In Defense of New Year’s Resolutions (and Why NOW Is the Time to Declare Yours)

iStock 000022459583XSmallI know: New Year’s resolutions aren’t exactly fashionable these days.

Far cooler than telling someone about your resolution for 2013 is to go around quoting stats about how ineffective they are, and how many well-intentioned self-promises are forgotten by the end of January every year.

Or you can point out that January 1st is arbitrary, just as good (or bad) as any other day to start something new.

Not me, though. I’m not ready to give up on New Year’s resolutions just yet. Here’s why.

2 reasons why New Year’s resolutions can still work for you

I’ll admit the track record is embarrassing. There’s a reason for this, though — it’s that most people treat their resolutions like wishes from a genie in a bottle. They mistakenly assume that when the calendar flips, so will some switch in their brains that makes their willpower appreciably stronger than it is now.

But if we’ve learned anything from the study of habits, it’s that willpower is not enough. It’s an exhaustible resource, and while you can coast by on willpower alone for maybe the first week of January, your willpower is going to fade at some point. And if that happens before your new habit has become, well, a habit, your resolution fades too.

So there’s the first key to making a resolution that’s not just another wish: make it about changing the habits that are necessary to create the bigger change you really want. For instance, if you resolve to lose 20 or 50 or 100 pounds, don’t get up on January 1st and try to lose 20 or 50 or 100 pounds. Instead, wake up on January 1st and begin creating the exercise habit — which likely means starting with just 5 minutes. Physically, you accomplish next to nothing, but far more importantly, you begin re-wiring your brain for exercise in a way that’s so painless you can’t possibly flake out.

And what of this business about January 1st being arbitrary? Agreed, the actual date doesn’t matter. But here’s what does.

New Year’s has on its side the fact that we anticipate the date. It’s circled on our calendars. And so if we decide in advance that we’re going to make a change then, we have time to build up some tension and excitement about making a change before the time to change actually arrives, which gives it some gravity in our minds.

You’ll recognize, of course, that this is not what most of us do by default when we get fed up and decide something must change. Instead, when we wake up one day feeling particularly bad about something — maybe it’s a hangover or a glance in the mirror or another overdraft in the checking account that sparks it — we resolve to change. Starting right now. Sound familiar?

Yet only a day later (and sometimes not an hour or even a minute later), our motivation is gone and the change is forgotten. If you’re anything like me, you’ve repeated this feeble attempt time and again, getting more discouraged and convinced of your inability to change and lack of self-discipline with each successive failure.

So it’s also important to delay the change until a set date in the near future, and to make plans in the meantime.

And yet, even armed with this information, when you’re in that rare state of being frustrated and excited enough to change something in your life, it’s tough to find the patience to delay the start by a few days.

New Year’s offers us a perfect opportunity to do exactly that. It’s one time when it seems natural to delay the start. Of course, if you do what most people do, which is to decide on December 31st at 8pm in the middle of your first drink that tomorrow you’re going to start, this isn’t much better than any other spur-of-the-moment declaration to change.

But what if you started planning NOW?

What if, for the next few days, you thought long and hard about the single resolution — let’s call it a goal — that would most serve you over the next year? And once you came up with it, and wrote it down, and shared it with someone who matters to you, what if you then carved out some time in the next week to really plan how you were going to achieve this goal?

I don’t mean a 10-minute scribble on a napkin, either. Is it possible that between now and New Year’s day, you could set aside two or three hours (on a weekend morning, perhaps) to figure this out?

I know, I know … three hours is an absurd amount of time to spend creating your future, shaping the direction of your life. Who could possibly be so frivolous with their time? icon smile

But let’s suspend reality and just pretend for a minute that you could find an hour or two to make plans for the next year of your life. In that case, here’s the one thing I’d suggest to maximize your chances of following through on your goal.

Take several minutes to write down answers to these questions about your New Year’s goal:

  1. Why do I want (need) to do this so badly? Why does it absolutely have to happen now? How do I know I’m capable of doing it?
  2. What are the habits I would need to develop to make this change? Specifically, what one habit is the most critical, the one I’m going to start creating today and develop before the others? (Remember, one habit at a time!)
  3. What do I currently have going for me? What resources could I use to learn, stay accountable, and help me in other ways?
  4. What other resources do I need, and how can I get them? For example, “I need to get ahold of this book / expert / old friend who can teach me about ___.”
  5. What intermediate goals (with deadlines) can I set to break this big goal up into smaller chunks?
  6. How can I set up the process to avoid overwhelm and not have to rely on willpower? (My advice: If you think you’re starting small, start smaller. You have time.)
  7. What can I do during the next 24 hours and the next [however much time you’ve got until New Year’s] to get a head start? What can I do during the month of January to be well on my way by the end of that month?

