12/22/2015 03:20 EST | Updated 12/22/2016 05:12 EST

New Year's Resolutions: Why We Do What We Do

Making New Year's resolutions originated with the Babylonians, who reportedly made promises to the Gods in hopes they'd earn good favour in the coming year. If health is number one on people's resolution list every year, I was curious what other resolutions people continue to commit to.

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January calendar showing Fresh Start on New Year's Day. Calendar made by photographer.

The morning radio show host was talking with a financial specialist, asking for any tips she believed people should focus their 2016 resolutions on. The financial analyst was advising more people to get serious about their financial affairs, as Canadian household debt climbed to a record relative to disposable income in the second quarter of 2015.

Maybe not too surprisingly though, she stated that the number one resolution centers on people's weight and their health, not their current financial situation. Listening to this conversation I was curious about New Year's and resolutions in general. Where did it all begin?

Celebrating New Years is an Ancient Tradition

When did ringing in the New Year become a tradition? It turns out, it isn't just a modern-day celebration. The earliest recorded festivities honoring the arrival of a new year dates back 4,000 years to ancient Babylon. For the Babylonians, the first new moon following the vernal equinox -- the day in late March with an equal amount of sunlight and darkness -- heralded the start of a new year.

Throughout antiquity, civilizations around the world developed increasingly sophisticated calendars, typically pinning the first day of the year to an agricultural or astronomical event. In ancient Egypt the year began with the annual flooding of the Nile, which coincided with the rising of the star Sirius. The first day of the Chinese new year, occurred with the second new moon after the winter solstice.

By 46 B.C., Roman emperor Julius Caesar had moved the first day of the year to January 1st in honor of the Roman God of beginnings, Janus. The idea took some time to catch on. Then in 1582, Pope Gregory XIII brought the January 1 New Year back in vogue with the Gregorian calendar which continues on today.

The Origins of New Year's Resolutions

Making New Year's resolutions originated with the Babylonians, who reportedly made promises to the Gods in hopes they'd earn good favour in the coming year. They often resolved to get out of debt. That got me thinking about the radio conversation with the financial analyst again.

If health is number one on people's resolution list every year, I was curious what other resolutions people continue to commit to.

Top 10 New Year's Resolutions

The top New Year's resolutions for 2015.

  • Stay fit and healthy ~ 37%
  • Lose weight ~ 32%
  • Enjoy life to the fullest ~ 28%
  • Spend less, save more ~ 25%
  • Spend more time with family and friends ~ 19%
  • Get organized ~ 18%
  • Will not make any resolutions ~ 16%
  • Learn something new/new hobby ~ 14%
  • Travel more ~ 14%
  • Read more ~ 12%

Now I was interested to see the stats on how many people make resolutions and their success at keeping them.

  • Americans who usually make New Year's Resolutions ~ 45%
  • Americans who infrequently make New Year's Resolutions ~ 17%
  • Americans who absolutely never make New Year's Resolutions ~ 38%
  • Percent of people who are successful in achieving their resolution ~ 8%
  • Percent who have infrequent success ~ 49%
  • Percent who never succeed and fail on their resolution each year ~ 24%

So if such a large majority of the population makes resolutions, why do so few succeed?

The Costs of Failed Resolutions

In the book Change Anything: The New Science of Personal Success by Kerry Patterson, Joseph Grenny, David Maxfield, Ron McMillan, and Al Switzler, the authors polled 1,800 people to see what they could be learn about making and keeping resolutions. They found that half of all those who make resolutions give up on their goals by the end of January. Maybe not too surprising to hear. And three out of the four people who do make it to February give up by the end of March.

Maxfield continues that "Giving up on these resolutions is costly." "Of course people's success and self-esteem take a hit. But we were surprised by the financial impact of a failed resolution: seven out of ten said their failure cost them more than $1,000."

Making the Same Resolution Repeatedly

Maxfield continued that three out of four respondents said they'd made and then failed to keep the exact same, costly resolution for more than five years! So why do we humans keep repeatedly doing the same thing? In the words of the brilliant Albert Einstein, ""Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results." Indeed.

Using scientific analysis of their results, the authors showed that when it comes to making majors changes in our lives, willpower is simply not enough. Maxfield calls this "the willpower trap." Although willpower matters, those who keep their resolutions focus on six areas of influence; personal motivation, personal ability, social motivation, social ability, structural motivation, and structural ability.

The authors' research showed that those who include the six sources of influence in their resolution plans are 10 times more likely to succeed than those who don't. So don't be hard on yourself if you are among the many who aren't able to keep your resolutions. It isn't that you're lazy or weak-willed after all, but that maybe you're putting all your effort into one area rather than all six.

Keeping Our Resolutions

Apparently if you can't measure it, it's not a very good resolution. Vague goals result in vague resolutions. And successful resolutions also begin long before January 1st, in what some researchers call the "contemplation phase." That's the period when you formulate an attainable goal and the confidence that you can stick with it.

There are many suggestions on how to keep your resolutions and boost your motivation to stay on track. One way is to tell other people about your goal or involve others in the effort, so that it's more difficult to quit.

Another is to have a serious financial stake in the outcome, which is what the authors of Change Anything found. A perfect example came from George Loewenstein, a behavioral economist at Carnegie Mellon University who has studied financial incentives and weight loss, and who devised ways to include social support and pressure, competition and money to spur obese veterans to lose weight. In two separate studies, participants lost nearly a pound a week, significantly more than a control group. However, when the money stopped flowing, the weight came back. It brought back the radio interview again. It's too bad that money and the success of our resolutions are often so tied together.

As we enter another new year, what resolutions, if any, are you making and what tools do you use to help you keep them?

Photos: Pixabay creative commons license