There are two truths to New Year’s resolutions: Many people make them, and many people break them. Research suggests that nearly one in four Americans make resolutions, but in general, those resolutions don’t stick. Studies show that as the days tick by in January and February, visits to the gym drop and visits to fast-food restaurants rise.
January 1 inspires so much attention and encouragement–New year, new you! But before long, the energy we feel around the novelty of a new habit wears off. New year, same you.
I’ve been studying happiness and good habits for years, and in my observation, many people have abandoned their New Year’s resolutions by February 28–a day we could call “Discouragement Day,” though I’ve seen harsher terms such as “Quitter’s Day” or “Fall Off the Wagon Day” used to describe the day of stopping.
Consider the person who resolved to go for a daily run before breakfast. On January 1, and for a few weeks, this habit seemed new and rewarding. Maybe the runner started with a 31-days-of-running challenge and ran every day of January, no problem. It takes 21 days to form a habit, right? (Wrong. That’s a myth.) After several weeks, the habit got harder, more days got skipped, and before long, the running stopped. So by Discouragement Day, many people have abandoned their New Year’s resolutions. And because they’ve failed, they feel demoralized and guilty.
Here’s my proposal: Instead of Discouragement Day, let’s re-frame February 28 as Determination Day–a date that reminds us to reflect, review, and do the hard work of asking ourselves, “If something isn’t working, why not?” If we’re determined to keep our resolutions, we shouldn’t fear failure. We should stop, observe it, and learn from it, so we can keep going.
We’re all constantly bombarded with expert advice on how to accomplish our goals and be our “best selves”: Do it first thing in the morning! Cut out sugar! Give yourself a cheat day! Start small! Go all in! Put it on the calendar!
But here’s the thing: each approach works well. For some people.
A scientist testing a hypothesis, a chef introducing a new dish, or a marketer paying for digital ads knows that testing is essential. What works, what doesn’t? No judgment. Just inquiry. For this reason, we can succeed by failing with our resolutions–if we exploit that failure to reveal important truths. The runner stopped running, but why? On February 28, we can consider that question, and stay determined to try again.
Maybe that morning exercise felt hard because the runner is a night person who can barely get up in time for work–so on March 1, she tries running in the afternoon. Maybe the runner needed outer accountability, so he starts running with a neighbor. Maybe the runner hates cold weather, so she switches to an indoor cardio routine.
Also, there’s often a gap between what we can do for the short term and what we can do for the long term. Many people start a New Year’s resolution with unrealistic expectations. “I’ll run every single day, no breaks unless I’m sick or injured!” While it’s possible, and even exhilarating, to keep up that intensity for the short term, it may be unrealistic in the long term. But after such a strong start, adjusting that resolution may feel like compromise or failure, so we give up rather than cut back.
However, if we embrace February 28 with as much fervor as January 1, as the day for evaluation and experimentation, we can view our struggle as a predictable, helpful step in the process of habit change. What’s working, what isn’t working? What approach might work better?
Different tools suit different people. If one approach doesn’t work for you, that doesn’t mean there’s something wrong with you. You don’t need to change– it’s Determination Day. Change your surroundings and your situation; experiment until you find the way that works for you.
Determination Day is also an opportunity to reflect on the value of a new habit. It’s easy to focus on the effort required by a new habit, but to keep ourselves energized, it’s useful to think of the habit’s rewards. Regular exercise boosts that runner’s energy throughout the day, improves nighttime sleep, and makes it easier to sit through endless video calls. After all, we make a resolution not for the sake of making some resolution, but because we’ve identified a way to make our lives happier, healthier, more productive, or more creative. By reminding ourselves of the benefits we’ve gained, we help ourselves stay the course.
And even for the people who are still keeping a resolution by February 28, Determination Day is useful. Usually, we celebrate Day 1 of a resolution, and we celebrate finish lines. Thirty days of yoga. Dry January. National Novel Writing Month. Whole30. But for most important habits, there is no finish line. Thirty days of running is a satisfying milestone, but it’s just one of many milestones in a lifetime of exercise.
February 28 can be a reminder to register a gratifying milestone. It’s Day 59– congratulations, keep going. Every year, New Year’s Day of January 1 is the subject of great fanfare and hope, but it over-promises and under-delivers. By shining a similar spotlight on Determination Day of February 28, we can give ourselves the self-insight and energy that we need to keep going.