious that resolutions aren’t the way to success and happiness.

The practice of making a resolution for the new year began over 4,000 years ago when the ancient Babylonians would make promises to the gods they worshipped. Now it seems we worship the Gods of Social Media and post to the world the changes we will make for the upcoming year for all to see.

Rather than setting ourselves up for failure, other options can lead to longer-term success, happiness, and improved mental health. Before we look at three alternatives to resolutions, I think it’s important to look at the difference between a resolution and a goal. I hate resolutions, but I do like setting goals, and there is a big difference.

Resolution Vs. Goals

Resolution — a firm decision to do or not to do something.

Goal — the object of a person’s ambition or effort; an aim or desired result.

These are two very different things. To me, a resolution implies something about ourselves that we aren’t happy with and will change. I won't drink alcohol. I will read more. It either happens, or it doesn't.

A resolution is a statement of what you want to change. A goal is a statement of what you want to achieve. As an example, your resolution might be to quit smoking. That is a make or break statement that comes with pressure. Instead, you could set a goal to cut your smoking by half by July 21st. Unlike a resolution, this goal you have set yourself is SMART. That is, it is Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant, and Time-bound.

They have different mindsets attached — goals give you attainable milestones. Now with that in mind, let's proceed!

1. Create a List of Things to Look Forward to in the New Year

I like to think of this as the list of hope. My hope list will contain all the activities and events I am excited about coming up in the next twelve months. They can be big or small — from a holiday or graduation to a new movie or book that will be released.

The benefits of creating such a list are scientifically proven. A study showed that anticipation is such a strong feeling; people are happier in anticipation of a holiday than remembering the actual experience. We get a greater sense of feeling just through the anticipation. Think of how often you have a countdown to your next holiday or special event you will attend. ‘Only twenty-one more sleeps until…’

Ryan Howes, a psychologist, writes, “you’re imagining a new potential future — one with good times and challenges overcome instead of a bleak, powerless tomorrow.” By being patient and building anticipation, a greater experience will follow. Anticipation is the stepping stone to hope.

“The idea of waiting for something makes it more exciting.” — Andy Warhol

Your non-resolution action:

Spend time creating a list of all the things you're looking forward to. Ensure there is a mix of small and big events and activities, and they are spread out over the year. The more you can add to the list, the better.

Dopamine stimulation happens when we experience and expect good things. Anticipating positive events sustains the output of dopamine into the brain’s chemical pathways. By building a list of things to look forward to you will literally be making yourself happier.

2. Engage in Self-Reflection

For many people setting resolutions places pressure on themselves and can lead to anxiety and frustration. Many resolutions end due to self-sabotage.

Rather than set a list of goals that you need to achieve, it can be more helpful to practice self-reflection. Self-reflection is defined as “careful thought about your own behavior and beliefs.” Only once this has been done can any goals or targets be set.

It is an underutilized practice. Dr Tasha Eurich writes in her book, Insight that it is the “single most important and yet least examined determinant of success or failure.” According to her, “greater self-awareness also may render us better workers and team players, who are less likely to lie, cheat and steal.”

Studies show “turning inward” can strengthen our emotional intelligence, making it easier for us to cope with life’s challenges.

There are many ways to practice self-reflection. I utilize a combination of things. I like to write with a pen in my journal. This allows me to free write whatever comes to mind. If it’s a nice day, I will sit outside and just write for ten to fifteen minutes.

Another option is to self-reflect while I am exercising. I have a water rower, so while I row, I like to engage in this activity. It has the added benefit of making the time go quicker as my mind is focused on something other than the physical exertion of rowing.

Other times I will find a quiet place, sit down and close my eyes. Often I find I need a short mental break from work, and some self-reflection in a quiet place offers this.

There are many ways to practice self-reflection. The key is to silence any outside distractions and focus on yourself. Only once you know yourself can you ensure any new goals are aligned with your values and priorities.

“Know thyself” — 3,000 year old inscription on the Temple of Apollo

Your non-resolution action:

Start the practice of self-reflection. It can help to base these on some simple questions.

  • What things matter the most to me?
  • What are my greatest strengths, and how can I build on them?
  • How do I want people to remember me?
  • What am I grateful for?
  • What habits can I improve on?

Be aware of your thoughts and feelings as you undertake this exercise. Only once you are comfortable, you have done this thoroughly; you should move on to any new goal setting.

3. Start Your New Year At a Time That Suits You

January 1st is an arbitrary date to begin to make changes. There is no logic in putting off making changes until that date. And change shouldn’t only be an annual thing at a certain time of year.

Amy Morin, psychotherapist, writes in Psychology Today, “when people launch their resolution on January 1st, they are making a change based on a calendar date when they think they are prepared to change their lives. This is the real reason most resolutions fail.”

Another reason for the high failure rate of New Year’s resolutions is the compulsion to tell people about them — either in person or on Social Media. In his viral TedTalk, Keep Your Goals to Yourself, Derek Sivers says, “the repeated psychology tests have proven that telling someone your goal makes it less likely to happen. ..when you tell someone your goal, and they acknowledge it, psychologists have found that it’s called a “social reality.” The mind is kind of tricked into feeling that it’s already done. And then because you’ve felt that satisfaction, you’re less motivated to do the actual hard work necessary.”

If you create goals or resolutions at any other time than January, you are less likely to tell someone and, according to Sivers, more likely to achieve your goals.

For those in the Northern Hemisphere, there is even more reason to avoid the January resolution. It is the coldest month with the least amount of daylight hours. The lack of sunlight also directly affects human moods, known as Seasonal Affective Disorder, or (in a very appropriate acronym) SAD. According to the U.S. National Institutes of Health’s National Library of Medicine, it has a real impact on motivation for a significant proportion of the population.

Your non-resolution action:

Once you have your self-reflection complete and are in the right space and frame of mind to set goals, then you can begin your ‘New Years’ goals. Whether that is June 13th or October 5th, or any other date, it doesn't matter.

Only the Babylonians that make promises to the Gods really need to stick to that January 1 start date. For the rest of us, any date is fine.

And remember that goals need to be SMART and focus on incremental change. The small things that add up to big results is what creates real, lasting change.

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