Keeping New Year's Resolutions

And Why We Make New Year's Resolutions

January 3, 2020

New Year’s resolution traditions actually go back to ancient times. So, before you pooh-pooh the idea, let’s remind ourselves why this age-old tradition exists, how to best make a resolution, and how to keep one!

Short History of New Year’s Resolutions

The New Year’s resolution tradition is nothing new. The new year is a natural time to reflect and resolve to change or improve how we live our lives.

In 2000 B.C., the Babylonians celebrated the New Year for 11 days (starting with the vernal equinox). One common resolution was the returning of borrowed farm equipment (which makes sense for an agriculturally based society).

The Babylonian New Year was adopted by the Romans, as was the tradition of resolutions.

The timing, however, eventually shifted with the Julian calendar to the month of January, which was named for the two-faced Roman god, Janus, who looks forward for new beginnings as well as backward for reflection and resolution. 


Janus was also the guardian of gates and doors. He presided over the temple of peace, where the doors were opened only during wartime. It was a place of safety, where new beginnings and new resolutions could be forged.

If you think about the land and the seasons, the timing of early January makes sense for most of North America. The active harvest season has passed. The holiday frenzy is ending.

As our founder, Robert B. Thomas, said, this is a time “of leisure to farmers … settle accounts with your neighbors …  now having been industrious in the summer, you will have the felicity of retiring from the turbulence of the storm to the bosom of your family.”  

What Are “Resolutions”?

A “resolution” is a firm decision to do or not to do something. It’s often about finding a solution to a problem. If the word “resolution” simply makes you feel bad, based on past experiences, call it an “intention.” Or, how about a “small goal”?

Timing-wise, the start of a new year is as good a time as any to think of goals. But if you want to celebrate the new year at the start of of spring or, say, the Chinese New Year (why not?), mark your calendar.

Recognize that a New Year goal isn’t about magical, sweeping change. It’s simply a time to reflect on your behavior and recogize that lifestyle changes are important. However, change is made one small step at a time. More people succeed at New Year’s resolutions than you might think. A Marist poll of 1,074 adults found that 68 percent of them who’d made a resolution had kept it. 

10 Tips on Making a Resolution or Goal

  1. First, set aside time on your calendar to pause and reflect. Decide on a morning to make a cup of coffee or tea and sit down with a pad of paper.
  2. Keep it simple. Settle on one or two goals. Not a big list. For example, our founder Robert B. Thomas resolved to “begin the new year square with every man.” This meant that he settled his debts.
  3. Pick a goal to which you are truly committed. Not just something that you think you should do or based on what someone else (or society) is telling you to change, but what you want to do.
  4. Define a goal that is “specific.” “I want to lose weight” is too vague. “Five pounds in the next two months”—that’s going to be more effective.
  5. Define a goal that is “measurable.” Keep track of your progress. One example is “I want to stop biting my nails in 30 days.” Take a photo every day of your nails and log your progress. If your goal is to take your pills each day, get a 7-day pill box so that you can see that you are keeping to your intention.
  6. Define a goal that is achievable. Resolving to retire in 5 years may not be realistic, but saving an extra $100 a month may be (or make that the number that fits your budget).
  7. Define a goal that is relevant. Don’t make goals out of remorse. Those don’t last long. Love yourself and make a realistic goal that is good for you. 
  8. Define a goal that is time-bound. Plan for a month or so, not a lifetime.
  9. Start small. Then add to your goal. For the exercise example, schedule 3 or 4 days a week at the gym instead of 7.
  10. Create a short list of diversions that could come up. For example, If losing weight is a goal, plan on making a cup of herbal tea (or a pitcher!) every afternoon to get you through a midday slump. Many people get tired and have less control late in the day; if you get late-night munchies, be sure to buy something healthy to chew on, such as a handful of almonds.

Keeping Resolutions

If you can’t keep to your goal, reflect and reassess! Remember that unhealthy behaviors take years to develop. Was your goal too huge? Narrow the scope. Just make one small change at a time.

It’s perfectly normal for an approach to fail the first time. Making some minor missteps is OK. Don’t give up completely because you ate a brownie and broke your diet. Try a different approach. Perhaps you can substitute healthier options like fruit or yogurt for dessert so that you see a diet less as a punishment and more as a healthier way of life. This means stocking up the fridge!

Perhaps you need a tool to help reach your goals! For example: “I resolve to be on time to meetings this week. To help me achieve this goal, I plan to take a moment  to set an alarm on my phone with a 5-minute reminder before any meetings.”

Another Approach

Here’s another idea. If you’re not fond of resolutions, how about taking a piece of paper and listing a few regrets about the past year? To help focus on the future, write down your regrets on a scrap of paper and toss it into the fire! Janus, the two-faced symbol of the new year, would approve!

Whether we resolve to return borrowed farm equipment (as did the Babylonians) or drop a few pounds, we’re tapping into an ancient and powerful longing for a fresh start! We just have different ways of reflecting and resolving to do our best in life.

Read more about New Year’s Day traditions.

About This Blog

Your Old Farmer’s Almanac editors occasionally share our reflections, advice, and musings—and welcome your comments!