Making a New Year’s Resolution? Don’t Go to War With Yourself.

“The difference between not doing anything at all and doing 10 minutes a few times a week is absolute.”

Photograph of the author Oliver Burkeman
Gerain​t Lewis / Eyevine / Redux

New Year’s resolutions are a time for reflection—a chance to think about the limited time we have on this Earth and how to use it wisely.

Oliver Burkeman is a writer who focuses on this nexus of mortality and productivity. He is the author of Four Thousand Weeks: Time Management for Mere Mortals (4,000 weeks is about the length of the average American’s life span). I caught up with him to discuss New Year’s–resolution making and breaking, and why you should consider not setting your resolutions until mid-January.

Our conversation has been condensed and edited for clarity.

Caroline Mimbs Nyce: Do you think New Year’s resolutions are worth making, considering we’re all going to die, as your book posits so bluntly?

Oliver Burkeman: [Laughs.] I don’t think the fact that we’re all going to die means that setting intentions for personal changes is automatically a bad thing. Confronting how short our lives are, and how limited our time is, is actually a sort of precondition for doing meaningful things, including making personal changes. It helps you get a lot of clarity about which kinds of resolutions are really worth using your precious time on and which are not.

I do think that in the culture of New Year’s resolutions, there’s a really heavy dose of perfectionism—a sense in which it’s all about starting completely afresh and being completely perfect in some area of life from this day forward. I don’t think fresh starts like that are actually possible, and I don’t think aiming to make them is the healthiest way to change.

Nyce: A lot of the most popular resolutions are around money and eating and losing weight. Do you think those are worth considering, given our finite amount of time on the planet?

Burkeman: I don’t think it’s a question of the subject matter. Anything could be the most important thing for a given person to focus on.

Nyce: Are you totally topic agnostic? Like, if your goal is to eat more cupcakes in 2023, go for it?

Burkeman: I suppose I’m not 100 percent topic agnostic. There are some activities where it’s pretty hard to suggest that they would be a part of anybody’s meaningful life. But I’m pretty topic agnostic. The crucial question we have to ask ourselves is why we’re doing things. It’s so obviously the case that more physical exercise can improve the quality of some people’s lives. But it’s also so obviously the case that there are people who are punishing themselves in some way or another through exercise.

I do think that probably one of the pitfalls of New Year’s–resolution culture is that it encourages us all to buy into the idea that you need to make some big change in order to be a minimally acceptable, worthwhile person. And that doesn’t leave any room for the thought that maybe you’re more okay than you thought. Maybe you don’t need to change in some particular way. Maybe reconciling yourself to certain ways that you are is a more powerful thing.

A psychotherapist called Bruce Tift has this really interesting thought experiment: Whatever it is that you dislike most about yourself—your short temper or your lack of self-discipline—just imagine if that thing was going to be with you in some form ’til the end of your life. What if you were never going to change the thing about you that you so desperately long to change? I think, for a lot of people, that’s quite a liberating thought. What possibilities might open up if you knew that you weren’t going to change that thing?

Nyce: I feel like so much of your book is about freeing yourself from the productivity trap—understanding that there are infinite choices you can make in a life, and not feeling guilt that you don’t answer every email and cross every item off your checklist. And yet, New Year’s resolutions are almost all about that.

Burkeman: I think, if you look into the deep motivations driving them, often, it’s like, 2023 is finally going to be the year that I transcend the human conditionthe year I overcome the temptation to eat junk food, with more self-discipline than any human ever could have. It’s like, “Well, it’s not going to be the year that you transcend the human condition.” Because nobody ever can.

Nyce: Talk to me a little bit about what resolutions might make sense if we were to stop treating our lives as though they are something to be tamed.

Burkeman: It’s helpful for resolutions to be resilient—ones that you’re going to be able to stick with even when life doesn’t run as perfectly as you planned. I like the idea that Dan Harris, the meditation writer and podcaster, talks about, which is resolving to do things “day-ish”—the notion that you can make your plan for change a lot more sustainable if it’s not so rigid that one missed day spells failure.

The other thing is just to remember that the difference between not doing anything at all and doing 10 minutes a few times a week is absolute. It’s the same idea as “the best kind of workout to do is the one you’re actually going to do.” If it happens to not be the ideal physical regimen according to science right now, that couldn’t matter less.

I don’t think there’s anything helpful about resolutions that put you at war with yourself. Often, it’s basically just a resolution to, like, shout even louder at yourself this year until you finally do the things that you think you ought to be doing. That kind of internal combat never works in the end, because you start to resent the person who’s yelling at you to do all these things—even if that person is yourself.

Nyce: Are there any anti-resolutions, let’s call them, that you would consider having people make?

Burkeman: There’s something appealing about the idea of just postponing New Year’s resolutions until the first week or two of January. Otherwise, you get past the incredibly symbolic January 1 date, and it’s like, Well, any hope I had of changing in 2023 is gone; I’ve already failed.

It’s also important not to let the idea of changing your personality get in the way of just actually doing things differently. Probably many people have done the kind of thing where they are like, I’m going to start being the kind of person who keeps in touch with old friends. Every week, I’m going to reach out to two friends who I haven’t talked to for ages. And it actually ends up being a disincentive to just getting in touch with one friend today. This notion of changing our habits can be an obstacle to just right now, today, once doing a thing. If you’re daunted by becoming a runner or becoming a meditator, just go for a run; just sit down and meditate.

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