Oliver Burkeman on Failed New Year's Resolutions

Illustration by Harry Campbell for Newsweek

For the self-help industry, the most wonderful time of the year arrives not at Christmas but in the weeks immediately afterward—that segment of the calendar known to publishers and motivational speakers worldwide as "New Year, New You." It's the season of books with titles like Change Your Life in 7 Days and Starting Today: A Journal of Intention and Change, to quote two forthcoming titles, and of big-ticket events featuring Wayne Dyer and Deepak Chopra. The symbolic power of the date—1/1—is considerable: judging by past research, more than a third of Americans, including a majority of those under 45, will make New Year's resolutions this year. Quitting smoking and losing weight, the same research suggests, will loom largest in their plans.

Spoiler alert: most of them will fail.

It's a curious truth about the happiness industry that, unlike most other industries, it doesn't have much to gain from selling a product that actually works. If you bought, say, a smartphone that performed much worse than advertised, you might avoid that manufacturer in the future. But the doctrine of positive thinking that underpins modern self-help rests on circular logic: when a given technique fails, the implication goes, it's because you weren't thinking positively enough—and so you need positive thinking even more. In reality, psychological research increasingly suggests that repeating "affirmations" makes people with low self-esteem feel worse; that visualizing your ambitions can make you less motivated to achieve them; that goal setting can backfire; and that emotions can't be controlled through sheer force of will. But the temptation to just try even harder can be hard to resist. "The key to success," argues the best-selling motivational writer Brian Tracy, "is to focus our conscious mind on things we desire, not things we fear."

Messages like Tracy's don't keep on selling despite the fact that they don't work, but rather because they don't work: they deliver a short-lived mood boost, and when that fades, the most obvious way to revive it is to go back for more.

If this unhelpful approach reaches a peak at the New Year, perhaps it's because the lure of the "complete fresh start" is so strong. Not many of us would take seriously the notion of faking our own death—committing "pseudocide," to use the term coined by Doug Richmond in his 1997 manual on creating a new identity, How to Disappear Completely and Never Be Found. But the New Year vision of total life transformation is really just a modified version of this, and no less unrealistic. ("Fresh-startism"—the promise of an utterly new era, free from the errors of the past—infects our politics, too: Mitt Romney's campaign rhetoric, for example, consisted of little else.) Here's the irrepressible if irritating Brian Tracy again: "It doesn't matter where you're coming from. All that matters is where you're going." Forget the past. The new you starts now.

The problem is that successful change rarely works that way. To be sure, it makes intuitive sense to imagine that radical, across-the-board changes would be the most effective ones, because each change would support the others. Develop the habit of going daily to the gym, for instance, and you'd assume you'd naturally also become the kind of health-minded person who avoids junk food. But a large (albeit contested) body of evidence suggests that willpower is a unitary and depletable resource: the more of it you use making one change, the less you'll have left over to make others. The discipline you exert on building the exercise habit, initially at least, leaves you more susceptible to burgers rather than less.

Worse, you're almost certainly a poor judge of which resolutions you should select in order to maximize your happiness. For one thing, we're notoriously prone to overestimating the effect that any one, seemingly major change will actually have on our moods. The classic study of this effect, known as the "focusing illusion," involved asking both Californians and Nebraskans to judge whether Californians or Nebraskans are happier, given the West Coast's superior weather. Residents of both states concluded that Californians are probably more cheerful. But the truth is that there's little difference between them—because for most of us, most of the time, the weather just doesn't exert the influence that we assume it must.

This explains the common experience of people who move to cities, uprooting their lives, only to realize there's one thing they couldn't leave behind: themselves. Actually achieving the Total Life Makeover, much promised around this time of year, would require impossible psychological acrobatics: somehow you'd have to change everything about yourself while simultaneously being the self who is directing the changes. Good luck with that.

