If I were to make an honest assessment of myself and the things I need to change in the year ahead, a few items would immediately occupy the top of my list:
- I need to lose 15 pounds of fat (and replace it with 15 pounds of muscle).
- I should eat less processed meat (which accounts for some of my extra weight).
- I should cut back on my beer and whiskey (which accounts for the rest of my extra weight).
- I ought to jog and hike more (for physical, mental, and spiritual health).
- I ought to save more money each paycheck (I don’t really need more stuff every few weeks anyway).
- I want to read more (for pleasure, not for the sake of my job or my students).
- I want to travel with my family more (everything from day trips, road trips, and even local fare).
- I want to learn a new skill (all my old ones have been put to good use already).
- I need to spend more alone time with my wife (which means we need to get a babysitter more often).
- I need to be a better father (I’m a pretty good one so far, but constant improvement in this area is crucial).
This is a just a short-list. There are certainly other areas of my life (e.g. work, friendships, and community involvement) that could all use a better version of me. In fact, the list of areas-for-self-improvement, if I were dedicate substantial time to it, would span volumes— so much so that I would probably start to feel I was a failure in every area of my life, and as a result, I’d resort to drinking more whiskey and eating more bacon (and we already know where that gets me: right back at the top of my list). Thus, in an effort to be a better man tomorrow than I was today, I will work hard to make lasting changes. What I will not do, however, is delude myself into thinking that those changes will begin on January 1, 2020, with some empty New Year’s resolution.
For as long as I can remember I have despised New Year’s resolutions. Watching people pretend that they are going to go from one version of themselves to another by the simple stroke of the clock is akin to watching Cinderella’s coach turn back into a pumpkin at midnight: fiction and fantasy. Excluding extreme cases of trauma, people don’t make lasting changes over the course of one night or one day; they don’t even make lasting changes over a period of 21 days. There has been for some time a popular myth that forming a new habit takes 21 days; science (from the European Journal of Social Psychology) shows us that this is false. It takes a least two months, or 66 days to be precise, to form a new habit. Even before I had these facts to back up my understating of habit-forming, I knew innately that the confetti-coated garbage that are New Year’s resolutions were superficial. For all their good intentions, New Year’s resolutions are nothing more than an annual mendacity— a deception, a falsehood, a lie that one tells to one’s self to make one’s self feel better about the future. Unfortunately, good intentions and/or good moods are no way to make significant life-alterations. That’s why 80% of New Year’s resolutions fail. The emotional high that an end-of-year celebration brings can not sustain a person for the required 66 days that it takes to makes for lasting character changes and/or life improvements.
In spite of their ineffectiveness, New Year’s resolutions persist. I hear the cliche pour out of someone mouth or I see it on someone’s social media page every year: “a new year, a new me!” It’s gross. It makes for catchy slogans and trendy hashtags, but that’s about it. If new years actually ushered in new versions of me (or you) the way the idiom would have us believe, then gyms would go out of business each year because we’d all be healthy and fit and there’d be an ever dwindling population left to fill their memberships. Of course, it’s the opposite that is true. Between 2000 and 2017, paid gym memberships in the US nearly doubled, going from 32.8 to 60.8 million, and they are still steadily increasing. Now, that could be because our country has grown more health conscious in the last 20 years, and we have, but I doubt that’s the real reason for the increase. Jogging, hiking, and at-home plyometrics are free, so it doesn’t take a gym membership, or any gym equipment for that matter, to be health-conscious. Then why the consistent 20-year increase in gym memberships, especially in January? If I were a betting man, I’d bet the new-year-new-me people might have something to do with the increase.
Despite my disdain for New Year’s resolutions and sometimes even for the people that make them (I suppose I need to work on that too), I can understand and even appreciate why people make them. They want transformation; they want to be better people— we all do. I can’t fault a person for that; in fact, I applaud them for that. However, a surge of self-assuredness at the stroke of midnight won’t do it, especially if this is yet another year of making the same tired resolutions about weight, or money, or work, or whatever else we’re generally unhappy about. Albert Einstein commented on this sort of cyclical-pattern behavior; he defined it as “insanity: doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result.” What’s even more insane is when people actually believe, like a crazed sports fan (of which I am one), that this year is the year we’ll go all the way (mark my words: the Kansas City Chiefs will be the next Super Bowl champs). The turning of calendar from December to January does not automatically grant an individual the wherewithal to navigate the rough road of individual transformation. That’s why the vast majority of those new-year-new-me gym memberships go by the wayside come February—they are a mendacity, a lie. It’s also why people need a new approach to enacting lasting self-change; otherwise, the insanity of reoccurring New Year’s resolutions will continue.