Even if you don’t feel like doing this — although if you don’t, I hope it’s not out of apathy but because you’ve got a better method — I still highly recommend writing down your resolution in a place where you’ll see it every day, and doing so now, rather than waiting until Dec 31 to declare it.

Just getting your goal in your head and giving yourself some time to plan and anticipate the start will do so much towards making your resolution one that lasts, and not one of those embarrassingly pathetic attempts that we’ve all made to change at the beginnings of years past.

I know it’s a bit early, but I wish you success in whatever you decide (now!) to take on in 2013.

My resolution this year

I won’t bore you with all the details, but for those who are interested here’s (briefly) what I plan to change — and have already started making plans for — in 2013. I’m posting it here for a little accountability.

The past year has brought a lot of change for me, perhaps more than any other. A new home in a wonderful, vegan-friendly city. The news that my wife is pregnant with our second child (a girl!). And a book deal. Great stuff, all of it.

But along with all this came something I’ve dealt with in the past, but never to this extent: severe anxiety that has impacted my family, my work, and pretty much everything else during so much of the second half of this year. I don’t expect others to sympathize or understand how positive changes can bring on negative anxiety (if it weren’t me, I could see myself saying, “Sounds like a good problem to have!”), but the past 5 months or so have been the toughest I’ve been through, ever.

And so my main goal for 2013 is to get this taken care of, primarily through a series of actions to address the root causes, things I’ve identified with some help from others. I’ve made a lot of progress already, and I think it’s within my power to obliterate this entirely.

The good news, the way I see it, is that a lot of the path to fixing this is paved with action. Taking risks, doing the things that are scary or simply overwhelming, to demonstrate to myself what I’m capable of. Among other things, many of which have nothing to do with No Meat Athlete, that could mean tackling the 100-miler that I’ve tried twice now to train for, but have sputtered out both times. To accomplish something like that would be pretty special, for sure.

So that’s my focus for the new year. It’s not measurable in the way goals are supposed to be, but I have a few markers along the way that I know will represent progress.

Tangentially related P.S.

Since we’re on the subject of accomplishing things and making changes (and since my book deadline is rapidly approaching), I’ve got something to ask you.

Would you be willing to be included in my book? There are two capacities in which I might be able to use your help.

1. I’m looking to include a half a dozen or so profiles of No Meat Athlete readers who have made major changes in their lives with the help of either a switch to a plant-based diet or the decision to do something great, like run a half marathon or marathon. (These totally do not have to be due to anything I’ve written on No Meat Athlete; I’m just looking for people with great stories to inspire readers of the book.)

If you’d like to share your story, please tell me about it on our Facebook page (in about 100 words or less, please), and I’ll choose the ones that I think fit best with the book and ask those people to write longer versions of their stories for the book itself.

2. We’re planning to decorate much of the back cover with tons of photos of people in their No Meat Athlete shirts. If you’d like yours to appear there, please share it on the Facebook page and let me know you’re up for including your photo on the cover!

The deadline for submissions of both photos and stories (just summaries, not the full versions yet) is Dec. 23rd.

I’m looking forward to reading your stories and seeing the photos; thanks so much!

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Comments

  1. Like you, I’m fully in support of New Year’s resolutions.

    What isn’t so great is when people make empty resolutions – then have no plan to follow up with them, thus they soon feel like failures.

    What is great is when people make realistic resolutions – then take the time to plan them out, using methods such as the ones you described above.

    Good luck figuring out your anxiety issues, Matt. I feel for you.

  2. There’s nothing magical about January 1..you should be continually updating your resolutions throughout the year as necessary to stay on track….

  3. Jon Weisblatt says:

    Hey Matt,
    Congratulations on recognizing the need to deal with your anxiety issues. Thats is a tough one that can affect not just you but everyone around you. I grew up with a family member with major issues. Who of us doesn’t have a little anxiety in our lives at times. I’m sure you will tackle it successfully. I’m not on facebook and don’t have a great story for you but I can’t wait to read what you publish. Mery Christmas, Happy Chanukah, Happy Kwanzaa, Happy Winter Solstice!

    • Jon, I always appreciate your comments. Thanks! You’re absolutely right, it does have a big effect on the people in my life, and especially now that I’m a dad, that’s a huge motivator for me. Thanks again, and happy holidays to you too.

