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New Year's Resolutions Are the Worst Way to Make a Change

Don't be mad, we're just saving you the effort.

by McKenzie Maxson
Dec 29 2016, 1:00pm

Fighting Words is a column in which writers rub you the wrong way with their unpopular but well-argued opinions on fitness, health, nutrition, what have you. Got something to get off your chest? Send your pitch to tonic@vice.com.

Let's get this out of the way right now: There is nothing actually special about January 1st. It's all in your head. Sure, there's something refreshing about seeing 1/1 on your calendar, a representation of something new, whether you did anything to deserve that fresh start or not. Day one of the new year means it's time to buy a new calendar and remember to write "2017" when you date ... a check? Does anyone write checks anymore? It's probably time to go back to work after the holidays and to buckle down and get shit done after taking some time off. What it's not time for, though, is trying to change your life by setting a bunch of lofty goals you know deep down you'll never be able to reach. 

But people do it anyway, in droves, because of the "fresh start effect," explains Katherine L. Milkman, an associate professor at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania. She points out that people are more interested in setting self-improvement goals at the start of a new year, month, or week. More likely to set them, but Milkman says that doesn't mean you're more likely to accomplish them.

I'm 23, and I've never set a New Year's resolution. Not that I can remember, at least. I wasn't trying to make a statement about human motivation or buck the trends to be unique; it just never made much sense to me. Yet almost half of Americans make New Year's resolutions—even though, on average, only 8 percent succeed at reaching them. 

Part of the problem is the types of resolutions we tend to make. There are two basic motivational systems that determine how we make goals, explains E. Tory Higgins, a professor of psychology at Columbia University and author of Beyond Pleasure and Pain: How Motivation Works.

"The distinction is between promotion and prevention goals," he told me. "Promotion goals are hopes and aspirations for the future. They represent ideally what we'd like ourselves and our futures to be like. Prevention goals are about safety and security.  They have to do with maintaining satisfactory conditions in your life."

Examples of promotion goals: getting a higher-paying job, losing weight or getting in shape, moving cities to one you like better, tackling your work-life balance issues, drinking less. All things that would make your life better, basically.

Prevention goals include paying your rent or mortgage payments on time, going in for regular doctor's appointments, getting to work on time every day to keep your job—all basic necessities for maintaining the same lifestyle.

If you constantly want more and are obsessed with getting better, you're just the person who's setting promotion-based resolutions, especially at this time of year.

To achievement-focused promotion goal setters, the New Year (or any fresh start) is an effective motivator because they're generally so obsessed with looking forward at the future. They get overly optimistic about goals they set, Higgins explains. Of course, we all have both goal-setting systems, so no person will set all promotion or all prevention goals. But if most of the basic elements of your life are taken care of, or if you're just the type of person that is perpetually wanting more, most of your goals (like mine) are about getting better. Unsurprisingly, Americans are much more likely to set promotion goals than people in other countries, like Japan, Higgins notes.

Americans are typically open to change, and even actively seek it out. And what they want, they want right now, regardless of how realistic it is, says Higgins. Congrats, Americans, this is basically the perfect recipe for unfulfilled New Year's resolutions.

Generally, there's nothing wrong with setting goals this way. People who are highly conscientious and self-monitoring (aka those of us who set promotion goals) are more likely to be conscious of situations that might get in the way of them reaching their goals, says Gary P. Latham, professor of organizational behavior and HR management at the University of Toronto. But as Higgins explains, having the motivation to set goals is very different from actually following through with them.

If you're in a promotion mindset, your goal-reaching trajectory is probably going to look something like this:

-In late December, you'll probably get very excited about the start of a new year, so you'll think of a bunch of things you could do to improve yourself and your life.

-January 1 comes around, and you haven't actually laid out concrete steps of how to reach your goal or overcome obstacles because you feel so optimistic about your ability to stick to it.

-About a week into 2017, you've thought of new ways to improve or new things to tackle, so you're no longer feeling committed to what you set out to do.

-Two weeks later, you realize you have limited hours in the day and have to pick and choose what you have time for, so there go the rest of your so-called resolutions.

For prevention-related goals, we don't see the same story. Higgins notes that if you're in a prevention mindset, you're not likely to lose any motivation throughout the year because New Year's (or any other "fresh start" event) doesn't have the same significance. Your goal is something you need to happen, so you'll go after it all the same. But prevention goals like "I'll keep paying my rent on time" are never going to be New Year's resolutions. They're not very interesting or glamorous. And if we really need to make something happen to protect how we live our lives, most of us will just do it to save ourselves from facing the consequences.

The point is not to forgo goal-setting altogether, but rather to forget about Jan 1. In research published in Psychological Science, researchers (including Milkman) looked at the extent to which landmark events would cause someone to set goals for themselves. In the four studies, they found that people were significantly more likely to set goals at temporal landmarks (like New Year's), but that making the landmark more salient (emphasizing it as the beginning of something new) made people more likely to engage in goal-related activities. I just came off of a year of huge life events—college graduation, moving across the country, and starting my first full-time job. All of these calendar dates stick in my mind as a whole lot more significant than Jan 1, 2017.

Yep, Milkman says that an event you think of as a true new beginning can have more motivating effects than the beginning of a new year. The dates that actually become significant are the ones that are associated with a big personal change.

So forget about the new year if you have specific life goals for 2017. Maybe you're moving in March, starting a new job in October, or going on a big vacation in July and want to get yourself on the right track and stress-free before you leave. Those are far better moments to set and accomplish goals.

Once you pick a time frame and a specific goal for any time next year, here's what the experts suggest.

1. Write your goals down. Make them as concrete and specific as possible, says Higgins, and make sure they're personally very important to you. Otherwise, there's no way you'll have the motivation to see them through.

2. Figure out the steps you'll take to reach each goal and write them down, too.

3. Think about the obstacles you could face and how you'll overcome them (write this down as well). Higgins notes that by doing this, you're reframing your goal as something you're fighting to keep, not just an improvement to your already satisfactory life (and there you have it, a promotion goal becomes a prevention-based necessity).

4. Make it public. Tell your friends, partner, coworkers, dog—whoever you have to to hold yourself accountable.

5. Set up legitimate consequences for yourself if you don't stick to it. (For example, splurge on the more expensive gym membership so you know your money's on the line.)

6. Start working your ass off, and set subgoals so you don't get bored or unmotivated as you go.

Got it? This New Year's, let's all resolve not to make resolutions based on a date that has no real significance. Set your goals on your own timeline, when your headache's worn off and your day-to-day life goes back to normal. It might not be as glamorous, but it's a hell of a lot more likely you'll accomplish something.