There is something about New Year’s Eve that is magical. Despite our over-crowded schedules, daily stressors and prior sorrows, most of us are drawn to the idea of leaving the old behind and ringing in something new into our lives. It is a time that we traditionally consider the possibility of change more than at any other point in the year. In a word, I believe the New Year evokes hope. It is in this spirit of hope that we make our New Year’s resolutions, aiming to bring positive change and to leave old (negative) habits behind.
In fact, the tradition can be traced as much as 4,000 years back to the ancient Babylonians who were the first recorded to hold celebrations for the New Year in a festival known as Akitu. They promised their gods that they would pay their debts and returned borrowed items. The Romans had similar beliefs. Janus, a two-faced god who was believed to inhabit doors and archways, looked back over the past year and into the new one. Thus, the Romans offered sacrifices and promised good conduct for the coming year. The early Christians further adapted the practice to surveying the past year for personal shortcomings and resolving to do better in the future. In short, celebrating the New Year and forging resolutions is rooted in divergent traditions and cultures.
The back side of the New Year, however, can usher in a loss of hope. As we find our resolutions blurring into the failings of prior years, our eagerly renewed hope for change plummets. It is no wonder than January and February can be accompanied by feelings of sadness or depression by many people. This is unfortunate for various reasons, but one is the general misunderstanding of the actual process of change.
Most New Year’s resolutions unwisely focus on making sweeping changes, changes that require either staggering efforts to pull off or very difficult changes to maintain over time (e.g., strict diet and exercise regimens). We do this because most of us have to reach a breaking point to even consider change, thus we want it FAST and we want it NOW. But this is not how change happens and once the emotional motivation for the desired change has faded, we’re left with the burdensome toil of carrying out the repetitive actions needed to fulfill our grand resolution. Yet, the way in which our brains rely on routine and resist the “new” for survival (see Opposing Forces of Change Vs. Routine), such sweeping changes are destined to fail from the start. But don’t give up! This just means we have to be wiser (and slower) in how we approach the process of change.
If we wish to outsmart our very smart brains and be successful in evoking genuine and lasting change, we have to take on change in very small steps – steps so small that we don’t trigger that neural firewall. It’s okay to hold the larger end-goal in mind, but we must break goals down into tiny steps to get there and beat our resistance to change along the way. For example, if the goal is weight loss, change one small thing about your diet at a time, maintain the change until it is no longer challenging, then repeat the process with another small change. While it’s not fast, it is successful!
This year, make your New Year’s resolutions with glee. With one small step at a time, next year can truly ring in the new!