Every January, billions of people take part in a celebrated annual tradition: setting New Year's resolutions. On January first—or second, in many cases—they vow to stop watching TV, lose weight, start running every day, or finally write their novel.
The reality is that most people don’t keep their resolutions and everyone knows it. In fact, many people set their resolutions knowing full well that they almost certainly won’t stick to them. To understand why that happens—and to avoid being trapped in an endless cycle of half-assed effort and do-overs like everyone else—you need to face a few uncomfortable truths.
Uncomfortable Truth Number One: New Year's Resolutions Are an Excuse for Procrastination
Almost by definition, a New Year’s resolution is something you’ve been putting off. In fact, many people don’t even start theirs on January first. Hung over, they put it off until the second. But that’s not where the procrastination starts.
Rare is the person who actually thinks up their goals in January. Most of the time, the goal is something you’ve been wanting to do for a long time, perhaps even for years. Failing that, you probably thought of it in December or November. But of course you don’t start it in December. No, you tell yourself, “That sounds like a good New Year’s resolution. I’ll save it until January.”
The truth is, far from giving us a reason to start our goals now, New Year’s resolutions give us an excuse to put them off until later.
Uncomfortable Truth Number Two: Enthusiasm Isn’t Motivation
Despite the fact that they end up not following through, most people are actually very enthusiastic about their resolutions when they first start. They say they feel very motivated, but that’s a big misunderstanding—what they’re feeling isn’t motivation.
Instead, it’s an enthusiasm born of novelty and overconfidence. As a personal trainer, I see this in new clients all the time. When they start a new program, they can’t stop talking about how motivated they are and how excited they are to get in shape. But a few weeks later, when the novelty has worn off and the fantasy of easy results has given way to the reality of hard work, the motivation is gone. All too often, the client is gone shortly after.
On the other hand, the clients who achieve the best results—and stay with me the longest—don’t usually display that giddy enthusiasm. They just do their workouts day in and day out and don’t feel much of a need to talk about motivation. They also don’t need constant novelty to stay engaged; they can stay on the same program for months with no problem. They just take it as a given that they’ll do the work.
Uncomfortable Truth Number Three: If You’re Serious about Something, You’ll Do It When It’s Difficult
This raises the question: if you’ve already thought of your resolutions, why not start them now?
Other than simply using New Year’s as an arbitrary start date, the main excuse is that December is a busy, chaotic month. You have a vacation coming up. It’s dark and cold. You have to finish up a bunch of work before the holidays. You’ll be traveling a lot.
The thing is, that says something about your priorities. It says that this resolution you’re putting off is less important than all that other stuff. Because you know what? If something is really that important to you, you’ll always find the time and energy to do it.
Which leads us to our solution: Start your New Year’s resolutions in December. Or November. Or right now, whenever you’re reading this. Is December a busy month? Fine, just do what you can. If you’re going to start running five days a week in January, do three days a week in December. Just get the ball rolling. But get started now.
If your goal is that important to you, refuse to procrastinate. Do it now. Do it while it’s hard. Do it even when you don’t feel enthusiastic. Take consistent action, and the motivation will build from there.
Remember that you are what you do consistently. Not what you talk about, not what you feel excited about, but what you take action on, day in and day out, even when life gets in the way. Start your resolutions in December, and by the first week of January, you’ll already be past that hump where most people quit. By the time everyone else is throwing in the towel, you’ll be halfway to victory.