It was the first day back in the office after the Xmas break and two young men were earnestly discussing their New Year's Resolutions.
"I'm going to give up drinking", proclaimed the first confidently. "I was completely wrecked after New Year. I think my body may be trying to tell me something..."
"I'm going to go jogging every day" chimed in the second. "I went for a short run last night and felt so much better for it. From now on I'll do that every evening."
This solemn exchange of pledges was interrupted by a booming Irish voice.
"I'll give both your resolutions about a week at most". His voice trailed off into a gentle laugh. This elder statesman spoke not with malice but from the wisdom of bitter (and lager) experience.
Of course he was right. And friends, I know, because (many years ago) I was that (would-be) jogger. The three of us went out drinking that very night, putting paid to 2 resolutions in one fell swoop.
I don't imagine my experience is all that unusual. In general, New Year's Resolutions don't last very long. Although I'm a great believer in personal growth, I'm a sceptic when it comes to the value of making New Year's resolutions.
I don't want to cause offence, but I'd go further and say that New Year's Resolutions are not at all smart but are, quite literally, NUTS.
Let me explain ...
Why I think New Year's Resolutions are nuts
N is for NEGATIVE
More often that not, New Year's Resolutions are about what you are going to stop doing. "I will stop drinking/smoking/over-eating/gambling ... (- fill in your own personal bad habit)" Why is saying what you are going to stop doing something a problem? Do you remember that old yarn about the little boy who was told he would get a present so long as he didn't think of a pink elephant in the next minute? Its a bit like that. Having a resolution not to do something makes you more, not less, likely to think of it. And if this something tempting - like eating a biscuit , or going for a drink - then having it brought to mind is not such a good idea. It's much better to frame a resolution in terms of something positive (what you want to do instead or what benefits it will bring). For example, don't resolve to stop eating cream cakes resolve to be able to fit into those trousers again.
In this one respect my resolution to go jogging was better than my friends resolution to stop drinking. The trouble with my resolution though -and most other New Year's resolutions - was that it was totally UNREALISTIC. How likely is it that someone who has not jogged 364 days out of the last 365 is suddenly going to jog every night? Just as old habits die hard, new one's take a lot of effort to cultivate. Moreover there is sound psychological evidence to back up the claim that making a one-off resolution, however sincere, is on its own unlikely to succeed. The gold standard here is Prochaska, Norcross & DiClemente's "stages of change " model In their book, Changing for Good, which applies to addicts trying to overcome drinking or smoking addictions as much New Year's resolution, they says that typically you have to pass through 6 stages to make a successful change. If you are interested in their model, then I strongly recommend buying their book or visiting this web page where I describe the stages of change, how to recognise them, and how to move on to the next stage. The point that's relevant here is that a New Year's resolution squashes the whole change process into one resolution - omitting stage 2, contemplation, when you weigh up all the pros and cons, stage 3, preparation , when you where you break up the change into small, manageable steps and make an action plan and stage 5, maintenance, when, for example, you avoid places and people that can compromise the change. Trying to short-cut the change process into one annual resolution is an unrealistic as thinking you can win an Olympic medal by doing one day's training.
T stands for TIMELESS. Most effective goals are timebound. It's much better to resolve not to eat a cream cake today, than to not eat one all year. It makes the resolution more urgent and at the same time more achievable. It's not for nothing that Alcoholics Anonymous famously recommends that you proceed one day at a time. Another problem with timeless resolutions is the consequence of a relapse. Relapse is common in any change, but if your resolution is to quit forever, or to go jogging everyday then if you miss a day , it's easy to see that as failure and give in for another year . "Bang goes that New years resolution."
My final reason for arguing that New Year's Resolutions are NUTS is because they are too SAINTLY. When we make New Year's Resolutions we are often speaking on behalf of some imaginary, more saintly version of ourselves. Thats why resolutions are often so extreme. For example, I didn't really need to go jogging every day - once a week would have been a good start. My friend (who was by no means an alcoholic) did not need to give up drinking altogether a regime of 2 nights going out with friends a week would have been fine. Misguided saintliness doesn't just make resolutions unrealistic, it can also increase resistance to them. We subconsciously realise that resolutions are too extreme, so we take pleasure in breaking them. Go on admit it last time you broke a (too saintly) resolution, I bet you took some pride in breaking it.
So should I just resolve not to make any New Year's Resolutions?
The last thing I want to be is a personal development grinch. I certainly don't want to discourage you from making improvements to your life But my hunch is that on the whole New Years Resolutions contribute to the cynicism one finds in our culture
about personal development, and we would be better off without them.
So what's my advice? If you want to make a big change, then read about the stages of change model and begin to put it into practice. But there are often better ways to effective personal development than revolutionary changes. In my next article, I will share with you my own method of personal growth which I apply every New Year. It seems to work.