New Year’s Resolutions Aren’t Helpful. Try This Instead.
New Year’s resolutions focus on weaknesses. A strength-based approach is better
Posted Dec 24, 2019
New Year’s resolutions are notoriously useless. Promises of change made to oneself on New Year’s Eve quickly and routinely dissolve into dithering, failure, and regret.
There are multiple reasons for this pattern of failure. But an important meta-reason is probably this: Real personal change comes from real conviction, and real conviction emerges from real learning—a process in which new knowledge leads to seeing new things, or to seeing old things with new eyes. Real learning is strongly experiential; it tends to emerge organically from personally meaningful life events, encounters, and circumstances. You read and understand the book. You meet and get to know the person. You are fired from your job and must find another.
New Yea’s Eve is a generic cultural marker, helpful in noting the passage of time and the cyclical nature of things, but lacking, for most people, any deep personal resonance. Personal change doesn’t adhere to a generic schedule. A number switch on the calendar is a weak signal, socially and personally, and is not a sufficiently powerful experience or intervention to motivate such change.
January 1st is, practically speaking, just another day in your life. There is no inherent reason to assume that the process of learning and building up conviction for action will mature on that date as opposed to any other. And most often, it doesn’t. Nor is there reason to assume that your environment will change radically on that date in a manner that will necessitate adjustment. And most often, it doesn’t.
New Year’s resolutions are thus, as a rule, a waste of time, which is ironic, given that the unrelenting and one-directional passage of time is what the day highlights. In fact, making such resolutions is, if anything, counterproductive.
This is because it's counterproductive to get in the habit of breaking promises you make to those you care about. And you, presumably, are one of those. A habit of repeatedly breaking your own word cheapens it, and experiencing self-inflicted failure lowers your self-efficacy—the belief that one can perform novel or difficult tasks and attain desired outcomes. Low self-efficacy then becomes its own barrier to change.
A better approach may borrow an insight from research in positive psychology about the concept of "strength intervention." While acknowledging that the effort to overcome our limitations and shore up our weaknesses is important, contemporary work in the field of positive psychology (built on earlier work by the late psychologist Donald Clifton) suggests strongly that we benefit greatly from tending to our strengths as well. In fact, it appears that we often get more health bang for our effort buck by focusing on maximizing our strengths rather than minimizing our weaknesses.
In some ways this idea appears counterintuitive. This is because our attentional focus is biased in favor of tending to injury, trouble, danger, and disruption. For survival reasons, our attention is drawn to trouble, and what works well we quickly learn to ignore, leave be, or take for granted. To wit: pain gets our immediate attention. But when was the last time you’ve noticed, and celebrated, and tried to understand, all the places in your body that are not hurting?
On second glance, however, the idea that an investment in strengths would yield better outcomes than a similar investment in weakness is quite resonant. Say I have two otherwise similarly qualified employees, one an extrovert people-person, the other an introverted, shy homebody. And say I have two positions open: one in sales and the other in bookkeeping. I could ask the introverted employee to take the sales position. But I'd probably be wiser to select the extrovert for that position. Given a similar amount of training, that candidate is likely to both do better and be happier. Indeed research has shown that employees are happier and more productive when they get to spend more time doing what they do best.
Now, this strength approach, like all others, is contextual and limited in application. It does not imply, for example, that we should focus all our attention and resources on the (socially strong) intellectually gifted and neglect the (socially weak) intellectually disabled. A rising tide does not lift all boats. It may actually destabilize, damage, or sink those boats that are old, too small, or in ill repair.
The strengths approach, applied wisely, calls for striking a balance. We should allocate resources to help the intellectually disabled but also consider the special needs of the intellectually gifted. Within a fair, caring, and responsible (i.e., morally sound) social context, developing the gifted is bound to, in the long run, help the disabled as well. The individual mind is quite akin to a society. Within a fair, responsible,, and caring (i.e., psychologically sound) mindset, we are well advised to focus much attention on finding, engaging and developing our strengths.
To that end, a strength-focused New Year’s tradition would involve reflecting on and identifying what's going well in our lives—our talents, meaningful achievements, helpful habits, and solid alliances—and resolving to maintain those and become more intentional about protecting, celebrating, and building on them.
This approach is doubly advantageous. First, it’s usually easier, on January 1st or any other day, to continue to do (and do even more of) what you already like and are good at than to start doing (or do more of) what you don’t like and aren’t good at. Second, it turns out that one good way to help with the latter is through a commitment to the former. This year, vow to protect and elevate your gifts. In turn, your gifts will protect and elevate you.