Year after year, it’s the same story: New Year’s resolution trends seem to revolve around fitness, weight loss, or other attempts at “healthy living.” The only difference I’ve noticed in recent years is a newfound focus on the month of January specifically — you hear less about long-term goals for the full year and more about an extreme lifestyle change intended to last one month and one month alone.
From Dry January to Whole30, I have fallen for this newer take on resolutions many times. Maybe it feels more doable to commit to a month of change rather than a full year. Or maybe everyone became convinced that it really does only take 21 days to form a habit (a highly disproven myth), so if they can commit to that time frame, the rest will come easily.
According to Dr. Gail Saltz, a clinical associate professor of psychiatry at the New York Presbyterian Hospital, Weill-Cornell Medical College, setting extreme goals always has a lower probability of working, and aiming for instant results likely offers the lowest probability of success.
“People’s mental health, level of stress, exhaustion, burnout, ability to mount willpower, etc., is very different from person to person at any time,” she said. “The idea that you’re going to do something no matter how you’re feeling, just pick something big and do it, is not very rational, probably any year but particularly when people are more emotionally taxed.”
January is actually one of the hardest times to motivate myself to do much of anything at all. It’s the dead of winter in New York. Darkness descends before 5 p.m. It’s mostly cold and gray and all I want is to be cozy on my couch with some warm, comforting food. If a brighter, warmer time of year is when I get excited about being active and eating big bowls of crisp greens, why should I set that expectation for the first of the year?
All of this is why my girl Tinx has developed a different approach: Take the month of January off. An influencer known for being TikTok’s “big sister,” Tinx describes an approach to January that I believe to be healthier and more attainable. She follows her own tried-and-true guidelines for what makes her feel good. Her advice doesn’t involve anything specific aside from doing what you can to relax and rejuvenate, because that will be different for everyone.
John C. Norcross, a clinical professor of psychology at the University of Scranton, agrees that “giving myself a break” is too rarely a resolution. He shared a summary of his research on New Year’s resolutions with BuzzFeed News, and while it is more focused on how to make resolutions you can keep, it includes a suggestion that people resolve to lower their unrealistically high standards or critical expectations.
As fun as the holiday season can be, for many it’s also a mentally and physically depleting time. You’re traveling. You’re stressed about buying gifts. You’re worried about the cost of traveling and gift-giving. Your family situation may provoke anxiety. You’re not getting enough sleep due to excessive holiday parties or hosting guests. You might eat all the holiday cookies and drink all the eggnog — but you don't always feel your best in the aftermath.
It’s normal to indulge a little more than usual or feel overly extended in November and December. But it’s also OK to take a little hiatus as you enter the new year rather than challenge yourself in ways that will deplete you further — a notion that feels like a weight is collectively lifted off the shoulders of drained people everywhere.
For Tinx, January is her month to prioritize herself and regain the energy she needs for the rest of the year. She doesn’t overcommit when it comes to work or social engagements — basically, she only does what she actually wants to do. She also abstains from alcohol; however, she cuts out booze because she genuinely enjoys the break. It’s not hard for her, because she’s not trying to do anything that’s overly difficult in her month of rest. Priorities include getting lots of sleep, avoiding stress as much as possible, and generally giving her body a break.
Your self-care might involve cutting back on the sweets or the alcohol. It also might be removing the pressure to eat clean or be fully dry for a whole month and instead just find a happier balance. I don’t drink much, but I definitely want to cook more (for gastrointestinal and financial purposes) and limit some foods that haven’t been making me feel good lately (legumes, I’m looking at you). I already exercise regularly for my mental and physical health, but since I’ll be traveling from Christmas through New Year’s, I’m excited to get back into my fitness routine.
Of course, nobody is saying that self-improvement isn’t worthwhile. We all have things that we could work on. It’s just psychologically more effective to aim for slow, sustainable, attainable growth rather than quick fixes whose results either disappoint or don’t last.
“Willpower is finite. Just like using a muscle, it fatigues,” Saltz said. “Picking something really challenging that requires vigilance and willpower and you're already basically pooped? Then you're just asking to feel like you failed in the new year, which is not really great for anybody’s mental health.”
Saltz acknowledged that January is culturally associated with a new start, which can spur a desire to review the year past and consider what you’d like to amend in the year to come. Using it as an opportunity to evaluate and aspire is not inherently a bad thing, even if you feel stressed — it’s just a matter of setting yourself up for success as opposed to failure.
I’ve learned from all of the fad diets and juice cleanses and fitness challenges that temporary extremes don’t tend to change who you are as a person. They’re not likely to permanently erase your cravings or temptation or magically transform you into a brand-new version of yourself. The biggest goal I’m continuously working toward is accepting who I am and what I look like, perceived weaknesses and all, instead of constantly pushing myself to change.
“In terms of taking January off, if you’re super burned out and super stressed, maybe your goal is to take some things off your plate in January,” Saltz suggested. “There’s no rule of what a ‘resolution’ has to be.” ●