Admit it: You hate New Year’s resolutions.
And for good reason—the vast majority of New Year’s resolutions fail. And when they do, our self-esteem inevitably takes a hit: one more failure; one more broken promise to ourselves; one more example of how hopelessly undisciplined we are (especially compared to all those beautiful, hard-working, I-can-do-anything-and-make-it-look-easy influencers on Instagram you still follow).
And yet, here we are, late December, still in a daze from holiday stress, nervously watching January 1st inch its way closer—each day, dreading that phone call where we sign up for the gym membership we know we won’t use or purchasing the new treadmill that will gather dust in the spare room.
There’s got to be a better way…
The Problem with New Year’s Resolutions
One of the many problems with traditional New Year’s resolutions is that they’re too results-focused: lose 15 pounds, learn to play guitar, landscape the backyard, quit smoking, save money, get in shape, etc.
These are all fine goals, of course. But when you define your resolution in terms of an outcome, you set yourself up for chronic disappointment, shame, and eventually, quitting.
Here’s how it works:
- Initially, that idealized vision of your future self—thinner, smarter, richer, whatever—is motivating because the possibility of a better self is novel and exciting.
- But the novelty and excitement quickly fade leaving you with a stream of constant comparisons to a better version of yourself you haven’t reached yet. Usually this comes in the form of judgmental and negative self-talk.
- All this negative comparing quickly starts to feel bad and leads to an emotional stockpile of frustration, disappointment, and shame.
- And even though you may be making incremental progress, it never feels rewarding and therefore motivating because it’s instantly overshadowed by the crushing burden of perfection that is your idealized self.
- Eventually (usually somewhere in mid-February), we get sick of showering ourselves with negativity and just give up.
If you can relate to this dilemma, I’d like to suggest a new way to think about New Year’s resolutions: Instead of picking a goal or outcome for your New Year’s Resolution, pick a New Year’s virtue instead.
The Case for Choosing a New Year’s Virtue
A virtue is simply a habit that moves you toward your values.
In the beginning, a virtue takes the form of a commitment to a certain set of behaviors: You value being a good friend, so you decide that once a week on Friday afternoons you’re going to call up a friend who lives somewhere else.
Eventually, with enough repetition and reinforcement, these behaviors become habits—relatively self-sustaining mental programs that move you toward your goals without a lot of conscious effort: Getting in the car after work on Friday afternoon triggers the automatic response to call a friend. And calling a friend every single Friday—week after week, month after month—does in deed make you a good friend and keeps you committed to your value of friendship.
Now, here’s the really great thing about picking a New Year’s virtue: Success doesn’t depend on being a good friend—an admittedly big, slightly vague, and hard-to-define ideal. All you have to do to succeed with your New Year’s virtue is to call a friend each Friday afternoon.
Even if you can’t get ahold of anyone, you’ve still been successful because it’s dependent on a single behavior, not a final outcome.
Virtues are little motivation generators, constantly filling you up with positive reinforcement.
This means you can feel proud of yourself for following through on the behavior (regardless of the outcome), which will reinforce the behavior and make it that much more likely to happen the following Friday. Instead of a vicious cycle of failure, disappointment and low motivation, you’ve built a virtuous circle of success, pride, and high motivation!
Unlike outcomes, which suck energy and motivation until they’re achieved, virtues are little motivation generators, constantly filling you up with positive reinforcement each time one small action is completed. This is the secret to New Year’s resolutions that really last and lead us, eventually, to the outcome we want.
Paradoxically, the best way to reach a goal is to forget about the goal itself and focus on the process—the small, concrete steps that, if taken often enough, will inevitably get you there.
Journey over destination. Process over outcome. Virtue over goal.
A Few Ideas for New Year’s Virtues
If you like the sound of all this, here are a few ideas to get you started thinking about choosing a New Year’s virtue.
Remember: Focusing on a virtue doesn’t mean you don’t also have a desired outcome you’d like to achieve. It just means that the resolution is about the virtue, not the outcome. It means you’re making a promise to yourself about effort, not results. Which, as we explained above, is the best way to actually get to your desired result.
Let’s say your goal or value is to be a kinder, more compassionate person this year. One possible virtue that would move you toward that value is cheerfulness. Cheerfulness is not a personality trait, it’s a decision to act with cheer, especially in difficult situations. And when done frequently enough, it can become a virtue.
Most of us want to be healthier, get stronger, lose weight, etc.—in fact, health related-goals are by far the most common choice for New Year’s resolutions. Walking is a wonderful habit that almost anyone can do at almost any time and in any place that does a surprisingly good job improving fitness and health. It also makes a great candidate for a New Year’s virtue because you can do it in such small increments—going to the gym 5 days a week is pretty intimidating, but going for a 15-minute walk 5 days a week is massively less complicated and far more doable.
No, I’m not talking about standing in front of a mirror and telling yourself how great and powerful you are and how much everybody likes you. I’m talking about affirming other people. Taking the time to point out small things you appreciate in others. Say your goal is to be a better spouse: picking the virtue of being affirming is small, practical step that will move you much closer. Think about it: How could your relationship not improve dramatically if you took the time to point out one thing you appreciated about your spouse every day?
One of my biggest values in life is to be a good parent. At the same time, one of my biggest obstacles to that end is that I’m impatient. This year, I’m choosing patience as my New Year’s virtue. Specifically, I’d like to work on not raising my voice so much when my daughters aren’t listening or ignoring my wife (which really gets my blood boiling!). Keeping my voice calm no matter how angry I feel is always a behavior I can choose, something I have control over. Which means it’s a skill I can work on and improve and build, hopefully to the point that it becomes natural and instinctual—a virtue.
All you need to know
I hope I haven’t come across as the New Year’s resolution Grinch in this article. I’m all about making a commitment to improve yourself and grow in the new year. And if setting traditional New Year’s resolutions work for you, by all means, keep going!
At the same time, I know a lot of us struggle with the pressures and expectations of New Year’s resolutions. I’ve introduced the idea of a New Year’s virtue because I think it’s a far more doable and helpful way to re-commit ourselves to being better in the new year.
By their nature virtues are behaviors—specific choices and actions we can do. As a result, it’s far easier to build motivation and momentum with them, which is key to long-term success with any larger value or goal.
This has a huge psychological benefit over-committing ourselves to outcomes, which you can’t actually control in any given moment. This lack of direct control over our outcomes is what so often leads us into vicious cycles of negative self-talk, shame/frustration, low motivation, and eventually, quitting.
Goals are something we want, but virtues are something we can build.
This New Year, be a builder.