It’s that time of year again. For many of us the New Year is a time to make our annual resolutions.

For others it’s a time to briefly toy with the idea of making a resolution or two but never commit. And for others, depending on how badly the previous evening’s events transpired, the New Year’s Day hangover inspires at least one resolution – to never ever drink again. 

Unfortunately, the majority of people don’t stick to their resolutions. Only 4-10% of people report following through on the resolutions they set at the beginning of the year (I wonder whether this figure includes those people that sarcastically claim that they have only one New Year resolution – to not make any New Year’s resolutions?).  

The majority of resolutions fail because, well, we’re human beings. There are at least three factors behind this:   

1. We overestimate the power of ‘will power.’ Often linked to adjacent concepts like resilience and impulse inhibition, the long-standing belief in psychology is that will power is a finite resource and people have varying reservoirs of it to draw on. The belief was that by bolstering our will power we’re better able to attain our goals and, by implication, those that don’t achieve their goals lack willpower. Unfortunately, it’s more complicated than that. Our ability to maintain choices and attain goals is as much about situational context, genetics, and socio-economic standing as it is about individual psychological traits.

2. As a result, any significant behaviour change requires long standing practice, environmental changes and thoughtfully designed behavioural cues in order to create pathways of reinforcement in order to form new habits. In short, even the simplest resolutions require habitual practice.

3. Most resolutions are goal focussed – stop smoking, lose weight – and for that reason they take on an instrumental importance, meaning they focus exclusively on achieving an end state or outcome. With the high level of difficulty in achieving these outcomes resolutions can become self-defeating – the end becomes the goal rather than a focus on the motivating reason that inspired the goal 

That’s not to say that New Year’s resolutions are a bad thing. We are hard-wired to demarcate life into phases. Birthdays, seasons, events, and the change of year are all relatively arbitrary events but are full of symbolic significance. They are moments that matter because we invest these occasions with meaning.

New Year’s resolutions at their best can provide a much-needed pause in the busyness of life to reflect and reassess what’s important to us.

So, as you pause and reflect on the year ahead, consider taking a different path when thinking about setting resolutions. Rather than listing goals, think instead about the qualities you’d like to cultivate in the year ahead. What qualities for you express the best aspects of a life well lived? Which of those would you choose to have more of in your life?

Known as virtues – those behaviours, skills or mindsets that are worthy to be regarded as features of living a good life. Wisdom, justice, and courage were on Aristotle’s shortlist. 

Rather than setting goals like read more books or spend less time on my phone – think instead of the quality you are calling more of into your world – like being curious.  

There are no limits or targets to being curious, there’s simply a conscious reflection which may lead to some different choices or new experiences.

Curiosity might lead you to pick up a book rather than slump on the couch in front of Netflix or it may prompt you to choose an interesting documentary about a topic you always wanted to know more on. 

Being curious this year might also benefit your relationships. Being curious involves behaviours like asking more questions, seeking out different points of views and perspectives and being more open to opinions and beliefs that are different to the ones you hold. Practicing this virtue may lead to new and unexpected connections, making new friendships or forging even stronger relationships. It may even reduce conflict by helping you to be less triggered when confronted with views that are contrary to our own.  

Being curious may also help with your lifestyle and eating habits. Rather than resolving to lose weight, be curious about trying different foods which may inspire some different meal choices from those that you might already know. By being curious you may be intrigued to occasionally switch out some of your habitual choices by actively seeking out different or healthier alternatives.

However, there’s no guarantee that being curious might not also lead you to consume a wider variety of chocolate or spend even more time on your phone as you may seek out even more information and distractions. That’s the challenge with cultivating qualities or virtues; you’ll need practical wisdom, as Aristotle calls it. It’s about finding the best balance between the virtue and its corresponding vices.  

Rather than focus on resolutions as goals and outcomes – often with arbitrary measures of success like read more, rest more, learn another language – focus instead on the ‘why’ behind the quality you are wanting to cultivate. Research shows that being purposive and intentional helps people maintain their motivation and achieve the goals they set.  

As you reflect on the year ahead take some time to think about those qualities you could do with a little more of. In fact, why wait for the New Year? I’m going to start today by practicing more gratitude. There’s no time like the present.