  4. I love making (and keeping) New Year’s Resolutions and I too am a firm believer in writing them down and revisiting them throughout the year. I did really well this year. “Eating Better” turned into eating a mostly all vegan diet (with some fish thrown in), so with that the “Lose 5 pounds” was easily accomplished. I’m working on my’New Year’s Resolution post now and I am going to include a link back to this post (if that is OK!)
    Good luck with your resolution and book and have a Happy New Year!

    • Hey Grace, yes, writing them down is so key. I think of it as the first step to making the stuff in your head concrete; it’s a tiny little action that actually changes the world outside your head. In a small way, but it’s a start!

      Yes, of course, feel free to link anytime. I’ll check out your post too. :)

  5. Please check out the book Freedom from Fear by Dr. Liebgold. It changed my life and I had debilitating anxiety for half my life. I know you can beat this!!

    Longtime reader, Haley

  6. I totally get what you mean about positive events causing anxiety and stress, I’m glad to hear that you are aware of some triggers and seeking help in learning how to cope. That’s a great step in learning how to manage your anxiety.

    I am going to head over to Facebook for both requests, I’ve made huge changes to my life this year that I’d love to share AND I wore my NMA shirt during my triathlons this summer!

  7. I *love* your habit evaluation questions. I have one good habit that has eluded me all my life. I read your post and decided this year, I’m going to kick its butt. I’ve tried to look at it in all different ways – read the “Power of Habit” and still couldn’t get how to master it. It’s an easy one that people would think I was crazy to not master. I’ve trained for and run a half marathon, but I still don’t have the self-discipline to do “X”?! The one thing, I’ve never realized (duh!) until I saw question #2 is that this one change is a series of habits, not just one thing. Makes me look at it a whole different way. Thanks for posting!

  8. Matt – my resolution is usually ‘keep doing what you’re doing’. Running daily, eating healthy, steering clear of dead animals and the like. All I can say about anxiety is perhaps a good counselor would help. Definitely not perscription drugs though. A natural approach is best. Hey, if you can raise 2 kids you can do anything :) Best of luck in 2013.

  9. Great post! But I mainly want to comment on your resolution to seek help for your anxiety issues. You have more support than you’ll probably ever realize — sometimes it seems that mental health is the last taboo subject left, and thus we often don’t speak up about our own issues, even when others talk about theirs. I struggled with depression for years before finally accepting that it was a health issue like any other, and thus I needed assistance in dealing with it (we wouldn’t try to “figure out” heart disease on our own, would we?). I applaud your bravery in sharing this with your readers. I think it’s important for people to realize that folks of all walks of life suffer from mental health issues, even super-healthy vegan athletes such as yourself! This is the way that the stigma can slowly be erased. I sought treatment, and have been doing great for nearly ten years! Good luck with your resolution, and know that there are many out there who are rooting for you and your family, including me. Happy Holidays!

  10. Michele Cynowicz says:

    Thanks for this post! I fully support the successful, well-planned New Year’s Resolution. It has been this date of the year that has brought me to incredible weight loss (150 lbs permanently gone since Jan 1st, 2000), turning officially vegan (5 years strong) and upgrading my career path. I have found that not only planning your steps, but preemptively measuring increments such as “I will lose 100 lbs by next Jan 1st, meaning an avg of 8.3 lbs per month” and preparing ahead of time such as “Here are 15 vegan recipes I am comfortable making and know that I love already, and here is my first full month’s meal-planning” make a huge impact and keep you at-the-ready for the start. Also, accepting that there are going to be setbacks, no matter what, and that they should not be complete dead-ends for your goals, such as “If I don’t drop 8.5 lbs this month, it’s okay, I will keep trying!”

    P.S.: I didn’t lose 100 lbs in the first year as I had resolved to do, I lost 90 lbs. That’s still a success! Perfection isn’t a requirement. The success I had carried me into the following year where my workouts were an official habit and I labeled myself as an athlete.

  11. Great article and thank you for sharing your new years resolution. I can really relate to anxiety especially when things are going well! So much more to lose, right? What helped me a lot was learning more about mindfulness through cognitive psychology. Pick up a copy of ‘The Worry Cure’ by Robert Leahy. Yes another self help book :) but with lots of good tools to use to make progress and change thinking habits. Anyway, your site is helping me achieve my goal of eating a healthier plant based diet and one of my first steps is to learn a new recipe every month (small steps, right?). For someone who almost never cooks that is huge.

    • “So much more to lose” is exactly it! I’ve noticed that feeling often, but until now didn’t realize it was “a thing.” Thanks. And I appreciate the book recommendation too; it sounds like one I would like.

      Thanks, and good luck!

  12. Thank you for this post!! I’ve experienced a lot of anxiety, lately, and it is starting to control me and have an affect on those around me….but things are going well, and heading in the directions of my dreams – what’s up with that???!? I’m also going to order the book suggested by Haley, and look in to possibly seeing a counselor.

