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Literally the Worst Thing Ever: New Year’s Resolutions

You wouldn’t use a birth-control method that fails this often. There isn’t a birth-control method that fails this often.

Illustration by Camille.

Illustration by Camille.

Happy New Year! Do you have a list of things you want to do in 2014? Yeah, me too. Now let’s throw those lists away, because New Year’s resolutions are bullshit.

I speak from experience. Despite having never actually stuck to a single resolution in all my time on earth, I still shamefully walk straight into their trap every single year. For as long as I can remember, I’ve spent the last week of December writing out a modest (but embarrassingly unrealistic) list of things I hope to achieve over the next 365 days: I will run a marathon. I will read all the books stacked atop my bedside table. I will stop eating processed sugar. And every January 1st, I promise myself, This year will be different! I can do it this time! But it’s not, and I can’t. Without fail, within a matter of months (or less), I find myself drowning in self-doubt, and I abandon every goal I’ve set. I have not, in fact, run a single marathon. My unread-books pile has only grown taller. And I broke that “no processed sugar” rule in a matter of hours.

This list of unmet goals follows me from year to year, making me feel like an incompetent fool. But I’m starting think that the problem isn’t me—I’m not terrible. New Year’s resolutions are.

New Year’s resolutions ask us to identify our “flaws” and promise to “fix” them. Can you think of a more undermining way to start the year? How about deciding we’re just fine the way we are, and accepting and loving the things that make us different from other people? We just made it through another year, isn’t that enough? Let’s celebrate that, not criticize ourselves!

Did you know that only 8 percent of people achieve the goals they set on January 1? That’s a 92 percent failure rate. You wouldn’t go into anything else that boasted those kinds of statistics. You wouldn’t use a birth-control method that was successful 8 percent of the time, would you? (There isn’t actually a birth-control method that’s as unsuccessful as New Year’s resolutions. Having repeated P-in-V intercourse with NO protection has a lower failure rate: 85 percent.) This system is clearly not working. That’s partly because goals, while admirable, are focused on the distant future, when we will have crossed the finish line. They don’t address the here and now, which is where change actually happens. A goal is more like a hope: I want to get more work done this year. It’s broad and abstract. What’s more useful is a plan: I’m gonna download and install Freedom right this minute to prevent myself from fucking around on the internet when I should be getting work done. That one will actually help you make progress toward your goal, but you don’t have to make a New Year’s resolution to install software on your computer.

Then, when we, unsurprisingly, fail to meet our broad, vague goals each year, we never blame the whole New-Year’s-resolutions practice; we blame ourselves. We feel like failures. We feel worse than we did before we even made our list. And yet year after year we’re suckered in again. This year, we think, I’ll be “better.” How about this year I won’t fall for that old trick?

You could argue that making New Year’s resolutions is just an innocent distraction that no one takes seriously, but what is it that we’re distracting ourselves from? While we’re fixated on whether or not we’ve managed to finally quit smoking or start saving money, we’re probably taking millions of small, unplanned moments of awesomeness for granted. Think back to your 2013: It was likely filled with amazing things. There were some small victories, and maybe some bigger, life-changing moments. You may have faced some adversity—maybe even some disasters—but you’re still standing, aren’t you? And you’re probably stronger than you were last year. And most of these events, the good and the bad, were probably nothing you could have seen coming at the beginning of the year. But we don’t count these things as real achievements often enough, because we didn’t decide on them in advance; we may not have even realized they were possible. I’d like to see a new tradition take the place of New Year’s resolutions: maybe end-of-the year self-congratulations.

Every big thing I’ve ever achieved in my life happened on its own timeline. And that timeline couldn’t start until I was truly ready, and all the stars of fate, luck, and circumstance were aligned. That doesn’t usually happen for me on exactly the first day of any given year, and I’m guessing the same can be said for most people’s goals and desires. Wendy Davis didn’t wake up on January 1, 2013, and resolve to be the badass star of a historic filibuster; Malala Yousafzai probably didn’t have “Fearlessly speak out against the Taliban despite threats against my life” on a list, somewhere between “Get more exercise” and “Eat more vegetables.”

I don’t need a calendar to tell me when to make changes or challenge myself, and I don’t want to make half-assed promises to myself during the most stressful, high-pressure time of the year. And neither do you. The best resolution I’ve ever made was the decision to not make any resolutions at all. From here on out I’m just going to try to kick ass year-round, forever. ♦

Megan Seling is a writer, a baker, a longtime resident of Seattle, and the author of Bake It in a Cupcake: 50 Treats With a Surprise Inside.

29 Comments

  • FlaG January 1st, 2014 11:32 PM

    “And I broke that “no processed sugar” rule in a matter of hours.” I know what you mean. This year I thought I would go for something that was all-encompassing and easily applicable to any situation, so I made ‘be fearless’ as my resolution for the year.

