Okay, it’s the start of a new year and many folks are making New Year’s resolutions. Indeed there are lots of folks offering tips on how to succeed. I have written over 10 articles myself on this topic.

And yet, even with all this help, many are disappointed by their inability to keep their resolutions. Goal Setting Foundations – Arc of Monroe (arcmonroe.org)

The goals, like getting in shape, losing weight, eating healthier, not smoking or drinking less, are good things to strive for.  The problem lies in the fact that making and sustaining significant change is complicated.

That said, it is still important to have self-improvement goals and not to give up. Today, I want us to look at the practice of making New Year’s resolutions historically.  By doing so,  we can gain both perspective on this ancient practice and some insight to help us achieve our goals.

1. The Historical Origins of New Year’s Resolutions.

Celebrating the beginning of the new year is an ancient practice dating back to the Babylonians. Then, the beginning of the new year was in March or April and marked the coming of Spring. A two-week celebration was held during which people tidied up loose ends by doing things like paying off debts so that they could start the new year with a clean slate. Resolved: To keep making New Year’s resolutions – CBS News

Then the focus of the holiday was largely religious and was seen as a way to appease the gods.  This practice was continued by the Romans. In 46 BC, Julius Caesar changed the calendar and the start of the new year changed to January 1st.

The name of the month honored Janus, the Roman god whose twin faces look back to the past and forward to the future. In addition to pleasing the gods, the Romans saw New Year’s as a time of personal reflection and self-improvement.

Over the years, New Year’s celebrations continued but have lost much of their religious significance.  With the advent of electricity, however, New Year’s revelry moved into the night. The coming of a new year changed in its significance as well.  Rather than being a time for reflection or self-improvement, New’s Years Eve became a time for celebration and revelry.

2. Important Difference between Ancient and Modern Resolutions.

It is important to understand that modern resolutions differ significantly from the ancient practice.  The crucial difference between New Year’s resolutions then and now has to do with the nature of the goals.  Modern resolutions tend to involve larger and more long-term aspirations. Life-long problems such as losing weight or reducing alcohol consumption have replaced the smaller objectives sought in earlier times,

Instead of fixing minor problems, New Year’s resolutions have come to mean striving to make permanent changes in an important area of one’s life.

3.  Applying Historical Lessons to Improve our Odds.

— The Problem:  Ironically, attempting to make too big a change all at once can be an obstacle to success. The lesson that we can learn from the ancients is to think smaller.  Research shows that grandiose goals, no matter how sincerely made, tend to fail.

For example, the weight-watching organization TOPS has been keeping statistics about weight loss efforts for over 100 years. Their research consistently reveals that only 5% of people who attempt to lose weight can keep 20 pounds off for 5 years. Sadly, not succeeding with resolutions can have the added negative effect of discouraging other attempts at self-improvement.

—  The Solution:  An alternative to having big long-term aspirations is to set smaller, shorter-range goals.  Major changes don’t happen all at once.  They are the result of a process which involves smaller steps.

Understanding that change occurs from accomplishing a series of steps rather than one large undertaking is a more realistic outlook that has a greater chance of success.  Aiming at an immediate more, doable step also provides the important motivational experience of succeeding.

For example, someone who wants to run a marathon might start by taking a daily walk and slowly build up. Doing smaller steps builds confidence and a sense of accomplishment, which are two items needed to attain one’s goal.

Put another way, To make changes it is important to be realistic with our expectations. Thinking incrementally and not biting off more than one can chew are important considerations for anyone serious about making a major change. BABY STEPS: An Effective Way to Approach Your New Year’s Resolutions. — | Pastoral Counseling Syracuse NY (revmichaelheath.com)


With these thoughts in mind, make this new year a time to look both back and forward.  Reflecting on the past year provides a helpful perspective that will enable you to grow in the new year and better enjoy your journey on life’s road.

Rev. Michael Heath, LMHC, Fellow AAPC             1/01/2024


*Attribution for artwork: CBS Sunday Morning 12 31 2024.