Why New Year Resolutions May Be a Bad Idea

Are you thinking about New Year resolutions yet? If not, you’re running out of time. Tomorrow is Day 1 of the New Year.

Before you pull out that Moleskine and start scribbling out your list, consider the possibility that you should forgo making New Year resolutions. Here are some reasons why New Year resolutions may be a bad idea:

  1. You set yourself up for feeling defeated. This happens more quickly if your resolutions impale you with the spear of a repeating event—something you have to do every day or once a month to accomplish what you’ve resolved to do.
  2. You never know what tomorrow will bring. There’s a Bible passage that says, “Come now, you who say, ‘Today or tomorrow we will go into such and such a town and spend a year there and trade and make a profit’—yet you do not know what tomorrow will bring. What is your life? For you are a mist that appears for a little time and then vanishes. Instead you ought to say, ‘If the Lord wills, we will live and do this or that.'” The passage then goes on to warn against arrogance. (James 4:13-15)
  3. You establish a basis for personal inflexibility. Your goals may change, requiring a revision of your plans. But there you are, stuck with your resolutions.
  4. You implicate others in your inflexible planning. Almost anything you resolve to do has implications for other people in your life. They may not be willing to sign up for what you have in mind. Worse, they may be willing to accommodate you, even if it interferes with what they should be doing instead.
  5. You risk planning your life in terms of ego-projects. Thinking in terms what you will accomplish because you have resolved to do it puts yourself in the center of your planning. Everything on your list of resolutions is a symbol for some ego-project. Even if you resolve to do certain things for people, and even if you are motivated by good reasons to do them, a resolution still commits you to a project you have determined to do. If you fail, will you feel bad because you weren’t there to help someone, or will you feel bad because you didn’t achieve what you had resolved to do? And will the time come when you are compelled to do something that was properly motivated at first, but now is nothing more than an item to check off your list before the next New Year rolls around?
  6. You set yourself up for boasting. If you achieve all that you resolve to do, you are at risk of boasting, whether in your heart only, or openly before others. This is an inversion of how you feel about resolutions you haven’t fulfilled.
  7. You convert non-moral acts into morally significant acts. A resolution is supposed to be a kind of solemn determination to act in a certain way or to accomplish some objective. It’s like a promise. You are “giving your word,” you might say. This makes a resolution a morally significant act. This is what gives a resolution its quasi-binding force, why we take it as seriously as we do, why we mark our resolve by expressing it on a special designated date each year. This makes the resolution “official.” When making resolutions, many morally neutral objectives acquire the hue of moral obligation, simply because they are resolutions.
  8. You will be tempted to defer worthy objectives. There are two scenarios where this could happen. First if you think of something worthwhile to do sometime in the middle of the year, you may temporize, postponing the action until the next New Year comes around. Second, if you get into the New Year and at some point it becomes obvious that you aren’t keeping up with your resolutions, you may lose your motivation to pursue what was a good thing, and save it for your New Year resolutions next time.

New Year resolutions interact with our psychology in strange ways. Maybe we think that by making New Year resolutions it is more likely that we’ll do the things we hope to do.

Reasons to forgo New Year resolutions are not reasons to proceed into the New Year without any planning at all. The guiding principle of life planning should be “live wisely.” And making New Year resolutions may be counter-productive if living wisely is your basic principle for life planning.

About Doug Geivett
University Professor; PhD in philosophy; author; conference speaker. Hobbies include motorcycling, travel, kayaking, sailing.

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