New Years resolutions are a hot topic this time of year. We love the chance to start with a clean slate! And many of us want to take the opportunity to set some intentions for the year ahead. There’s a reason why “new year, new you” has become a cliché.
But resolutions are not without controversy! Our annual ritual of setting big, ambitious goals seems to be full of opportunities for creating unnecessary pressure, anxiety, and negative self-comparison. Maybe that’s why so many of our goals end up by the wayside before January comes to a close.
Given the downsides, many people have understandably gotten on the no-resolutions bandwagon. As therapists, we try not to think in black-and-white terms. So let’s talk about the pros and cons of setting new years resolutions. And then, if you decide you do want to set some new years goals after all, we’ll make a few suggestions for avoiding the pitfalls, and getting the most out of them.
Three Pros of Setting New Year Resolutions
Making space for taking stock and self-reflection
In our busy day-to-day routines, we don’t always make time for looking at the bigger picture. New Years can be a time for checking in with ourselves and taking inventory of how we’re showing up in our lives.
Am I focusing on the things that are most important to me? Are there things I care about that I’ve been neglecting? Sometimes, we need a reset. It doesn’t have to correspond with a calendar date — any random Tuesday will work — but psychologically, New Years often feels like a great time to check in. If we’re not where we want to be, resolutions can get us moving in a different direction.
A Renewed Sense of Motivation
For many of us, hanging up a new calendar or breaking open a fresh planner provides a boost of motivation for goals that may have been on the back burner. New Years resolutions can help us harness that energy and get the year started on the right foot.
The tricky thing about motivation is that it’s an emotion. And like any emotion, it comes and goes. Even the most ambitious and accomplished people don’t feel motivated 24/7. The best we can do, often, is to surf the New Years motivation wave for as long as it lasts!
Opportunities for Shared Support and Accountability
When motivation runs low, social support can help keep us on track. New Years resolutions often coincide with opportunities for support and accountability on large and small scales.
For example, the new year is a popular time for people to work on reducing their drinking or meat consumption with group “challenges” like Dry January or Veganuary. These often have a social support component. Sometimes friends or couples may do them together. Alternatively, social media can provide an outlet for posting about successes and challenges.
Individually, sharing our resolutions with loved ones can create opportunities for support as well. This can come in many forms, from emotional to practical.
Three Cons of Setting New Years Resolutions
They’re A Diet Culture Nightmare
Unless you’ve been living under a rock, you know that New Years means big business for the diet industry. Resolutions around dieting, exercise, and weight loss are always among the most popular.
Resolutions related to physical activity and health aren’t necessarily bad. But advertisers work hard to push narratives about unrealistic, unhealthy physical transformations to sell gym memberships, expensive equipment, and pseudoscientific “cleanses”.
At best, we’ve wasted some money. But the annual push for a “new year, new [thinner] you” can have negative impacts on our health as well. Physically, we know that yo-yo dieting can cause damage to our metabolism and cardiovascular system. And psychologically, it can be harmful to self-esteem and put us at higher risk for disordered eating, anxiety, and depression.
Unnecessary Pressure Can Cause Unintended Consequences
Ever find yourself completely avoiding a big project… just because you know how important it is to do a good job on it?
Or giving up on a new “daily” habit after one day of breaking your streak?
When we have big goals we care about, the pressure that creates can have unintended consequences. Procrastination and perfectionism are common complaints among the ambitious clients we work with. Often, the narrative that goes along with these forms of avoidance is that we’re “lazy” or undisciplined. So we double down on the pressure we’re putting on ourselves.
The reality is that high-pressure New Years resolutions can create a vicious cycle of avoidance, shame, and self-blame that can derail our good intentions.
We’re Not Setting Ourselves Up For Success
New Years resolutions are often heavy on imagining an outcome and light on the steps it takes to get there.
For example, resolving to stop spending money on DoorDash might sound like a great change for your budget.
But what happens next time you’re working late again? Or feeling exhausted at the end of the week and really don’t feel like cooking? There are reasons you’ve ordered takeout 12 times in the past 3 weeks, and none of them are going to change just because the calendar resets.
Relying on willpower alone is often not enough, and rarely a sustainable strategy in the long term. We need a plan for making long-term behavioral changes.
Tips for Doing New Years Resolutions Right
So, you’ve considered the pros and cons and you want to set yourself up for success with a resolution this year? Here’s our tips for getting the most out of it:
- Focus on one main goal at a time. Having a laundry list of resolutions isn’t an effective goal setting strategy. Behavior change is hard, and keeping it going over the long-term is even harder. Give yourself time and space to focus.
- Develop a plan. SMART goals are one popular way that people like to take a nebulous intention and in turn it into something actionable. You don’t have to use the SMART model, but you’ll want to think about the steps to take and how you’ll measure success.
- Expect setbacks. If you’re trying to build a new habit or change an old one, you’re going to have setbacks and lapses along the way. It’s part of the process, not a sign of failure. Expect them, and build how you’ll respond to them into your plan.
- Use encouragement, not self-criticism, to feed your motivation. Self-encouragement can help motivate us without feeding into the vicious cycle that excessive pressure creates.
- Get support. Whether you’re getting support from friends and family, an online community, or a therapist, having someone to provide support and friendly accountability can make a big difference.
About the Authors
Megan Sullivan-Tuba, AMFT is a therapist who works with woman and the LGBTQ+ community to address issues with anxiety, self-esteem, and healing after a loss or a trauma. She has a special interest in working with artists, musicians, and other creatives around burnout and creative blocks. Megan works with both individuals and couples virtually as a telehealth therapist in California.
Sahar Dorani. PsyD is a licensed clinical psychologist who specializes in working with high-achieving professionals around anxiety, stress, and burnout. Many of her clients identify as bicultural or adult children of immigrants. She works with individuals, as well as couples who are experiencing problems with communication, cultural differences, or issues related to trauma or PTSD.
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