    Two hours after midnight a cute guy walked into the speak easy I was in with my friends, and we kept making eye contact. He sat there for half an hour with his friends, while I sat in a corner with my friends and didn’t make a move. He eventually left. So much for being fearless -___-

  • MegW January 1st, 2014 11:37 PM

    I totally agree with you, especially about the stack of books. My school periodically gives away their really old books and I always come home with a paper box full of books from the 70s. And so now I have a HUGE stack that I won’t ever finish.

  • Katherine20 January 1st, 2014 11:55 PM

    So inspiring!! I’m trying to have the same optimistic attitude this year. I wrote about it on my blog too ~ so tacky and promote-y of me!!!

    ~ Katherine
    http://kimkatfunspot.blogspot.com/2013/12/2014.html

  • Laurets January 1st, 2014 11:56 PM

    I needed to read this. Thank you so much.

  • carosg January 1st, 2014 11:58 PM

    Sorry – but how does 8% success rate = 97% failure. That makes: 105%
    Great article otherwise…

    • Anaheed January 2nd, 2014 12:10 AM

      Sorry — that was a typo! Fixed now.

  • irismonster January 2nd, 2014 12:50 AM

    My new years resolution for 2013 was to cheat death. Genius in my opinion, because as long as I don’t die I technically succeed.

    • ifellfromlalaland January 2nd, 2014 5:01 AM

      GENIUS! And you’ll fulfil it every year until the year you do die… But then i guess it doesnt matter anymore cos youre dead (sorry for the mordbidness)

  • julalondon January 2nd, 2014 12:54 AM

    I totally agree with you; i absolutely HATE new years resolutions. This is why i never had/have/will have any.

  • Cerise January 2nd, 2014 1:39 AM

    This past year I made a list of resolutions (which, unsurprisingly, failed to get themselves accomplished), but I decided to try something new and picked a theme for the year: fearlessness/bravery. It was admittedly kind of sneaky of me, as I was going to be starting a semester abroad beginning in February, a period of time I was certain would be fraught with scenarios way outside my comfort zone. It was, which totally helped with the whole sticking-to-the-theme thing, but eventually, it became a kind of battle cry (or somewhat terrified whisper) for when opportunities came my way that simultaneously aroused my interest and my fear. For me anyway, focusing on how I was thinking in the moment (“Will I regret not doing this?”) was more helpful than focusing on a checklist for the future (“I need to do X, Y, & Z to become a braver person!”). I totally failed some of the time (e.g. NaNoWriMo, telling people I have feelings for them, etc.), but I learned to be excited that I had actually *tried* something new, even if I hadn’t succeeded. Besides, even if I flopped, I almost always walked away with a funny story.

  • erinaudrey January 2nd, 2014 2:04 AM

    I don’t know I feel like sometimes it helps me to just list out and define something before I start it. I fully recognize my resolutions/goals/etc. aren’t exactly super achievable but it helps me to list out the things I want to shoot for. Writing everything out helps put things into focus for me.

  • Soupboy January 2nd, 2014 2:08 AM

    In my blog I started writing on New Year’s, “My purpose isn’t to be the Debbie Downer but I’ve never been too fond of New Year celebration. Growing up I’ve always thought that New Year’s meant a fresh start, starting completing new, forgetting what happened last night, and setting new goals for yourself for the better. I’ve had time to think this through and it’s complete bullshit (wow, I sound angry but I’m not). There’s no way of starting new, “fresh”. Whatever happened a week ago, a month is still important. I remember vividly telling my parents, “It’s a New Year I don’t want to fight”. Just because it was a new year I was allowed to think I could magically let everything go. ”

    I never finished it because I’m all blocked but I totally agree with you Megan. Resolutions do suck. If something is wrong with my life I’m not going to wait around for a year to pass by to make it official by posting it on Facebook, tweeting it that I’m no longer going to blah, blah, blah. If I want to change something I’m going to decide when I think it’s a problem. I’m going to think it through and not just 10 minutes before the new year begins.

  • Sick.Sad.World January 2nd, 2014 3:25 AM

    This is so funny because I was writting a couple of thing I have “to do” this year when suddenly this post appeared so I stopped writting and started to read this. Followed that I threw the paper laughing. Now I totally understand you and I think that happends with a list of books, movies, t.v series, etc as well.
    Sorry if my english is so bad, it’s because i’m from Buenos Aires and my english is school-learned.

  • NotReallyChristian January 2nd, 2014 6:54 AM

    Oddly enough, this is the same reason I’m not religious. I don’t need New Year’s to decide to change my life; I don’t need Jesus to try and be a better person (it doesn’t mean I AM better, just that ‘what would be the best thing to do?’ works just as well for me as WWJD does for others). If it works for you, go with it, if it doesn’t then try something new :)

  • foreverrocket January 2nd, 2014 10:54 AM

    I do see some point in new year’s resolutions though. I don’t set myself unreachable goals, but simply reflect on things I’d like to work towards during the year. One of my resolutions last year was to start reading A Game of Thrones, and I did that, and I’ve read the first three books too! I’d never resolve to do something I KNOW I can’t do – that’s just pointless and disheartening.

