Stoicism and New Years Resolutions Reconsidered by Gregory Sadler

By this time of the year, halfway through the month of January, millions of people have probably broken at least one of the New Years resolutions they made.  If you’re not familiar with this notion and practice, these are commitments that a person makes around New Years Day that are intended to put that person on a better track for the entire coming year.  Millions of people make them. Some of these people manage to fulfill them. And some of them break them, sooner or later.

My fellow editor, friend, and colleague, Harald wrote a piece recently containing some helpful advice about Stoicism and New Years Resolutions here in Stoicism Today just two weeks ago.  There are literally thousands of other blog posts and articles available out there on the topic of this particular genre of commitments. Some of them provide useful insights or advice as well.  You might expect that this followup piece would continue along those lines and perhaps build upon what they have to say. I will do that eventually, but first I’m going to take this in a different direction.

Here’s the claim I aim to make and explain: You should consider breaking your New Years resolutions.  You can unmake them, reconsider them, and then if you’d like to remake them, but not as resolutions.  And if you’ve already broken them, I’m going to say that’s all right, or in fact, that’s a good thing. Now you have the opportunity to do something better for yourself.

This is a topic I’ve been thinking about for quite some time. My co-host Dan and I just discussed this on the Wisdom for Life radio show last week, in an episode titled Breaking and Reworking New Years Resolutions.  Several years back, I provided a workshop on it as well, called Using Stoic Philosophy To Keep New Years Resolutions. That was a bit of a misnomer though, as my suggestions for participants were that they should reconsider, rework, and (if needed) replace the resolutions they had already made at New Years.

But Isn’t It Stoic To Endure And Persevere?

One objection is likely to arise immediately. Wait a minute! You’re telling people that they should abandon commitments they have made, and have already made good on for two weeks? Or, for those who broke those commitments already, who failed to persevere in keeping them, you’re telling them that’s not only all right, but actually a good thing?  That doesn’t seem very Stoic of you – and it seems like bad advice for you to give to people who are trying to practice Stoicism. A real Stoic would follow through on the resolutions they chose to make. They would endure and persevere when they find themselves tempted to give up and give in!

Well to be sure, sticking with what one resolves is the right thing, that is Stoic. Perseverance is actually one of the main sub-virtues falling under the virtue of courage.  But, as Cicero and Seneca both point out in their works, courage that is ungoverned by two of the other virtues – justice and prudence – doesn’t actually remain the virtue of courage but rather turns into a vice.  Something analogous to that is the case when it comes to persevering in our decisions, and one entire chapter of Epictetus’ Discourses is devoted to this issue.  He frames the problem:

When some persons have heard these words, that a man ought to be constant, and that the will is naturally free and not subject to compulsion, but that all other things are subject to hindrance, to slavery, and are in the power of others, they suppose that they ought without deviation to abide by every thing which they have determined. (2.15)

Are they right to suppose this? Is this how a genuine Stoic would approach matters? Stoicism is a complex philosophy, a network of concepts and practices, and any oversimplifying approach to it is likely to get matters wrong and lead a person astray. That is exactly what happens when a person thinks that it is Stoic to stick with everything they have at some point decided for themselves.

Epictetus tells us that what is key here is making sure that what one has decided is actually true, is really the case, is on-point.  Putting it in other terms, a Stoic will strive to follow prudence in their decision-making and determination. And if something seems prudent at one point, when one decides it, that doesn’t mean one should stick with it unwaveringly if prudence later tells one something different.

He even has a short case-study for us:

[S]omething of the same kind is felt by those who listen to these discourses in a wrong manner; which was the case with one of my companions who for no reason resolved to starve himself to death. I heard of it when it was the third day of his abstinence from food and I went to inquire what had happened. I have resolved, he said.
—But still tell me what it was which induced you to resolve; for if you have resolved rightly, we shall sit with you and assist you to depart; but if you have made an unreasonable resolution, change your mind.
—We ought to keep to our determinations.
—What are you doing, man? We ought to keep not to all our determinations, but to those which are right.

He goes on and suggests rethinking the resolution his companion has made

Will you not make the beginning and lay the foundation in an inquiry whether the determination is sound or not sound, and so then build on it firmness and security?

When it comes to resolutions that we make for ourselves for an entire year, at an arbitrary day and time, perhaps feeling social pressure, often quite ambitious and categorical in scope. . .  perhaps we too should rethink those commitments we made.

Rationally Rethinking Our Commitments

With that challenge successfully addressed, we can now approach any New Years resolutions we have made, and might be struggling with – or might feel bad about having already broken – in a more prudent manner. Central to Stoicism is behaving (as best we can) as rational beings, after all.  We can carry out an inquiry about the commitment we made, like Epictetus suggests, and determine for ourselves whether it is a good one or not.

We can do this with anything that we’ve committed to do, it should be pointed out, not just New Years resolutions specifically. Many of the other commitments we made in our life differ from most New Years resolutions in that we have made them to other people, who now count on and depend on us keeping them – those can be matters of justice in ways that most New Years resolutions won’t be.  But when it comes to any commitment, it can be helpful for us to remind ourselves that we are the ones who make the commitment – the commitment doesn’t make us. New Years commitments are rules that we impose upon ourselves, not some laws coming down from on high.

