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New Year’s resolutions typically lead to misery – here’s how to make them work

Don’t fret if you’ve already abandoned your new year’s resolutions. Experts say there are still ways we can make them work for us (iStock)
Don’t fret if you’ve already abandoned your new year’s resolutions. Experts say there are still ways we can make them work for us (iStock)

Making a new year’s resolution is like pushing the pedestrian button at a busy crossing: basically pointless, but you do it anyway. Every year, we go through the same rigmarole. For some people, resolutions work. For most people, they spark a vicious cycle. You make a promise to yourself. You swiftly break it. You feel really bad about it. No thank you!

Resolution-haters may be placated by the fact that they’ve been falling out of fashion in recent years anyway. Last year, a survey of more than 2,000 British adults found that only one in four planned to make resolutions come 1 January. Most people will have already begun to give up on their resolutions by the middle of January anyway, according to research by Strava. But don’t fret if you’re still attracted to the “idea” of setting goals for yourself in the new year – experts say there are still ways we can make resolutions work for us.

Perhaps it’s just that resolutions are overdue a rebrand. You could say that “manifesting” has begun to replace making resolutions in the new year. The pseudoscience behind manifestation suggests that the power of thought alone can be enough to make your desires a reality. While the practice isn’t new, it’s seen a major boom in popularity over the last year thanks to viral videos on TikTok, with the hashtag #manifesting drawing 4.3 billion views on the platform alone. There have been more than 529 million views for the hashtag #manifestingtips, too.

Mark Jellicoe, senior lecturer in psychology at The University of Law, tells me that there’s no real evidence that manifestation works. But he does think the idea of manifestation could have a positive influence on human behaviour. “It makes sense that if we orient ourselves towards an outcome, then we might be more motivated to achieve it,” he explains. “When we’re considering a vision that we have for ourselves, we likely need to get tactical about the goals we seek to achieve; the science of goal-setting may help with this.”

However, he warns that manifesting “isn’t a magic bullet”. We’re easily distracted as human beings, he continues, making us “often quite bad at the deliberate mechanics of goal setting, even when we want to achieve the outcome”. Jellicoe suggests using a model called a “WOOP”, which stands for “Wish, Outcome, Obstacle, Plan”. “This approach encourages us to think about the reality of our situation and the likely obstacles that come between us and our ultimate goals,” he says. “We can then plan ways to overcome them.”

If manifestation isn’t your bag, making a resolution can still be useful when it comes to shaping your year ahead. While it’s true that resolutions can feel arbitrary, really thinking about what you want from them before you set them can make all the difference. Jill Cotton, a career trends expert at Glassdoor, says that resolutions can provide “clear direction” for the next 12 months as long as they’re rooted in reality. “Rather than rushing into a resolution that may soon feel overwhelming or outdated, take time to work out how you want your life or career to change in 2023,” she says. “The prep work will allow you to feel optimistic about the steps ahead.”

Tamika Abaka-Wood, a global research and strategy partner at B+A, agrees. “It’s in our nature to rush to find solutions without really considering what it is we’re truly trying to solve,” she says. She suggests asking yourself a series of questions to determine what kind of resolution would work for you. “For example, you might decide you’re going to start a daily meditation practice, but why?” she says. “What actually is the root cause we’re addressing? Maybe it’s that you’re not sleeping well? You could be in a relationship that isn’t serving your emotional needs. [You could be] spending too much time on screens. Or that you need some comfort in a ritual. Maybe you feel disconnected from yourself?”

Setting a goal without first working out why you want to achieve it can lead to feelings of aimlessness. Abaka-Wood suggests asking “five whys” to yourself once you have a goal in mind. “Whatever your reply, interrogate [it] to see where it takes you. It will feel ridiculous but I promise it leads to a core truth.”

When it comes to new year’s resolutions for 2023, many of us have money on our minds. A survey of 1,000 British adults by financial advice website Unbiased found that 72 per cent were acutely aware of their finances, with many planning to tighten their belts this year amid the cost of living crisis. For those polled, that means giving up on takeaways (47 per cent), stopping eating out and going to the pub (40 per cent), and attempting to use cars less (30 per cent).

Setting a goal without first working out why you want to achieve it can lead to feelings of aimlessness (iStock)
Setting a goal without first working out why you want to achieve it can lead to feelings of aimlessness (iStock)

Cotton suggests a different approach, advising that workers don’t necessarily cut back but resolve to “know [their] worth” when it comes to their salaries. “Many will continue to face economic hardships in the year ahead, so it’s crucial to know that you’re being paid fairly,” she says. “This can be simply done by using a salary calculator, having an open conversation with co-workers about salary bands, or looking at job adverts for similar roles. There is unnecessary secrecy around salaries, and with gender and disability pay gaps widening in 2022, we need to be more transparent about pay. Without pay transparency, pay equality will be almost impossible to achieve.”

It is tempting to say “Bah, humbug!” when it comes to new year’s resolutions. But if we stop using them as just another way to beat ourselves up, they can become real sources of hope and inspiration – things that keep us going at a time of global unrest. And if you stick with them, you might surprise yourself; after all, sometimes pushing the button at the crossing really does make a difference.