    One resolution I’ll be working on is to really expand my short list of plant based recipes AND hopefully make them tasty enough for my carnivores to enjoy :-)

    Thank you so much for your blog, and the way you put it all out there – life changing stuff!

    • Yvette, seeing a counselor has been helpful for me. Like I said, I’ve dealt with this some in the past, and never had success with counselors — it always felt like a waste of time for me — but this time, I found someone who I really like and has been tremendously helpful. I actually look forward to going to talk to her about stuff; it just puts things in perspective and makes me feel great afterward, along with giving me tools and things to work on.

      Good luck with getting it taken care of, and your resolution to add recipes to your list! And great to hear NMA has helped you, thanks for reading!

  13. Hey Matt, I have dealt with a lot of anxiety this year too. I never had that problem before but after my (now ex-) wife left I was just kind of hit by it. Badly. I was constantly worrying about the future and about silly things that don’t even need to be worried about like if I had enough dog food to last the rest of the week. Two things that have helped me tremendously are taking up meditation (helping me stay in the present moment and not dwelling in the past or worrying about the future) and undergoing hypnotherapy. The problem has subsided significantly and the other benefits of meditation have been tremendous… when I stick with it. Anyway if you ever want to talk about it, you know where to find me.

    • Always good to hear from you, Ben. And I’m encouraged to hear that meditation helped you so much, because it’s something I know I can do. I was in a great routine with it before this all started, but this anxiety kind of messed up a lot of the good routine I was in, and meditation was one casualty. But part of my plan to whip this is to start again.

      I really appreciate the offer to talk; thanks.

  14. Robb Humphreys says:

    I really love (and needed) this article, Thank you Matt. A lot of change in my life the last year and I often find myself so overwhelmed by the desire to get back to a routine, but have yet to find the motivation. I’ve noticed that recently I have been turning my attention to New Year’s for the simple fact of making a resolution and the excitement that goes with it, so this article has really helped me focus. Very grateful indeed.

  15. Hi Matt,

    Having always been a runner, I’m making my way towards a vegan lifestyle. Managed 2 months solid earlier in the year but it’s been tricky since. Weaving it into family life with youngsters isn’t the easiest thing! It’s coming though, and when I compare the start of the year to now, I realise how far I have come. Your site, particularly the way you present the “recipes” or “formulas” for energy bars etc. really works. It really does.

    Anyway, the reason I’m commenting on this post is that I suffered from anxiety this year for about 4 months. Came from out of nowhere, never had it before and don’t know of any family history with this sort of thing. It was a truly horrendous experience, but one that I feel confident in saying is now behind me. I just wanted to say one thing to you. It will pass. Honestly. It won’t feel like it sometimes, but it will.

    A couple of places that helped me were http://www.anxietynomore.co.uk/ and http://www.moodjuice.scot.nhs.uk/

    I have no relationship, commercial or personal with either site/organisation, but they helped me and they might help you.

    You were already an inspiration. The fact that you have spoken out so honestly about your struggle with this only heightens that.

    Good luck,
    James

    • Thanks for the links and the comment, James. I’ve definitely had those moments where it seems like it will never pass, but I do think I’m through the worst of it now. (At least, I hope I am!)

      Thanks again, and I’m glad to hear about your progress towards a vegan diet. Give it another try sometime; it’s not the easiest thing with kids but it can work. Our personal view is that it’s okay if my son doesn’t eat vegan or even vegetarian as he grows up — his choice and I think it’s good to try things; we’re just not going to cook that other stuff in the house. But since he’ll be used to that because he’s still very young now, it’s probably much easier than trying to change older kids.

  16. Four years ago, I experienced a life changing moment when my brother called to tell me that our dad was taken to the hospital earlier for a pulmonary embolism (PE) and he had to break the news that our father’s PE was fatal. My dad was gone at age 58.
    His death haunted me for 6 months until my wife helped me make another choice that would ultimately change my life for the better. She told me to try and start running in the mountains to clear my head even though I never ran before in my life. I was 100 pounds overweight and was in horrible shape. I started by walking until I could finally run a 1/4 mile, which became a 1/2 mile, a mile, and then 4 miles.
    Three years ago, when we returned from a trip I told Traci I was going to run at least 4 miles a day for the next 923 days for my dad who died on 9/23/2008. I began running ultra-marathons, because they gave me time to think and I completed 21 ultras, plus 3 one hundred mile races.
    to my amazement I realized earlier this year that my 923 days of running would end on 9/23/2012. During that stretch, I ran over 9400 miles, burned a million plus calories, climbed a million vertical feet, lost 100 pounds, and ran 1500+ hours in the last three years to complete my streak.

