Avoiding New Year’s resolution burnout

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It’s that time of year again. 

January 1 has come and gone. We have said goodbye to 2022, and many welcome 2023 with determination that this will be the year they will stick to their New Year’s resolutions. 

It starts the same way year after year. The turn of the new year is often a time of optimism, hope, and anticipation for the future. But plowing forward at full speed in January leaves many dragging their feet on keeping their New Year’s resolutions just one month later.

Enter New Year’s resolution burnout.

Already, many have quietly quit their New Year’s resolutions. One study found that 64% abandon their New Year’s resolutions within a month. On average, only 9-12% of people keep their resolutions all year long.

Phillip Rash, a clinical professor and assistant director for outreach for BYU CAPS, suggests that the majority of New Year’s resolutions are abandoned by the end of January.

With such a dismal rate of success on so many New Year’s resolutions, it can feel pointless to make them in the first place. But understanding why resolution burnout happens can help to not only avoid the burnout, but to also succeed in New Year’s resolutions year after year.

Why burnout?

Dr. Charles Herrick, chair of psychiatry for Nuvance Health, offered some reasons why individuals have a hard time sticking with their resolutions in a 2020 Newswise article.

“There are many reasons why people may not keep New Year’s resolutions, but instances of New Year’s resolution burnout can be narrowed down to three psychology-related issues: difficulty breaking old habits, focusing on specific outcomes, and problems with purpose,” he wrote.

With a few paradigm shifts on these three issues, making and keeping resolutions can become realistic, long-lasting tenets of anyone’s life. Let’s say bye-bye to burnout.

Problems with purpose

Rash believes that finding a purpose in resolutions can be challenging because many people feel a sense of obligation to make a goal rather than a genuine desire to change. This leads to a lack of preparation to stick to a goal.

“Most people are setting the goal because it’s New Year’s, so they haven’t done the necessary mental work to get into a place where it’s going to be a viable goal,” Rash said.

This mental work is the basis of any permanent change; making and keeping a New Year’s resolution should be an active — not passive — endeavor.

“In order to make any kind of behavioral change, there are different stages that we can go through, ranging anywhere from just flirting with the idea of a change, to (committing to) a plan,” Rash said.

One method for behavior change is the Stages of Change model in psychology, which was introduced in the late 1970s by researchers studying ways to help people quit smoking.

The 6 stages of change include: precontemplation, contemplation, preparation, action, maintenance, and relapse. 

These stages emphasize the importance of planning out how to reach a goal, committing to a goal, rewarding your successes, maintaining the changes despite old habits, and learning to get back up again when a goal is not met. Making a plan for each step of the process is the type of mental work needed to avoid New Year’s resolution burnout.

But, mental work might not be the only issue in finding purpose in a New Year’s resolution. The New Year is a natural marker for making changes, but according to Rash, that may not always be the best option.

“January 1 for most people is the wrong time to set a resolution or to set a goal because it tends to become more about the date,” he said.

Jacob Fisher, a junior studying statistics, grew up making New Year’s resolutions every year with his family, but he also worked hard throughout the year to continue to adjust and work toward his goals. He believes that focusing on the New Year changes may lead some people to forgo changes the rest of the year.

“I think people do a great disservice to themselves when they say, ‘this is my one time during the year that I’m going to choose to change,'” he said.

Breaking old habits

Most resolutions have something to do with breaking old habits. Sometimes people want to break habits of commission, such as eating too much or spending too much time on social media; other habits to break are habits of omission, such as not going to the gym or not waking up early.

Either way, breaking habits is often a difficult task.

“Our habits are ingrained and embedded in our implicit memory, which is also called our automatic memory or unconscious memory,” Herrick wrote in his article. “Implicit memory uses our past experiences to help us remember things without actively thinking about them, making it easy for us to stick to similar routines and challenging for us to make changes.” 

Sticking to a New Year’s resolution changes how we think, so it is no wonder that breaking away from our initial habits is such a challenge. But Rash believes that the pressure of being a college-aged student often adds to the burnout that comes with New Year’s resolutions. 