Often real change looks like a mountain of impossibility, with our weakness standing at the base and our idealized future buried somewhere in the snow thousands of feet above. It’s something I understand completely. I’m 37 and I only recently had my first child and bought my first home. I remember being fresh out of college, watching my peers start families and purchase homes over a decade ago, wondering when I was going to be in a position to do so myself. I did not fret, however. I bided my time and I kept climbing. Any mountain, and I have climbed many literal and figurative ones, are conquered the same way: one step at a time. All it takes is the discipline to take that one step, and then the next, and then the next.
When I was living and traveling in Japan, I did a lot of hiking (Fuji is one of the most majestic mountains I’ve summited). Afterwards, I’d often visit the local onsen 温泉 (literally “hot water spring”) to relax my muscles. At many of these onsens, there are ice baths alongside the hot springs. At first, I thought they were just for contrast bath therapy, and that’s certainly one reason. Another is that they’re there for self-discipline— to test the will of those who dip themselves into the frigid water, to see how long the mind can overcome the body’s desire to jump out of what is cold and uncomfortable and hurry back into what is warm and comfortable. This desire for self-discipline is why many men, including myself from time to time, take cold showers; it’s an easy way to challenge one’s self. And self-discipline is the thing many, including myself, need more of, not silly New Year’s resolutions, in order to conquer the yearly self-improvement list and enact lasting change.
Clinical psychologist, Dr. Joseph J. Luciani, says of self-discipline, “…you build self-discipline by willfully enduring the transient discomfort of changing who and what you are. You’re not born with self-discipline; you acquire it. Like a muscle, you need to develop your self-discipline muscle, one challenge at a time” The real challenge is that none of use like the rough road. Quite the contrary, we like the things easy, quick, convenient, and comfortable. Like a hot bath on a cold day, comfort makes us feel good, and like I said, previously, that’s all New Year’s resolutions are really good for: feeling good about one’s self. It’s the hard climb up a steep mountain, or the long dip in an ice bath, or the sustained effort to earn an degree or develop career plan that reaps rewards, not the endless string of new year promises we rarely keep. The idealized version of our future selves we all desire does sit atop some mountainous peak way off in the distance. We will not get there on January 1, but we will get there, like Dr. Luciani said, by building the muscles of self-discipline and “by willfully enduring the transient discomfort of changing who and what you are.”
It’s amazing to me that it’s nearly 2020. The future is here. I hope the start of this new decade brings us all health and happiness. I hope it brings us the will to endure the “the transient discomfort” of life so we can become more self-disciplined and strong, and therefore, truly enact lasting change. I hope it brings us the will to also endure the perpetual comforts of life that lull us into self-indulgence and weakness, which is why we have a list of this things we need to change in the first place. And I hope when we all raise our glasses of champagne, toast to the future, and sing “Auld Lang Syne” one more time, we remember the words of Napoleon Hill: “a goal is a dream with a deadline.” Dreams of renewal and growth are good; deadlines, plans, the self-discipline to achieve them are better. They are the tools we use to bring dreams to fruition. I’m an English instructor, so I love fiction, but don’t rely on the fiction of New Year’s resolutions to guide (or misguide) your reality. Dream of change, but work for at least 66 days (and hopefully beyond) to achieve it. I often tell my students that if they want to be successful in school, business, or life, they have to be willing to be the hardest worker in the room. Everyone wants to be successful, but only a few put in the work to get it done. Everyone has a desire to be better in the new year, but only a few will put in the work to get it done. Don’t follow the herd that rely on hollow slogans like “new year, new me” but aren’t willing to put in the work to get it done. Be the hardest worker in the room, even if it’s only in your own room.
In spite of my criticism of New Year’s Resolutions, I still want people to be successful in their efforts to be better people. Thus, if you’re the sort of person that still plans on making a resolution this year, I offer you some additional resources to increases your chances of success.
- “Why New Year’s Resolutions Fail”
- “A Guide to Achieving Your New Year’s Resolutions”
- “80% of New Year’s Resolutions Fail by February—Here’s How to Keep Yours”
- “Your Should Start Practicing New Year’s Resolutions Now”
- “Top 10 Most Common New Year’s Resolutions (and How to Follow Through on Them)”