We might want to consider a number of aspects pertaining to the commitments we have made. Some of our New Years resolutions, however well-intended, can be quite unreasonable when we consider them.  Why?

For some of us, the holidays, the end of one year and the beginning of a new one – particularly if we are elatedly partying, or if we are down and disappointed, or if we feel pressed for time – these might not be the best times for making a resolution we intend to govern an entire year.

In fact, although it certainly feels less dramatic, wouldn’t it be much more reasonable for whatever resolution we make to be one that would commit us to something for a shorter time? A month, two weeks, one week, a few days?  We could see how we do with that, and then decide for ourselves whether we want to renew that commitment or not. We’d certainly take a good bit of pressure off ourselves with a shorter, more reasonable time-commitment, wouldn’t we?

We sometimes set ourselves up for failure in the sorts of things we make commitments about.  If we pick something really aspirational and inspiring , but something we’re unlikely to succeed in, we are imprudently imposing a commitment we can’t effectively keep.  This is especially then case if we bullheadedly tell ourselves “this is going to be the year” (I’ve done that a number of times myself with resolutions that I would at last make some real headway in learning Mandarin, by studying 5 days a week, every week)!

If the resolution that we make involves setting goals or benchmarks that are basically dependent on other people or things, that’s another way we might be setting ourselves up to fail. People also focus on or frame matters in terms of making one big dramatic change, rather than attending to patterns and habits, or the day-to-day choices and actions where we actually do the cumulative work that builds that change.

Most likely, anything new that we are going to try to introduce to our lives, especially if it is something difficult, tricky, in conflict with our routines and established habits – it will be something that we will fail at. Success in making changes does indeed require perseverance, but not perfectionism. We’re likely to fail quite a lot at first with whatever change we committed to in a New Years resolution, and then over time fail less. Making a big bold resolution that “from this point on this year, I will do X every day” or “every time” – not to mention “I’m going to stop” or “give up X” really is an unreasonable imposition upon ourselves, since it doesn’t acknowledge or leave room for the failures that are a normal part of change.

Breaking, Reworking, and Remaking New Years Resolutions

Again, I’m going to say that in the case of some New Years resolutions, for some people, they’re probably better off breaking them. Then they can put those behind them, and if they’d like to make more reasonable commitments, they can start again from scratch.

We also might want to keep some of the resolutions we’ve made, but rework them, which means effectively making them again. How would a Stoic do this? What considerations would they want to keep prudently in mind?  Here are a few suggestions.

One that you can find made in a number of articles written by people focused not just on Stoicism, but all sorts of manners of intentional, thoughtful, well-directed living, is to transform resolutions into something a bit different: goals. Goals have wiggle room for failing, falling down and getting yourself back up again.  Goals aren’t generally measured by absolute all-or-nothing criteria. Goals are something that we work towards, make progress towards, and eventually attain. Resolutions are something that we’ve made and are stuck with having made.

When we remake resolutions – whether or not we transform them into goals – we should be very realistic with ourselves about the amount of work involved. We need to be honest about the obstacles we ourselves are likely to throw in our way.  A bit part of this is considering the dimension of habit.  We shuld ask: What existing habits stand in our way?  How do those habits concretely manifest themselves in opposition to what we want for ourselves?

We also need to think about how the commitment we are making fits into the rest of our lives.  One common metaphor Epictetus uses a lot is that of prices, and thinking in that way can be quite helpful. We ought to consider what sorts of prices we will indeed have to pay to make and sustain change. What sacrifices will need to be made? What lifestyle changes will need to be made in order to bring off our resolution?

Lastly, we should consider whether what we say we would like to change really does lie in our power. For example, we  might tell ourselves that having more money would make us more free.  We should also ask then: What would it take to get more of it?  Would what is required make us more or less free in the process?  And, are all of these matters really up to us?

In the end what you do with any commitments you have made is indeed up to you. The advice that I have given here is very much the proverbial “if the shoe fits, wear it”. But that too is entirely up to you.

Gregory Sadler is the Editor of the Stoicism Today blog.  He is also the president and founder of ReasonIO, a company established to put philosophy into practice, providing tutorial, coaching, and philosophical counseling services, and producing educational resources.  He teaches at the Milwaukee Institute of Art and Design. He has created over 200 videos on Stoic philosophy, regularly speaks and provides workshops on Stoicism, and is currently working on several book projects.




One thought on Stoicism and New Years Resolutions Reconsidered by Gregory Sadler

  1. Daisuke Ogura says:

    Thank you very much for sharing your insightful opinion. In my opinion, people tend to make unrealistic and unprepared (lacking concrete measures) plans due to a feeling of exaltation on New Year’s Day . This is a situation contrary to apatheia (peace of mind). So, from the Stoic viewpoint, it may not be surprising that plans made by such short-term euphoria are frustrated easily.

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