A fresh start in sight for January 2013

With the new year drawing closer, millions of people will be planning their resolutions for 2013. Are these goals an admirable shot at self improvement, or a waste of time?

The Christmas holidays are here: a time for parties, presents and indulgence. But amid the merriment, some people will already be anticipating the end of the festivities, and the fresh start of New Year’s Day, 2013.

When they roll out of bed on January 1st, at least a third of people – and a majority of under 45s – will make resolutions. Numerous studies show it is remarkably easy to predict what they might be: losing weight, eating healthily and exercising more are consistently the most popular, with promises to save money, quit smoking or cut down on alcohol following close behind.

While some cut down, others seek to widen their experiences: living life to the full is a reliable feature on the list of top resolutions. Finding a new job, spending more time with family and ‘getting out of a rut’ also prove popular.

Self-improvement has spawned a centuries-old industry. In 1859, Scottish social reformer Samuel Smiles published Self Help, advocating the motto ‘heaven helps those who help themselves’ as a mantra for good living. Today, thousands of books promise things like positive thinking, goal setting or organisation can turn readers’ lives around. The American self-help industry is worth $10 billion – and in January, sales peak.

But good intentions often fall by the wayside. Gyms often experience a surge of business in January, but for most of the year 60% of memberships go unused. The same applies to other resolutions. In one survey of 3,000 people, 52% started January confident that they would reach their goals. At the end of the year, just 12% had actually achieved what they desired.

What is going wrong? Many of those who failed set unachievable goals, and became overwhelmed with the challenge. Some fantasised about success, suppressed cravings or relied on willpower – techniques advocated by some of the most popular self-help gurus.

But if achieving resolutions is tough, how should we go about reaching our aims? The psychologists behind the survey recommend breaking resolutions into smaller goals, and making a plan about how to meet them. Sharing the challenge with friends, recording progress and focusing on success all helped, too.

Will power?

This January, millions of people will make ambitious resolutions. It is important, they believe, to work hard at self improvement. With effort and hard work, everyone can achieve their goals and become the person they want to be.

But some people take issue with that approach. Constantly striving toward an ambitious idea of how we should be is a recipe for dissatisfaction and unhappiness, they say. The good life is about accepting flaws and enjoying experiences: not labouring after pointless goals.

You Decide

  1. Are new years’ resolutions a waste of time?
  2. Do you think the drive toward self-improvement has a positive or negative effect on our overall wellbeing?


  1. Set three simple goals for the new year, and make a plan for how you can realistically meet your aims.
  2. Write a defence of self help books OR a polemic against them.

Some People Say...

“I never achieve my new year’s resolutions.”

What do you think?

Q & A

Okay, so how do I go about successfully meeting my goals?
It depends what works for you. An easy one to remember is the SMART rule for goal setting: resolutions should be specific, measurable, achievable, realistic and time-based.
Rather than making sweeping, grand plans for improving every part of your life, make small goals that you can quantify. Say you want to ‘live life to the full’. It’s difficult to know what that means, or what it might actually entail. Instead, pick something easy to achieve, like going to one new event each week. You won’t be intimidated by the huge project, can plan it easily and will be able to tell if you’ve achieved the goal or not.

Word Watch

The word ‘resolution’ derives from the Latin resolutionem – a word that means ‘breaking into parts’. The meaning has evolved to mean a goal that would be pursued with conviction and drive – but the secret to successful resolutions, it seems, could be hidden in the word itself.
Thousands of books
Some of the top self-help titles include The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, The Power of Now and Feel the Fear and Do it Anyway. Dale Carnegie, one of the gurus of Self Help, wrote the genre’s classic How to Win Friends and Influence People in 1936, and it continues to sell, promising to increase people’s popularity and skills of persuasion.
One survey
The survey of 3000 remains one of the most definitive studies of new year’s resolutions in the UK. In was conducted in 2007 by Richard Wiseman, a popular psychologist who started his career as a magician.


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