At war with your vices
On gym memberships, the on-ramps to self-improvement, and making New Year's resolutions stick
Benjamin Franklin, a person of legendary self-regard, offered sterling advice in his 1755 edition of Poor Richard's Almanack: "Be at War with your Vices, at Peace with your Neighbours, and let every New-Year find you a better Man." Franklin's advice isn't why people form New Year's Resolutions today (it's a practice that predated Franklin by thousands of years), but his words have undoubtedly contributed to cementing the practice in the general American vernacular.
■ The problem with New Year's resolutions isn't the quest for self-improvement, but rather their widely-cited rate of failure. "Happy Planet Fitness Day for all those who celebrate", teased one Anthony DeRosa on Twitter as his clock struck midnight to welcome the new year. Gym memberships spike in January, but decay has usually wiped out the gains by April.
■ Gym membership isn't the only marker, of course; about 40% of Americans make New Year's resolutions, and they're not all about pumping iron. Quitting bad habits, managing money better, and eating more wisely are all popular choices.
■ The problem with turning a single event each year into the moment to turn over a new leaf is that the high rate of failure only discourages people from undertaking self-improvement in ways that will work. There's clearly some survivorship bias at play in the figures that say two-thirds of people will keep their resolutions all year; the people who don't keep this year's resolutions will be less likely than the successful ones to make new resolutions next year.
■ Franklin himself built a whole system for keeping his own resolutions under the lofty title of a "plan for attaining moral perfection". It was his tacit acknowledgment that resolving to do something once is incomplete without deliberate follow-up. If we really value self-improvement (which we should), then resolutions ought to burrow their way deeper into the culture.
■ The idea of the New Year's resolution gets perpetuated because it's easy to remember when to make it, and it gives us something common to talk about. But more effective than one ambitious list of resolutions to uphold starting January 1st would be six discrete resolutions, taken up one at a time, every two months. In other words, a single New Year's resolution, then another on March 1st, on May Day, on July 1st, on September 1st, and on November 1st.
■ Resolutions are often about habits, and no magic rule exists for how long it takes to form a habit. But some research suggests that the median length of time to make a behavior into a habit is 66 days, or just a smidge longer than two months. Thus it would probably make us better if the people who talk about New Year's resolutions around January 1st (news reporters, radio and podcast hosts, self-help advisors, and others) were to revive the question two months later and ask, "What's your March 1st resolution?", then again every two months after that.
■ Higher-frequency, lower-stakes resolutions would be great cultural achievements, if we could make them as routine as the nature of changing sports seasons. The philosopher Maimonides wrote, "[H]e should attend to the defective moral habit in himself and continually seek to cure it, for a man inevitably has defects." The wisdom is in the word "continually". But it is often easier to undertake something new if others are trying, too. The lesson to take away from Franklin and Maimonides alike is that people need more on-ramps for that trying.