New Year’s resolutions often get a bad rap these days. It’s well-documented that most people can’t make big changes to their lives overnight and that many ambitious New Year’s resolutions are doomed to fail. At worst, they can be counterproductive and increase anxiety around things like weight loss and exercise.
Yet, the end of one year and the start of a new one feels like a natural time to reflect on where you are in your life, and where you want to be in the future.
So we asked the experts at the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at the UW School of Medicine what they think about New Year’s resolutions. Do they make them? What kind of goals have they set that worked — or didn’t? Here is what they told us.
What has worked
Few of the experts make traditional New Year’s resolutions — abstract promises to, come January, stop a bad behavior, like spending too much time on your phone, or to accomplish a desired goal, like losing a certain number of pounds. But many of them still used the New Year as an opportunity to reflect and set intentions, or broader principles, that guide how they use their time and what they want to be focusing on. Here are some examples:
Being the best parent I can be
Alana McVey, an acting assistant professor in the Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences Department at the UW School of Medicine and a clinical psychologist at Seattle Children’s Autism Center, puts a different spin on New Year’s resolutions. “I like to have a small set of values-based guiding goals for the year,” she says. “I think of these like themes that can grow and evolve over the year.”
Last year, for example, she was a new mother, and her resolution was “to be the best mama I can be,” which, she says, “helped me reorient when things didn't go the way I expected.”
Running half marathons
Anna Hink, a social worker and clinical trainer at the University of Washington’s Advancing Integrated Mental Health Solutions (AIMS) Center, normally doesn't make New Year’s resolutions, but she does try to come up with intentions throughout the year.
“Somehow that feels like a little less pressure and maybe more realistic for me,” she says.
For example, Hink likes to run for her physical and mental health, and has set an intention of running one or two half marathons a year. She then makes smaller goals to make that happen and checks in with herself throughout the year to see if she is meeting them.
“I find it grounding for myself to set small goals to work towards,” she says.
Trying Dry January
Paul Barry, a clinical trainer at the AIMS Center, doesn’t make New Year’s resolutions, but he does make sure to fit in some contemplative time.
“As the winter draws in, I do tend to do a little self-reflection about the previous year and think about ways to support myself with healthy habits through the darkness,” he says.
Last year, Barry and his family tried something new: “drynuary,” or giving up alcohol for the first month of the year.
“It was a very positive experience,” says Barry, who is looking forward to doing it again this January. “I don't think of that as a resolution so much as a family kindness and an extension of the holidays, building back up health after the indulgence of sweets and booze.”
Juliann Salisbury, a social worker and the manager of the UW Medicine Suicide Care Research Center, sets an intention to guide her through the year.
“Setting intentions allows me to be flexible with my behaviors and goals throughout the year and as my life circumstances change,” says Salisbury. “They are far less rigid than resolutions and function as my ‘why’ from day to day.”
One year, her intention was to waste less. "Throughout the year I would prioritize plans that would minimize the chances of creating extra waste,” she says. “For example, I stopped shopping with friends to avoid the temptation of buying new things, I participated more in my neighborhood Buy Nothing group and I cooked at home more, rather than going out.”
What hasn’t worked
Many of the experts also pointed out ways that New Year’s resolutions, or any goal, can easily go wrong or create unrealistic expectations. Here are some pitfalls they’ve experienced:
Making goals that are too inflexible and ambitious
McVey has found resolutions that are too specific or inflexible, like running a certain number of times per week, have not been successful.
Salisbury agreed. “I’ve felt disappointed for not meeting a specific and actionable goal,” she says. One year, she made a goal to read 30 books, breaking it down into two to three books per month. After a few months, she was falling behind on her monthly quota, and eventually gave up the goal.
“I started to associate reading with this false sense of urgency because I was behind on my goal,” she says. “It was no longer enjoyable, and I couldn’t even recall why I wanted to read more in the first place.” Changing habits or building new ones is difficult, and arbitrarily choosing the beginning of the year to start one can put unhelpful pressure on people.
Making goals that don’t have enough specificity
Daina Tagavi, a postdoctoral research fellow in psychiatry at the UW School of Medicine, on the other hand, has had a harder time with resolutions that are too difficult to track. “This is tough to admit as a psychologist, but a few years back I made a resolution to engage in mindfulness and meditation more — I completely failed,” she says. “I don't think my goal was specific enough, which was why it was hard to track and stay on top of.”
Making resolutions that aren’t tied to something you care about
If your New Year’s resolution comes out of nowhere, it’s probably not going to last. A successful goal needs to be tied to something that’s important to you.
“Behavior change must be driven by our own personal goals to be happier or healthier in ways that fit into our worldview and feasible options,” says Christina Clayton, an associate director in Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences Department at the UW School of Medicine and Interim Assistant Dean at UW School of Social Work. “It is more successful if we generate a goal connected to a priority or value we hold.”
When Adam Kuczynski, a clinical psychology postdoctoral fellow at UW School of Medicine, wants to make a lifestyle change, the first thing he does? “I highlight mentally all the reasons why I want to make the change I want to make.”
Feeling like this is your one chance to make a change
Many experts regularly made goals for themselves, just not on New Year’s.
“I try to make a concerted effort throughout the year to focus, evaluate and then refocus on the things that hold value to me like taking care of myself, giving back to others and being with family and friends,” says Hink. "I prefer the more constant evaluation and intention process than the once-a-year effort.”
Kuczynski similarly makes goals through the year. “I have learned that every day is a new opportunity for me to reflect on my goals and values and make adjustments as needed,” he says. “Whether that day is December 31, January 1 or June 15 does not make much of a difference to me.”