It’s a common refrain by now that most new year’s resolutions are destined to fail. Ben Carlson at A Wealth of Common Sense wrote recently that this is because most new year’s resolutions represent short-term tactics to reach fleeting goals, when what is really needed to create meaningful self-improvement is a change in our mindsets, philosophies, and systems. That’s true, but changing the way we get better is much easier said than done.
We’re always craving the simple change, the One Weird Trick, that will instantly make our lives better. Advertisers and other schemers encourage this kind of thinking because it plays right into their pitch. Want to earn thousands of dollars every week with just a few hours’ work? Buy this seminar to find out how! Want the same perfect skin tone as that mommy blogger you follow on Instagram? She’ll tell you exactly which combination of face scrubs, lotions, and essential oils to buy. Want to know which currently-underpriced stocks are poised to soar this year? Plenty of experts are happy to tell you right after you subscribe to their newsletter. In a world where we spend most of our time online on platforms designed to expose us to brands, it’s no wonder the solution to all of life’s problems seems as simple as spending money on them.
Of course these easy solutions fall short on their promises almost every time. Our habits are a part of who we are and are far too ingrained to change overnight. Picking up a successful side career requires expertise, persistence, creativity, and luck; no simple set of instructions available to anyone with a credit card will bestow these traits on an aspiring entrepreneur. As any freelancer knows, making money on your own takes both skill and the ability to sell yourself. Investing, on the other hand, requires a little bit of knowledge about market fundamentals and a whole lot more about yourself.
There’s more to lose by our desire for self-improvement than just our hard-earned dollars. Having convinced ourselves that a quick fix to our problems is possible, we also blame ourselves when it turns out real change is more difficult to achieve. This is the “self” in self-improvement: someone is always willing to sell you the key to a better life, but once money has changed hands the risk of failure is entirely yours. Companies highlight customers who have been successful using their products, taking advantage of our inclination to confuse correlation with causation. (Such testimonials are forbidden in the financial industry where I work; they ought to be banned across the board.) People tend to believe what they see on TV or the internet even when they know they should know better. As a result we assume it’s our fault when our outcomes don’t match up with what we’re invited to imagine. We lose self-confidence, making us less likely to try to change things in the future. We are embarrassed by our perceived failures, meaning we don’t talk to each other about what’s really holding us back.
These issues go way beyond new year’s resolutions, but January 1 is ground zero for America’s self-help obsession and the industry that thrives upon it. That’s why I propose that this year you sit down with your list of resolutions in front of a warm, crackling fire, crumple it up, and toss it gently into the flames.
It isn’t to say that you shouldn’t try to change parts of your life that you’re unhappy with, but the way to make these changes is slow and difficult – the opposite of what most people on TV and the internet will tell you. Here are a few pointers for making change that sticks:
- Focus on why your goal matters. It might seem self-evident that having more money or losing weight will make you happier, but how exactly is that? Go deeper and picture the result of having achieved your goal. Think about how that future reflects your values. Working toward a meaningful goal will feel more like an extension of your everyday life than a sudden and disruptive change.
- Develop an introspection habit. If you wait until the calendar flips over to think about the change you really want in your life, you’ll never make much progress at it and the strategies you take will lean toward the quick-fix. When you decide you want a change, start planning now instead of putting it off to January 1.
- Talk about it. As a society we need to get over our habit of treating our biggest problems as matters of personal choice. Some issues are too big for individuals to tackle, no matter how good their intentions. Take global warming as an example: you can reduce your carbon footprint all you want, but as long as corporations are allowed to pollute on an industrial scale there won’t be any reduction meaningful enough to reverse the climate change that’s already occurring. For these issues we don’t need individuals resolving to buy a composter: we need the solidarity to elect leaders and lawmakers who will do something about the problem.
At a fundamental level, it makes no sense to center big changes in our lives around an arbitrary calendar date. Why January 1 and not May 7 or October 21 or August 15? Instead, make change a continuous part of your life and ignore the people who tell you you can do it all in one shot. When you stop looking for the next quick fix, you’ll start to see a world where change is really possible.