Fortunately, there are more promising alternatives. If you must make resolutions, it's preferable to make tiny individual ones, repeatedly throughout the year, rather than multiple, ambitious ones at the start of it. Research by the psychologists Teresa Amabile and Steven Kramer, based on diary entries collected from hundreds of American employees, concludes that regular minor accomplishments—
"small wins"—contribute much more to 
happiness than do occasional, bigger ones: contrary to what you might expect, the satisfactions of a bigger achievement aren't proportionately larger or more long-lasting. Tiny goals, even absurdly tiny ones, can be an effective way to sneak under the radar of your mind, which always stands ready to procrastinate on, or otherwise resist, bigger ambitions: you might laugh at the idea of doing 15 seconds of exercise, but for exactly that reason, you're also much less likely to resist it. (The next day, make it 20 seconds, and so on.)

The cognitive therapist David Burns makes a related suggestion, utterly antithetical to the spirit of the all-or-nothing positive thinkers but a splendid weapon against perfectionism: try having a deliberately mediocre day at work (or elsewhere). Resolve to perform at around 60 percent of your ability, he advises, and you'll find it psychologically liberating, as well as hard not to surpass your target.

Self-help dogma offers other unhelpful ideas. One is that you should focus, relentlessly, on the outcome you're trying to reach—to specify the salary you want to be earning by this time next year, say, or to visualize the ideal romantic partner, so as to bring him or her into your life. A classic and oft-cited study, the Yale Study of Goals, allegedly showed that among the Yale graduating class of 1953, the 3 percent of people with specific, written-down goals for their lives accumulated more financial wealth than the other 97 percent combined. The problem is that the study is almost certainly pure myth. (A Yale University archivist, and others, have investigated and found no trace of it.)

A wiser approach may be to set "process" goals: instead of specifying a target salary, commit to spending two hours a week investigating career opportunities. Rather than deciding to write the novel of the century, commit to 45 minutes of writing every morning. "Nothing discourages the concentration necessary to perform well," writes the sports psychologist John Eliot, in his book, Overachievement, more than "worrying about the outcome." Or try the process-goal method used by Jerry Seinfeld early in his career, when he was determined to spend some time every day writing jokes. On a wall calendar, he marked an X every day that he got some writing done, gradually creating a chain of X's: "Your only job ... is to not break the chain." It's a mechanical, nonintimidating target. If Seinfeld had aimed instead at "becoming a world-famous comedian," might he have sabotaged his success?

There's a deeper problem with the New Year's resolution phenomenon, though: in its modern form, at least, it's just one more expression of the self-help industry's obsession with "getting motivated," for finding ways to cultivate the right emotional state to achieve greatness. Resolutions are intended, above all, to get you fired up: "If we get the right emotion," promises Anthony Robbins—the positive thinker's positive thinker—"we can get ourselves to do anything!" But this way of thinking about motivation isn't the solution: it's part of the problem. First, its effects are only fleeting. More problematically, the Robbins philosophy merely strengthens the misleading belief that you need to feel motivated before taking action—which is the biggest barrier to actually getting things done.

In fact, as the Buddhist-influenced Japanese psychologist Shoma Morita liked to point out, it's perfectly possible to do what you know needs doing—to propel yourself to the gym, to open the laptop to work, to reach for the kale instead of the doughnuts—without "feeling motivated" to do it. People "think that they should always like what they do and that their lives should be trouble-free," Morita wrote. "Consequently, their mental energy is wasted by their impossible attempts to avoid feelings of displeasure or boredom." Morita advised his readers and patients to "give up" on themselves—to "begin taking action now, while being neurotic or imperfect or a procrastinator or unhealthy or lazy or any other label by which you inaccurately describe yourself."

If that sounds like depressing advice, it's really the opposite. Applied to the New Year, it might sound like this: get ahead of the curve by abandoning your resolutions now, before the New Year—and "get started," as Morita put it, "on those things you want to accomplish before you die." And then in mid-January—while your friends and co-workers are struggling to make themselves feel enthusiastic about trying to change themselves completely—you can smugly take stock of your achievements so far: not revolutionary, not life-transforming, but real.

Oliver Burkeman is a columnist for The Guardian and the author of     The Antidote: Happiness for People Who Can't Stand Positive Thinking.