The Case Against New Year’s Resolutions


New Year’s may be a customary time to start improving your life—but think how much better you will feel if you start today.



Making New Year’s resolutions can be helpful for individuals in category No. 1: those who actually follow through with them. But too many individuals—my former self included—find that they are in category No. 2: those who either do not actually use January 1 as a reset or keep up their resolutions for only a few weeks or months. If you are in the second category, here are some ideas to consider.

We often know exactly what changes we should make so we can have better, more fulfilling, more satisfying lives. But unhelpful thoughts sometimes get in the way. Does this sound familiar? “I’m too busy or stressed right now. I’ll wait until January 1st to start exercising/watch what I eat/keep my desk in order/stay in better contact with friends.” The list could go on and on. But what is the harm in putting off making important changes?

Let’s say your goal (whether it is a New Year’s resolution or not) is to exercise 3 times a week. Every time you think, “I know I shouldn’t skip exercising this week, but it won’t really matter,” you are reinforcing the “giving in” part of your brain. This tendency to give in is strengthened every time you do what you feel like doing in the moment instead of what will help you reach your goals. On the other hand, every time you take the long view and act in alignment with your values or aspirations, you strengthen the self-control part of your brain.

If you look at the situation narrowly, of course it does not matter if you plan to exercise 3 times and do not do it at all 1 week. But if not following through with your plan becomes a habit, week after week, it will be much harder to change. And you may lose confidence in your ability to make sustained change. After a while, you may also start to feel a little out of control. That is a negative feeling for most of us.

By all means, if you want to set a New Year’s resolution, go ahead and do that. On the other hand, you could just decide that today is better than tomorrow and start working on your goal immediately. You will likely be more successful if you make sure that:

  • you decide on a specific behavior you want to change;
  • you think through what is really reasonable and sustainable, given all your responsibilities and energy and time constraints (err on the easy side to begin);
  • you anticipate practical problems that might arise and how you can solve them (eg, how will you remember to use this new behavior?);
  • you predict unhelpful thoughts that could get in the way and how you would like to respond to them;
  • you set up a system to reward yourself when you follow through;
  • you talk to yourself compassionately when you deviate from your plan and then get right back on track; and
  • you create an accountability system (eg, tracking your progress or regularly reporting your progress to a friend).

New Year’s may be a customary occasion for starting to improve your life—but it does not have to be. Think how much better you will feel if you start today.

Dr Beck is president of the Beck Institute for Cognitive Behavior Therapy and a clinical professor of psychology in psychiatry at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.

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