  17. Hi, Matt. I just wanted to say how much I appreciate your bravery in sharing your struggle with anxiety. It takes a lot of courage to be that vulnerable in a public format like this, and talking about your life in such an open and honest way will help other people struggling with similar issues feel less isolated and alone. I wish you the best with your resolution and will say a prayer for you and your family (having people to love who love you too is powerful medicine).

  18. Matt, I just wanted to tell you how much I relate and sympathize. In 2011, I was in similar circumstances. Everything was going so well, I turned in my first book to my publisher, my small business was really taking off, I bought my first house. But I also developed some real anxiety issues. I felt trapped, overextended, even depressed at times.

    What changed for me was that I realized that I had been prioritizing these outward markers of success above my own happiness and that of my partner. That’s so silly when you think about it. What goal could possibly be more important than being happy and making others happy?

    I refocused this year, learned to prioritize and say no to things, and developed a meditation practice. The funny thing is, I’ve been even more creative and productive! My business is great and I even ran my first marathon this year.

    My story may or may not be helpful to you, but I just wanted to let you know you’re not crazy for feeling these things, nor are you alone, and there are definitely ways to deal with it and come out the other side.

  19. Thanks for this post—and every post you write. I never scroll away from NMA without feeling like I’ve learned something, been shown a little secret tip, or gained some valuable insight into myself and the world around me. Your openness about struggling with anxiety really moved me (I struggle, too, and have had a very difficult past few months under the thumb of anxiety and depression), and I have every faith in you to overcome it and regain the ability to enjoy every moment as it comes. Hopefully I can find that same faith in myself, as well. Best of luck on the journey.

  20. Thanks for this post, Matt. I have several major changes I want to make in the New Year, and your post reminded me to take them one at a time! I think part of the reason we chose Jan 1 is because finally all the holiday indulgences are over and it’s time to shape up! I want to exercise more, drink less wine, take my D and B12 more regularly, meditate daily, and eat less junk. (I’m a long-time vegan and do love my Tofutti and Daiya products!).

    Congratulations on your baby girl! When is she due and do you have names picked out? (if you don’t mind me asking).

    And congratulations on tackling your anxiety AND sharing such an intimate part of your life. You can get it under control, I’m sure, and I know you’ll patient with yourself – it’s a process. I wish you well in the New Year and look forward to continuing to hear great tips and updates from you!

    Warmly,
    Caroline
    PS I proudly wear my NMA shirt to the gym…but no pics so far :(

  21. My anxiety is recent. I was ticking along this fall as a vegan when I found out at
    Thanksgiving that I have issues with gluten. I’m not celiac, but it causes a lot of problems that I can’t live with, like falling asleep wherever I am. Even though these issues have plagued me for years, I became so depressed over this (I love bread and pasta!) that I have spent a month eating every sugary food I could find. Of course this can’t go on and my resolution is to get back on track, a gluten-free vegan, or at least mostly vegan. But definitely gluten-free. It’s amazing to me how much better I feel when I actually have energy and don’t fall asleep at red lights. But it’s such a shock and it has really put a crimp in my life.

  22. Hi Matt!
    I keep a blog about keeping New Year’s resolutions. I’ve just finished year one and am about to embark on year two! One of my resolutions this year, which I added halfway through the year, was to tackle my anxiety and stress. I have some books posted that were useful to me in my 2012 recap (posted 12/28). You might enjoy a book called ‘Nerve’, which is about the science behind anxiety and fear. It was incredibly useful to me to understand why my brain/body reacted the way it did when I felt fearful or anxious. Best of luck with your resolutions and I look forward to continuing to read your thoughts in 2013!

    Amy

  23. Citlalli V says:

    Thank you so much for posting this! I’m starting to realize that, while my resolutions haven’t changed much, my approach has: I know what went wrong before, and I’m working on not procrastinating anymore. I have a specific goal (ok, goals) in mind, but also a plan and support. I did actually fill out the little questionaire for my first goal. I will revisit it in a few weeks, to log how I’m doing and add my second goal. One thing at a time. :-)
    The overwhelming thing for me is, “What if I screw up?”, so the hardest thing for me is to start doing and stop worrying so much.

  24. I had made a list of new year resolutions during the later part of december.. It’s only the mid part of Jan and i’ve already broken several of them..So i guess next year it is .. :)

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  5. […] that we must break our bad habits and form better ones. But, as the No Meat Athlete article In Defense of New Year’s Resolutions suggests, there just seems to be something magical about January 1st that makes us think that […]

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