  • Harriet January 2nd, 2014 11:52 AM

    I really like New Years resolutions! Alongside tinned pineapple and clouds they are one of my favourite things.
    At the end of a year I also like to sit down and write a big ol’ list of things that I’ve accomplished, it gives me the fuzzies and makes me feel like I’m not so terrible at life after all ^_^

  • mangointhesky January 2nd, 2014 2:21 PM

    I can never do New Year’s resolutions. I try, but for some reason, they never work out for me. They’re like unspoken rules, but written down on a piece of paper. I have made a list of things before, but when I tried to complete resolution number 7 (cleaning my room), I ended up throwing the list away.
    But then again, at the end of each year, like Harriet said, I love to sit down and just think about what I’ve accomplished. Usually, the list I come up with isn’t too bad, and I feel like life isn’t as hard as I’m always thinking it is.

    http://perfectlittledaisy.blogspot.com
    http://mangointhesky.blogspot.com

  • silvermist January 2nd, 2014 4:41 PM

    this reminded me how every year during my teenage years I put ‘start being pretty’ on my resolutions, along with sub-points ‘learn how to use make up’, ‘always wear nice clothes’, ‘brush my hair every day’. it’s sad that I started each year trying to correct my flaws and then feeling miserable when realizing I was still the same childish-looking girl with stupid hair and no make up skills. I wish I had Rookie back then.
    nowadays my resolutions are more of a way to remind myself of what i can do to the people around me, such as helping my siblings with homework, being more patient with my family, being nice to my neighbours, being less afraid of stating my opinion, being a good friend and so on.

  • Kardvark January 2nd, 2014 6:03 PM

    That’s why I resolve to fail at everything I try this year. So if I fail to fail…I actually succeed. :)

  • Sophii January 2nd, 2014 8:03 PM

    I love this. I always fall into the trap of making up to a hundred new year’s resolutions that inevitably fail. I had decided not to make any this year. Reading this has reminded me that this was a good thing to do

    http://prettypassionsfinefashions.blogspot.co.uk

  • Katzemuse January 2nd, 2014 9:08 PM

    Hey Rookie, I noticed that the productivity app (“freedom”) you linked to isn’t free! There’s a FREE version of Freedom called SelfControl that does the same thing (also for macs).

    You can download it at http://selfcontrolapp.com/

    I’d advise changing it since a lot of us readers don’t really have a lot pocket money to spare for an app that just blocks websites. Just my two cents.

  • momobaby January 3rd, 2014 8:37 AM

    I never make my New Year’s Resolutions things to “change” about myself. That only ever ends up being depressing. I like to make my resolutions just normal goals, like “learn to skateboard” or “get my driver’s license.” To me, that seems to be a more positive spin on the actually pretty good idea that a new year is a great time to start something new.

    http://littlerebellia.blogspot.com

  • KatGirl January 3rd, 2014 12:38 PM

    My New Year’s Resolution this year was to eat chocolate and be awesome.

  • unefillecommetoi January 3rd, 2014 3:02 PM

    You told yourself not to eat processed sugars when you sound like a cupcake master of the universe.

  • wallflower152 January 3rd, 2014 6:10 PM

    Idk, it worked for me. I accomplished my 2013 goal. Crochet a new item each month and by winter have 12 cool accessories to wear. I got a serger for Christmas and my 2014 goal is to make a new article of clothing each month.

    I once heard a podcast that talked about resolutions and it says it helps to not make abstract goals like “be more social” but make a defined list of what you want to accomplish and checkpoints of how you’re gonna do it. I think setting goals is great but you do not need the excuse of the new year to make them. I also agree with you that they can be harmful when you’re just pointing out “flaws” about yourself that you think need solving.

  • nikkiduck January 3rd, 2014 6:58 PM

    I wholeheartedly agree with everything! You can change yourself any day of the year, why wait until Jan 1st?

    But I do like making lists. And something does feel a little shinier about the 1st of the year. So what I’ve done this year is make a list of goals, and I’ve been making concrete plans on how to achieve them. One of my goals is “travel to England to visit my friend” (she’s there for grad school! how cool is that?), and so I’ve now been writing out, step by step, how to achieve that (apply for passport = x amount of dollars, research plane tickets, etc;). I find it’s a good balance :)

    I do still have those more vague goals like “make healthy choices!” but I think I’ve made them vague enough to still achieve some degree of success haha

  • Alepisaurus January 13th, 2014 10:15 AM

    I uh… I want to tell apart the words Baklava and Balaclava by the end of the year.