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New Year's Resolutions Are a Pretty Great Tradition Actually
Let's stop dwelling on the "low" success rate.
You will find many people willing to preach to you about the hopelessness of New Year’s Resolutions. Some of the most “serious” articles on this subject essentially boil down to a discouraging title and a chart that looks like this.
Even the articles written to *help* people make and keep resolutions dwell far too much on the negative. By the time I get past the intro, I’m feeling demotivated.
The actual advice isn’t that much better—the presentation is rigid, jargon-filled, and again overly negative. These screenshots are from one of the better popular articles, the advice has merit, but how many humans find this presentation appealing?
The point here is not to dunk on any particular article, as in most cases the facts are accurate and the advice worth learning from. But if I were writing these pieces the overall tone would be much more encouraging.
Some points I might include in such a piece…
Less than 50% of Americans make resolutions at all. No matter what the true failure rate is, it can't be worse than zero.
There’s something beautiful, inspiring, and even American about a lot of people making self-improvement goals around the same time each year. According to a recent paper, less than 20% of Swedes make New Year’s resolutions.
Simple math suggests that more people doing New Year’s Resolutions in America and around the world could make a big difference, even at very low success rates.
What is a good success probability anyway? New Year’s resolutions aren’t the only things that usually fail.
Norcross and Vangerelli (1989) tracked 200 New Year's resolvers over a two year period and found that 19% successfully maintained their goal for the entire time. There may be a lot of fast-failers, but some people really are in this for the long haul.
Much of the failure we associate with New Year’s resolutions likely arises from how difficult it is to lose weight under ANY circumstances. Success rates for almost any other type of resolution are likely to be higher!
Even the very best often fail.
Some goals benefit from coordination. If you are trying to eat healthier foods and smaller portions, it is easier to do so when others around you have the same goal.1
For couples and families, having a socially salient reason to discuss hard to bring up topics that need addressing is another great benefit.
Often it is just encouraging to feel that one is not alone in the struggle to improve in a more general sense.
Couldn’t you simply resolve to improve yourself “now”, regardless of when that is? You could. But motivation and encouragement are often scarce.
When I see famous people scoff at New Year’s Resolutions, I suspect they are countersignaling.
In the Norcross study I mentioned earlier, more than half of successful resolvers experienced a clear slip-up somewhere along the way.
Remember that you will not truly have failed so long as you continue to try.
Over a lifetime of self-improvement, I’ve learned that it is sometimes necessary to temper my optimism. You can’t afford to follow through with every goal and it’s important to know when to quit.
But at the end of the day, optimism has proven to be a more reliable guide for me than pessimism. And in that spirit I hope these tips give you some encouragement for the year ahead.
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You can also check out my other writing at Infovores Newsletter. Over there I write reviews, conduct interviews, and generally try my best to navigate a world of infinite knowledge. You can also follow @ageofinfovores.
Note that both of these goals have benefits independent of how many pounds you do or do not lose!