/ 4 January 2024

How to not suck at New Year’s resolutions

Fireworks seen over the Olympic Park during the rehearsal of the opening ceremony at the Adler district of Sochi.

“It is easier to prevent bad habits than to break them.” – Benjamin Franklin

I’m not going to tell you not to make a New Year’s resolution, because by the time you’re reading this, it’s already too late. Half the world’s gone and done it again, and if you’re one of us, your chances of keeping your resolutions to the end of 2024 are less than one in ten. Playing the Lotto is a better bet. OK, sure, you’ve only got a 4% chance of winning a Powerball prize. But the average payoff is millions of times greater.

It’s not just about how often we fail, but how quickly. A quarter of us give up by the end of the first week of January! Eight out of 10 are out by Valentine’s Day. Our promises are more like quantum molecules than monuments, disappearing the moment we take our attention away.

The good news is that creating promises that don’t get fulfilled is still a form of creating. 

And “fail fast, fail often” is a core principle of successful innovation. I’ll examine a few ways in which creativity and innovation mindset can help you keep your resolutions this time around — or at least extend them a few days.

Conventional wisdom offers a few key reasons for how pathetic we are with resolutions: 

• Cultural conformity may have you take on promises you aren’t committed to, so you lack a deep-rooted, desperate desire to transform.

• The arbitrary start date of January 1 may be premature even if you are almost ready — you haven’t reached your personal rock bottom that has you go, “Enough!”

• January 1 is smack in the middle of “time off” — making a shift that requires work and focus tiresome and distracting.

• Announcing resolutions publicly creates a pressure to fulfill them that might not be there at other times of year.

• Since everyone and their sister is making resolutions, accountability support structures are thinned out.

• Historical failure means you don’t believe your own promise — much less can you convince others to bother helping.

These explanations sound good. But most of them arguably have it backward. For instance, what better time to gear up for changing our worst habits than when we don’t have to be at work? And there is no clear evidence that resolutions made at other times of year are more successful. We actually just suck at change.

And that’s why the true source of the problem with our promises is our general difficulty with creative thinking. You may have read before in this column that 98% of adults have lost access to the creative genius we had as children, and that I attribute this loss primarily to the formation of the identity we cling to for dear life.

Habit is a mechanism that maximises our efficiency by helping us operate without needing to think. Habit also helps us elude our greatest fear — fear of the unknown. Habit — and this is the point — keeps us on track with who we are by making change difficult intentionally.

Estimates on how long we need to practise a new habit before it automates and rewires our brains range from the most common rehab notion of twenty-one days to more than nine months. Whatever the true length, innovating the self requires perseverance.

We take a step toward improving our resolution success when we realise that forming a new habit is easier than getting rid of an old one. Learning is easier than unlearning. “Approach” goals are more successful than “avoidance” goals. “I will get more fit” works more often than “I will stop smoking.” 

This makes sense for the compulsive creators we humans are. The fact that we’re not as good at being creative as we ought to be doesn’t mean we don’t still love to give it a shot. It is easier to add to ourselves than to reduce. Reduction feels destructive, even when it’s to our benefit. 

Reframing negative resolutions as positive is a solid creative step toward fulfilling them more often. Instead of saying, “I will stop using my credit cards,” try, “I will buy what I want and need without going into debt.” 

Positive reframing also makes it harder to fail completely, because “avoidance” is negated the moment you pick up, whereas “approach” allows us to practise incremental improvement.

Change is inherently creative: envisioning new possibilities then bringing them into reality. The principles of creative problem solving, thus, can help us improve our success in our promises.

The first step in creative problem solving is to clarify. Most of the time when we set out to solve a problem, we don’t even have the question right. We want to take apart the bridge with the truck stuck under it when we could just deflate the truck’s tires.

Try restating your resolution as a specific question instead of a general problem and you will see it may be more complex than you realised. That complexity might be what is getting in your way. 

For example, the debt problem above has many possible elements: 

• “How might I generate more money this year?” 

• “How might I cut down on what I need to buy?”

• “What other existing funds/savings might I access besides using credit?”

It might seem elegant to combine these questions as we do. But for most people, dealing with all  three at the same time is too much. All three are independent projects requiring separate brainstorming processes.

Ah, brainstorming! Something else we mostly leave out of our resolutions. Any of the questions above may have dozens of possible answers. When we attack a creative problem we tend to grab firm hold of the first solution and run with it. When that doesn’t work, we want to give up.

List fifty ways you can eat healthier or start being a non-smoker. Invite a few people from a variety of backgrounds to join you in speculating. Do not reject any ideas until you’ve completed the list, and seek to include wild and wacky concepts, the more absurd the better.

Only once you have a long list of possible techniques to solve the right problem, select just a few to implement in making the shift.

Then, make a plan. Not just how to achieve the goal, but how to make sure you take the interim steps. And then write the plan down. Writing a plan makes it ten times more likely to succeed. Even if your goal is as simple as becoming a non-smoker, you’ll need to put in place various practices to support this. 

Another creative technique to support your success is visualisation. Visualising the process (not the result) makes it easier to follow through. Some writers such as Dr Joe Dispenza claim that imagining can do most of the work without even taking the actions. Regular visualisation increases confidence, motivation, and resilience, and helps your brain recognise support resources it might have overlooked. 

The main thing is just not to give up so easily if you fall short. With all creative processes, perseverance is everything. The word resolution, linguistically, just means “solving again and again.” No one ever innovated easily. The effort to change is always an experiment. 

I’ve shared the story here before about Edison and his 10 000 experiments to create a working lightbulb. Perhaps success in an important resolution demands repeated failure first. Surely your promise to yourself to manage your finances better or improve your health is worth a few iterations. So focus on one change at a time and you might just make it.

Michael Lee is a creativity expert, an advisory board member of World Creativity and Innovation Week/Day, and Radio 702 creativity contributor.