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Sparklers on New Years Eve

Broken resolutions and how to fix them

This is the year. The one where you finally stick to those goals you set as the clock ticked past 12 on New Year’s Eve. This is the new chapter for the new you. The one where you start studying, learn about the stock market, finally get fit and eat healthy, the year that you finally stop buying those things that you don’t need.

Sounds good? You’ve set your goals and are now on your way to becoming a better you. Happier, healthier, more accomplished. Or, are you like the number of Australians who have already given up? Why is this such a common occurrence? It turns out that the desire we have to make ourselves happier comes from a surprising source.

Dr Patrick Stokes, Senior Lecturer in Philosophy at Deakin University, argues that New Year’s resolutions are our way of making sense of our past. ‘You could say New Year’s resolutions are really about narrative control. They’re about trying to turn your life from a bunch of stuff that more or less just happens, into a structured and coherent whole, a story in which you’re both the hero and the narrator.’

‘The problem is, the moment you make a resolution you’re confronted by the fact that you’re free to break it. The very freedom that makes the idea of resolutions even possible is also what thwarts them.’ Dr Stokes said.

So how do we stop breaking them? How do we succeed with those goals that will obviously take us closer to our own ideal self? Dr Stokes argues that the solution is smaller than we think.

‘If you break large goals into little chunks, you get to have a little moment of victory when you’ve achieved each smaller goal,’ Dr Stokes says.

People generally have long-term goals. While this is good, by breaking a goal into smaller steps, you’ll get the added benefit of gratification along the way. ‘If your goal is just to get fit for example, break that down into little milestones – I’ll be doing ten laps by February, twenty laps by April, – rather than just comparing yourself to an end-goal.’ Dr Stokes says.

'They’re about trying to turn your life from a bunch of stuff that more or less just happens, into a structured and coherent whole, a story in which you’re both the hero and the narrator.'

Dr Patrick Stokes,
School of Humanities and Social Sciences, Deakin University

According to Dr Stokes, this approach to your long-term goals has another added benefit; ‘It also helps if you can tell a story about how you might get from one place to another.’

Being able to track your journey is a big factor in achieving the long-term goals that you set yourself. ‘This kind of storytelling and focus on intermediate stages might help to make the whole thing more manageable and a little more comprehensible rather than simply trying to identify with some distant future state.’ Dr Stokes says.

Dr Stokes claims that this smaller milestone approach, gives you the best chance at succeeding with your long-term goals because the change is gradual. ‘Smaller changes make a bit more sense as they have some purchase on you as you are now rather than being this radically different envisioned state. In terms of identifying with your future self, it’s probably easier if that future self is not too different from the self you are now,’ Dr Stokes says.

So, if you’ve already given up on your goals for this year, try again but set smaller milestones along the way and remember that it doesn’t have to be New Year’s Eve for you to set a goal. If that still fails, don’t be too disheartened because according to Dr Stokes ‘even if you’ve ended up breaking them all by February, resolutions at least help to give you an idea of what you care about and what you see as being within your power and responsibility.’

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Dr Patrick Stokes
Dr Patrick Stokes

Senior Lecturer in Philosophy, School of Humanities and Social Sciences, Deakin University
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