If you’ve made a New Year’s resolution, your plot for self-improvement probably kicks into gear some time on January 1, when the hangover wears off and the quest for the “new you” begins in earnest.
But if research on habit change is any indication, only about half of New Year’s resolutions are likely to make it out of January, much less last a lifetime. As experts in positive psychology and literature, we recommend an unconventional but more promising approach.
We call it the “old year’s resolution.”
It combines insights from psychologists and America’s first self-improvement guru, Benjamin Franklin, who pioneered a habit-change model that was way ahead of its time. With the “old year” approach, perhaps you can sidestep the inevitable challenges that come with traditional New Year’s resolutions and achieve lasting, positive changes.
A gardener weeding one bed at a time
Long before he became one of America’s greatest success stories, Franklin devised a method that helped him overcome life’s inevitable failures—and could help you master your old year’s resolutions.
When he was still a young man, Franklin came up with what he called his “bold and arduous project of arriving at moral perfection.” With charming confidence, he set out to master 13 virtues, including temperance, frugality, chastity, industry, order and humility.
In a typically Franklinian move, he applied a little strategy to his efforts, concentrating on one virtue at a time. He likened this approach to that of a gardener who “does not attempt to eradicate all the bad herbs at once, which would exceed his reach and his strength, but works on one of the beds at a time.”
In his autobiography, where he described this project in detail, Franklin did not say that he tied his project to a new year. He also did not give up when he slipped once—or more than once.
“I was surpris’d to find myself so much fuller of faults than I had imagined; but I had the satisfaction of seeing them diminish,” Franklin wrote. Open page of old book.
He made his progress visible in a book, where he recorded his slip-ups. One page—perhaps only a hypothetical example—shows 16 of them tied to “temperance” in a single week. (Instead of marking faults, we recommend recording successes in line with the work of habit expert B.J. Fogg, whose research suggests that celebrating victories helps to drive habit change.)
Repeated failures might discourage someone enough to abandon the endeavor altogether. But Franklin kept at it—for years. To Franklin, it was all about perspective: This effort to make himself better was a “project,” and projects take time.
‘A better and a happier man’
Many years later, Franklin admitted that he never was perfect, despite his best efforts. His final assessment, however, is worth remembering:
“But, on the whole, tho’ I never arrived at the perfection I had been so ambitious of obtaining, but fell far short of it, yet I was, by the endeavour, a better and a happier man than I otherwise should have been if I had not attempted it.”
Treating self-improvement as a project with no rigid time frame worked for Franklin. In fact, his scheme probably helped him succeed wildly in business, science and politics. Importantly, he also found immense personal satisfaction in the endeavor: “This little artifice, with the blessing of God,” he wrote, was the key to “the constant felicity of his life, down to his 79th year, in which this is written.”
You can enjoy the same success Franklin did if you start on your own schedule—now, during the old year—and treat self-improvement not as a goal with a starting date but as an ongoing “project.”
It might also help to remember Franklin’s note to himself on a virtue he called, coincidentally, “Resolution”: “Resolve to perform what you ought; perform without fail what you resolve.” The Conversation
Image credits: Wout Vanacker on Unsplash