“[College is] full of transitions. And with every transition, there’s stress, there are tasks to accomplish. That in and of itself contributes to what’s called the cognitive overload set,” Rash said. 

Rash described several transitions that college students might face in the course of their time at BYU: high school to college, undeclared to declaring a major, graduation to career, single to dating, and beyond. With so many changes happening in such a short time, students may become quickly overwhelmed with goals and resolutions, especially if they set too many resolutions at one time.

“If we really want to impose all these goals, maybe we don’t have the mental emotional bandwidth for that at this point, which leads to another reason why people often will abandon their goals is because there’s too many … ‘I’m gonna take these 10 things on top of everything else that I’m expected to do as a college student.’ That’s just a lot,” Rash said.

Setting one or two goals instead of many goals at a time is one key to breaking old habits. This allows a more concentrated focus on change instead of trying to change a lot of things at once. 

Michael Trendler, a freshman studying communications, decided to focus on one goal for 2022: to go to the gym and lift weights every day except Sunday. Prior to 2022, Trendler did not think resolutions worked. But as he made specific plans for this one resolution, he was able to stick with the resolution and break old habits. 

Keeping one resolution also positively affected his life in ways he did not expect. 

“There are days when I [feel like] I can’t do it. And it’s led me to try and identify the source of what is making me not want to fulfill my goal,” Trendler said.

Trendler has realized that not eating healthy, being stressed, and not getting enough sleep are all factors that make it difficult to reach his goal. In trying his best to be at the gym every morning, Trendler has been able to make other healthy habits as a happy byproduct of his main goal.

“Behavior doesn’t exist in a vacuum,” Rash said. “One single behavior doesn’t exist on its own. It’s in the context of broader behavior in our life in general. One change to a behavior will [absolutely] impact other areas of our being.”

Focusing on specific outcomes

There will always be slip-ups and challenges along the way as we try to stick to our resolutions. But if people focus on specific outcomes instead of their progress, burnout is a likely outcome. Having a positive mindset in spite of setbacks can help us stick to our New Year’s resolutions. 

“We tend to engage in something called ‘all or nothing thinking,’ where [we think] ‘if I’m unable to be 100%, then I might as well not do it at all.’ Instead of saying, ‘Wow, I did well for two weeks, and I’m going to continue to go on,’ we just kind of go ‘okay, this wasn’t for me.’ With any type of behavioral change, that’s just not the most helpful way to go,” Rash said.

Instead of focusing on specific outcomes to our goals, we should focus on the small victories and the progress we make along the way.

“In any goal or behavior change, being able to break those [goals] into small measurable steps [makes the difference],” Rash said. 

One way to create measurable steps is to reevaluate goals throughout the year. Fisher believes that students may benefit from making goals on a quarterly basis or for every semester in order to make their goals more manageable. 

Another way to focus on the process and make measurable steps is to develop a rewards system for reaching certain goals. 

“We respond to rewards as a human race,” Rash said. ​​”Often the reward has to be external before it becomes intrinsic. Then at some point, you won’t have to do the reward anymore, because it’s intrinsic, it’s something that you value.”

Fisher suggests having a support system of people who care about your goals to provide encouragement when difficulties arise. 

“Finding people that are excited for you to make a particular change, I think is really important,” Fisher said.

A Gospel view on New Year’s resolutions

The gospel of Jesus Christ provides a model for change that can be applied to making New Year’s resolutions. Rash hopes that students will follow the teachings of Christ as they make their resolutions instead of focusing on failures and negative self-talk. 

“If you look at the teachings of Christ, it’s very self-compassionate,” Rash said. “There’s a lot of evidence in the scriptures that it is not requisite that a man should run faster than he has strength. A good understanding of the gospel would [promote the] opposite [of negative self-talk]. We’d have more compassion for ourselves that would propel us to be able to work through lapses [in our goals].”

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