we have an embarrassing confession: our New Year’s resolutions for 2023 are nearly identical to the resolutions we made for 2022 (which were remarkably similar to 2021, 2020, and pretty much every year as far as we can remember).
A year ago, we held such lofty ambitions. We would exercise more, use social media less, rise earlier, read more books, eat healthier, write more, reduce our carbon footprint, learn to meditate….
We started strong.
But a few weeks in, as January’s cold morphed into the slushy days of February, our resolve slackened. Twitter reappeared on our phones and we doomscrolled late into the evening. Our warm beds seemed to grip us tighter when the alarm went off for our morning jogs. We began to hit snooze, once, twice, then three times. And, well, meditation never had a hope.
We had largely failed.
Will this stop us from doing the same thing this New Year’s? Absolutely not. But we have learned to approach our New Year’s resolutions in an entirely different way and we think you should too.
As the calendar turns from one year to the next, millions of people will resolve to reinvent themselves. On scraps of wrapping paper, crumpled napkins, or in fancy notebooks bought just for the occasion, we will engage in the annual collective ritual of listing the ways that we will, this year, be better.
And yet, by some estimates, as many as 80% of people fail to keep their New Year’s resolutions by February. Only 8% of people stick with them the entire year. Given this less than stellar track record, it is worth asking, what would we do if we were serious? What would we do differently if we really did want to stick to our resolutions for more than a few weeks?
Psychologists who study self-control have advice about how best to stick to our goals. The worst approaches involve what they call “response modulation”—otherwise known as white-knuckling it as you stare down temptation. Good old will power.
The ancient Greeks knew that this was a terrible strategy, as evidenced by their myths. As Odysseus approached the Sirens, whose songs would lure men to their deaths, he plugged the ears of his crew and had himself bound to the mast of his ship.
Odysseus knew that confronting temptation without a plan would fail sooner or later. Instead, he adopted a strategy that present-day psychologists call “situation change.” This is, according to a review of 102 studies, the best strategy for exerting self-control. Rather than exposing ourselves to temptations and hoping we possess the willpower to resist, it is better to avoid confronting them in the first place.
The Lord’s Prayer asks God not to lead us into temptation. Situation change takes matters into our own hands. Dieters remove all the sugary foods from their kitchens. Recovering doom scrollers delete the social media apps from their phones. Aspiring writers block off time for writing on their calendars just as if it was an important meeting during which they must not be disturbed.
Just as importantly, situation change involves paying close attention to our social circumstances. The people around us and the groups we belong to have a substantial influence on behavior—influence that can be leveraged to help achieve our goals
There is one exception to our lists of unfulfilled resolutions, one area in which we have been successful: writing more. When we embarked on writing our first book together a few years ago, we thought carefully about how to structure our social environments to propel us through what could otherwise become a dreary trudge of 300 pages. We set weekly meetings, blocking off time to write together. We met in cafés to argue over stories, studies, and turns of phrase. Working together created both social accountability and social support.