Resolve as I say, not as I do

Shaylee from the Customer Success team here, and I’ve been thinking a lot about New Years resolutions in the past two weeks.

We’re a couple of busy weeks out from New Year’s celebrations, solidly back into the swing of daily life. In the United States, a common mantra around January is “new year, new me.” This is the part of the year where my social media and newsfeeds are flooded with diet advice, inspirational quotes, and gym routines which promise to give you an entirely new body overnight.

It’s framed as a time to dedicate yourself to big changes, and in the past two or three years I have noticed certain other goals, like reducing alcohol intake, going vegan, or no-buy weeks, gain traction. While I’m glad to see those things become more mainstream, from my perspective the most popular theme of resolutions is still usually weight loss and achieving other body changes.

This makes me curious: Is my For You Page really for me, or are weight loss and exercise on everyone’s mind in January? And if everyone’s trying to make a change, how much time will they actually spend working out in the daily hustle and bustle of the rest of the year? And is that even time well spent? Do people’s goals for the year match what they find meaningful over the course of their lives?

I dug into the research, and was able to find a study on New Year’s resolutions with a little over 1,000 respondents. In that study, the vast majority of resolutions were indeed about physical health, weight loss, and eating habits. Even so, that “vast majority” accounted for only about 33% of respondents — there was actually a lot more variation in resolution areas than I first thought!

The categorization of New Year’s resolutions is really where I started to think twice about my preconceptions: I can think of a dozen goals I could set that relate to “hobbies” or “consumption,” but those categories accounted for less than 4% of all resolutions in the study. Clearly, the way we conceptualize what would make our lives better varies a lot.

Anyone who’s made a New Year’s resolution knows they can be hard to keep. We might set lots of health-related goals, but how does that play out in terms of how we actually spend our days? The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics conducts a yearly study on how much time Americans spend doing various activities each day, and, conveniently enough for us, categorizes those activities in extremely detailed ways. I gathered 11 of these categories to look at:

In this study, personal care, work, and school take the cake, consuming multiple hours a day (among people who do those things at all). This makes sense: Everybody has a body to take care of, and if you’re employed or in school, those take up a lot of time as well. Though it might sound health-related, “Personal care activities” is really dedicated to basic needs like sleeping, grooming, and medical self-care like taking insulin or dressing wounds. Sports, exercise, and eating, the areas where people tend to focus their goals for health and weight loss, fall way down the list, taking up less than three hours a day on average for those who do them.

With that in mind, the next logical step was to evaluate what areas of life are most important to individuals, when it comes to building a “good life.” Since meaning is so subjective, there’s a lot of different ways to measure it; in this case, I went with the OECD’s Better Life Index. It’s an ongoing study where anyone can rank 11 different topics in order of how important those factors are to them, and I was able to pull those responses to see how Americans subjectively interpret what a “good life” looks like.

This chart ranks the 11 different topic areas across more than 100,000 respondents, so you can see that, for Americans, environment and safety are almost interchangeable, while civic engagement matters a lot less. Health is a huge factor, but overall life satisfaction still ranks a little bit higher — this was interesting to me to compare with worldwide responses, where the opposite is true. Globally, people do tend to value health over all.

Health has a prominent place by all three of these measures — but each one means something different by it. New Year’s resolutions about health emphasize weight and eating (as well as quitting smoking and reducing alcohol intake to improve health in ways that aren’t visible on the outside). On the other hand, the Better Life Index data is collected by the OECD on an entirely subjective basis, so we have no definitive way of saying whether people are responding to that study with workout routines or healthcare systems in mind. Sleep, the single most time-consuming activity that 99.9% of people do on a daily basis, pushes “Personal care” to the top of the time use chart. But sleep health isn’t in the same vein as most health-related New Year’s resolutions, so I decided not to highlight personal care in my chart.

So should we stop making New Year’s resolutions, because our lives are busy and sometimes our day-to-day routines don’t reflect what we claim to value most? I think not. Committing to a goal is a declaration that you believe you can change something in your life, and psychological studies show that people who feel control over their lives are less depressed, more motivated, and have a higher sense of self-worth. Setting goals and working towards them can be really good for you, provided they’re healthy and reasonable. This discussion is really a grounding exercise, rather than a rebuttal of the entire concept of resolutions.

I found this research to be a really useful way to see through the haze of self-improvement content that dominates my feeds each January. It’s reminding me that while certain goals can seem universal, they may not actually reflect the reality of busy lives and unique perspectives on what really matters.

Thanks for reading (and resolving)! If you have feedback or questions, leave it in the comments below. Next week, you’ll be hearing from our amazing office manager and snacks-supplier Livnah — we’ll see you then!