Note: I wrote this piece several years ago and have shared it with a few friends since then. I'm posting it here after the 1st of January, which of course temporarily decreases its relevance for readers, but I hope it will be of some interest nonetheless.
If you’re anything like me, you associate New Year’s with ambitious resolutions to do thinks like drink less, eat healthier, and exercise every day. And if you’re anything like me, the majority of these resolutions are soon abandoned, casualties of indolence, overwork, or forgetfulness. Yet many of us who are bad at sticking to resolutions keep making them, year after year. Why?
New Year’s affords us a valuable opportunity to reflect on our lives and commit to improving them. We could do this at any time, of course, but the new year imparts to our commitments a communal significance that makes them feel more substantial. We make resolutions because we want to utilize this opportunity. This is surely a worthy motive, but I’m convinced our method is mistaken. We shouldn’t make resolutions. Instead, we should make promises. We’re more likely to keep them.
To see why, note that there are important structural differences between the type of commitment involved in a resolution and the type involved in a promise, which make it more likely that promises will be kept. Commitments, in general, are made to someone. Resolutions are commitments made to oneself, but promises are commitments made to someone else. This difference has important consequences for how others can hold you accountable for your commitments.
If you make a commitment to yourself, no one else is entitled to demand of you that you keep it. This might not deter a busybody from doing so, but the point is that in making a resolution, you are really only accountable to yourself. On the other hand, if you make a promise to someone, you become accountable to them. They are entitled to demand of you that you keep your promise because you owe it to them to do so. The very fact that a promise, as opposed to a resolution, is not a wholly private affair may provide you with extra motivation to stick with it, but even if it doesn’t, the demands of a solicitous promisee probably will.
My contention here shouldn’t be overstated. The details of why any particular New Year’s commitment ends in failure will depend on the idiosyncrasies of both the person making the commitment and their situation, and promises are no panacea. But the interpersonal nature of promises affords them extra significance relative to self-directed resolutions, and it’s commonsensical to think that this extra significance is likely to be advantageous. Indeed, studies have shown that interpersonal support is a predictor of success in the long term.
To whom should you make your promise? A promise to a stranger is likely to be worse than a resolution. For your promise to be effective as a mechanism for change, it’s important that you select someone who cares about you and sees you often enough to monitor your progress. In my opinion, you should try to find someone who is willing to exchange New Year’s promises with you, because this introduces an element of reliance and camaraderie that can strengthen your resolve, just like having a gym buddy.
At their best, New Year’s resolutions are steps toward self-actualization that reflect the best life we can imagine for ourselves. But no matter how strong one’s resolve, resolutions involve a relatively cheap form of commitment and, as a result, have relatively tepid motivational power. One only risks letting oneself down. The ancient Romans rang in the new year, not with resolutions, but with solemn promises to Janus, the god of beginnings and endings. This year, if you’re serious about committing to change, you too should make a promise.
Here’s to endings and, Janus willing, new beginnings.
 Norcross, Vangarelli. “The Resolution Solution: Longitudinal Examination of New Year’s Change Attempts.” Journal of Substance Abuse, 1, 127-134 (1989).