The Stoic's Guide to New Year's Resolutions

What is your New Year’s  resolution? For some of us, it’s to be more productive. For others, it’s to lose weight or simply be healthier. For you, it might be to spend some more time with friends and family, or finally write that book that you’ve been putting off for the past year. When the clock strikes midnight on January 1st, most of us already have a list of goals we wish to achieve, things we hope to be better at and habits we desperately want to let go of, all within the next 365 days. 

There is a newfound sense of hope when we flip that last calendar page. In reality, it’s just another day, but to most of us it feels like a fresh start, a new beginning. And so we stack up all the things we want to change about ourselves and all the goals we hope to accomplish. Yet year after year, most of us fail to achieve all, if any, of these goals. 

There is a staggering lack of follow-through with New Year’s resolutions. Most of us find it very difficult to stick to them. We start with a bundle of energy and motivation, but all that fades as the year goes on. Gyms that are packed in January are back to normal capacity by March, healthy eating habits stop as soon as a stressful life event occurs and saving habits fade away once an emergency that requires financial attention happens. 

To add insult to injury, not only do we end up not achieving what we set out to do, but that failure makes us feel even less motivated to make the next goal, to pursue the next dream. It leads us down a path that slowly convinces us that these goals aren’t even worth setting in the first place. It’s no wonder that the older you get, the less likely you are to create New Year’s resolutions. The screams, loud bang of fireworks and light shows in the sky as the clock strikes midnight, get less exciting with every passing year.

When you think about it like that, the situation seems quite grim. But it doesn’t have to be this way. The truth is one of the biggest reasons most people fall short of their resolutions is they do not have the willpower and mental fortitude to push through the difficult situations. But by learning from the Stoics, we can better understand not just how to follow through on our set agenda for the year, but how to create proper goals right off the bat. Because while it’s true that barely 10% of people stick to their New Year’s resolutions, nothing says that you can’t be one of those people. 

Understanding New Year’s resolution from the Stoic’s point of view begins, like all things Stoicism, with the question of control. What is in our control? People often like to pin down very ambitious and, quite frankly, unrealistic goals at the start of a year. A lot of times we end up with goals that are beyond our control, which sets us up for failure before we’ve even got the chance to try. Let’s say your goal for the year is to lose weight. The first step in the Stoic handbook would be to figure out and acknowledge what is not in our control. 

Eating healthy, exercising regularly are within our control. But other things, like how “ripped” we look, for example, are largely determined by how fat is distributed across our body, which in turn is determined largely by genetics. So if our goal is to look a certain way, instead of simply to lead a healthier lifestyle, we are setting ourselves up for failure. There are other, more apparent truths people tend to ignore when drafting their resolutions.  Things  like the fact that our willpower is finite. When people decide to become more productive or fight off an addiction, they fail to recognize that the machinery that allows us to fight our urges is not infinite. 

Every time we fend off our craving for some unhealthy food, for example, it becomes that much harder to maintain that discipline later in the day. That’s one of the main reasons people that start out strong with their resolutions don’t end up following them  through to the end. At the beginning of the year, our willpower is refreshed. We’re riding on the high of starting from the beginning. But as days turn into weeks and weeks into months, that willpower is drained ever so slowly, such that the motivation that we started the year with just can’t carry us any further. 

Stoicism preaches that we should be aware of these mental and physical limitations. Pretending that we will be able to strongarm our desires is naïve. A better method of sticking to our goals then would be to minimize situations where we have to use willpower. Humans are naturally wired to take the path of least resistance. So let that path be the one you want for the year. If you want to lead a healthier life, start by giving out all the junk food you have in the house and replacing it  with healthier options. That way, when you’re hungry for a snack, it’ll be easier to grab an apple from the fridge than drive to the store to get chips. This is a much better approach than trying to make it from one cheat meal to the next. 

If you want to work out more, pay for a membership to the gym that’s closest to where you live. Yes, it might not be the fanciest or have the best trainers, but the easier it is for you to get there, the more likely you are to keep working out consistently throughout the year. For those who have the willpower to push through, we’re usually stopped by external forces. Like having a blown AC just as the heatwave of summer rolls around, or a bad breakup that forces us to binge-eat as we cry ourselves to sleep every night. 

The reasons these things stop us from pursuing our goals aren’t because they’re inherently bad, but more so  because they’re unexpected. It’s just like rain. When we’re out without an umbrella and it starts to rain, we feel bad but we don’t cry and stop everything we were doing. Because while getting drenched is a bad thing, we’ve learned to accept the possibility of rain and in turn how to deal with its consequences. We go home, dry our clothes, make a hot cup of cocoa and get on with our day. 

We need to learn to do the same in every aspect of our lives. We need to realize that bad things will happen. That’s  just life. We can either treat these bad occurrences like a tsunami destined to destroy everything we’ve built, or we can treat them like rain, just a tiny temporal inconvenience. According to the Stoics, that’s the difference between experiencing a setback and suffering from it. Setbacks are a part of life. They’re normal, routine, and we should expect them. But we must learn to not get beaten by these setbacks. 

Instead, philosophy professor William B Irvine says it might be helpful to think of setbacks as a form of flattery from the Stoic  gods, a chance to prove to yourself that you are more than that adversary. This removes the knee-jerk reaction of "why me?" and instead allows you to focus more on what needs to be done to scale the hurdle and continue your journey toward  your vision. 

Most of us think of the year as a sprint rather than the marathon that it is. Which is why once we experience any setback, we often throw everything out and say that one dreaded sentence. “I’ll just start again next year.” By switching our minds from a sprint to a marathon, we can focus on the process, without worrying too much about the end goal. Instead of saying you want to do 20 pull-ups by the end of the year and beating yourself up when you haven’t reached that goal in March, it’s better to instead give yourself the goal of trying to do one more pull-up. 

As simple as it sounds, this allows you to focus more on the process of doing a pull-up and getting better each time, without worrying too much about some arbitrary end goal. The reason we often wait until the New Year to set goals is because of something called the fresh start effect. Characterized by its name, we are more likely to set new targets for ourselves when we feel like we’re having a fresh start. It’s why you’re more likely to decide to make a life change on Monday or just after a holiday. 

But the truth is that no particular date on the calendar is more special than another. Monday is not better than Wednesday, and January 1st is no better than March 13th. The only thing special about these days and dates is the idea of worth that we’ve placed on them. And while it’s good to take full advantage of this fresh start effect, it’s counterproductive to tie ourselves so strongly to them that we don’t make the changes we need to until we get a “fresh start”.  

So if you’ve already fallen short of your goals, you don’t have to wait for next year to start again. Because today is as good as any to start again. Happy New Year.