Why Your New Year’s Resolutions Should Begin in December

Changing bad habits requires preparation and trial and error.

Posted Dec 18, 2017

“May all your troubles last as long as your New Year’s resolutions” —Joey Adams

Here’s my prediction. In early January, just like every year, virtually every media outlet will carry an article with this storyline:

  1. Statistics that X percent of Americans make one or more New Year’s resolutions in January, where X = some number greater than 50.
  2. Statistics that Y percent of these resolutions fail within a few months where Y = some number close to 100.
  3. Advice about how to beat the odds, and successfully keep your New Year’s resolutions.

Examples of such articles are here, here, and here.

Smoking by Stas Svechnikov Unsplash Licensed Under CC BY 2.0
Source: Smoking by Stas Svechnikov Unsplash Licensed Under CC BY 2.0

In this blog post, I want to preempt these articles and make a different suggestion. I want to strongly recommend not waiting until January. Instead, make your New Year’s resolutions now and start acting on them right away, while we are still in December.

This proposal is based on sound psychology research. Here’s my logic for why December is the best time to begin New Year’s resolutions.

Although we don’t think of it that way, research has found that most New Year’s resolutions are either about forming new virtuous habits or changing bad ones. On January 1, very few people say to themselves “My New Year’s resolution is to watch the Kentucky Derby on May 5, 2018, at 4 pm.” Instead, the most popular resolutions each year are things like “I want to quit smoking,” “I want to lose weight,” “I want to save more of my paycheck.” Our resolutions are rarely about one-time events. They are about habits.

Now habits are a lot harder to form or change than one-time behaviors are to enact. It's a lot easier to watch the Kentucky Derby in May than it is to quit smoking, to lose weight, or save more money. As psychologists Bas Verplanken and Wendy Wood point out:

“This resistance [to change] arises because habit formation is associated with the development of expectations about behavior and the performance environment. Repetition-based expectations reduce sensitivity to minor variations in the performance setting, curtail information search (especially search for information that challenges practiced ways of responding), and reduce thought and deliberation about the action.”

Even worse, most of us have unrealistic expectations about how difficult it will be to make these behavioral changes. We are over-optimistic and expect to succeed. When we fail, it’s a huge disappointment, leading to what psychologists have called “the misery of defeat.”

What’s the best way to change a bad habit? Again researchers have a good answer: by disrupting the context in which the habitual behavior occurs. For example, if your New Year’s resolution is to lose weight, and one of your routine behaviors is to eat dessert after dinner while checking your Facebook or Instagram, a good way to get out of the dessert-eating habit is to stop checking social media after dinner. This disrupts the context in which you eat dessert, and it forces you to behave more intentionally.

Laying the groundwork for habit change takes time. And this is where I think starting on a New Year’s resolution in December is powerful. It often takes a few attempts and some trial and error to figure out how to successfully disrupt the context in which the unwanted habitual behavior occurs. For the post-dinner dessert, for instance, you may need to figure out what to do instead of checking your social media after dinner. You may fail a few times, and open Facebook anyway leading you to grab that chocolate cookie mindlessly.

For a new habit, the challenge is different. It involves repeating the new behavior in the same context time after time. If I want to start running regularly every morning, I have to program myself to get up at 4 am, get ready, and complete my run for at least a couple of weeks before my "morning run" becomes routine.

Healthy Food by Katie Smith Unsplash Licensed Under CC BY 2.0
Source: Healthy Food by Katie Smith Unsplash Licensed Under CC BY 2.0

December is the perfect time to iron out these issues, and behave intentionally to curb your post-dinner dessert cravings or run every morning. Remember failing in December doesn’t count, so it won’t bring on the misery of defeat! This way, when January rolls around, you will already be on the path to successfully carrying out your New Year’s resolutions.

In closing, I should mention that I am already following my own advice at the moment. One of my resolutions for next year is to run more regularly, completing a thousand miles by year’s end (or approximately 84 miles per month). After a lackluster year in which I ran fewer miles than any time in the past decade, I have already fallen into a good running routine this December to prepare for my 2018 resolution.