My New Year’s resolution for 2018 was to discover the origin of the annual practice of making New Year’s resolutions.

Of course, I managed to procrastinate, not fulfilling this resolution (as most of us don’t) until the last possible moment. But here it is.


As a child, I remember dutifully pulling out my diary at the beginning of each year and writing out my New Year’s Resolutions.I suspect that pen and paper are no longer the choice for recording New Year’s Resolutions, especially considering the fact that 45% of those who make New Year’s Resolutions are 45 years of age and younger.

Surprisingly, the over 45 crowd is only responsible for 28% of all resolutions.

All together, according to the annual Marist Poll, 44% of Americans make New Year’s resolutions. This number has not significantly varied since the beginning of the 21st century, though it has almost doubled since the end of the Great Depression.

Have you noticed that I’m still procrastinating?


It’s reasonable to think that this curious habit of writing resolutions gained popularity as a path to redemption for our indulgent habits practiced from Thanksgiving through New Year’s Eve: too much food, too much spending and intemperate partying.

As early as 1801, a Boston newspaper column, which may be responsible for first marrying the words, “New Year” and “resolution,” noted “there are multitudes of people…who will sin all the month of December, with a serious determination of beginning the New Year with new resolutions and a new behavior…with the full belief that they shall thus expiate and wipe away all their former faults.”

Indeed, if this is the root of modern day New Year’s resolutions, it may explain why year after year, the most consistently popular of our New Year’s resolutions, are centered on self-improvement: getting fit, losing weight, being a better person, getting out of debt.


These inner-directed resolutions are a shift from the purported origin of the practice 4,000 years ago by the Babylonians. While we have no statistics of how many Babylonians made and kept their resolutions, we do know that those promises were made to their gods, rather than to themselves.

Although the history of New Year’s resolutions appears spotty, resolutions seemed to remain in vogue, in some form, from the Babylonians on.

The Romans made promises of good behavior to Janus, their god characterized by two faces, one looking backward and one looking forward. Some form of resolutions for the New Year seems to have persevered through the medieval period, though the only cited practice that is widely identified is the rededication of knights to their chivalrous goals.

In Puritan America, Jonathan Edwards, Congregational Protestant theologian may have served as the “granddaddy” of resolution writing, having written 70 value-based resolutions over a two-year period.

John Wesley, founder of the Methodist Church, during the same period, reinterpreted the entire New Year practice when he introduced the Covenant Renewal Service. This New Year’s Eve service focused on a self-assessment of the past year as a preparation for the New Year when congregants would enter into a renewed commitment to the values of Christ.


Whatever form your New Year’s resolutions take, experts recommend that your goals should be specific.

For example, it is more effective to resolve to “eat one serving of vegetables every day” than to resolve to “eat healthier.”

Similarly, the chances of meeting your goal “to reduce stress,” suggest psychologists, might be more achievable if you resolve to “meditate every day for 10 minutes.”

Setting specific goals may increase the dismal success rate of 8% of people who actually fulfill their resolutions.

Don’t lose heart from that poor showing though, since 68% of goal setters actually report that they partially complete their resolutions.

If you are looking for some ‘out of the box’ resolutions this year, you might want to consider some suggestions from’s online article,“10 Unusual New Year Resolutions.”

I was intrigued by three of them:

1. “Get your photo taken in five new places.

2. “Make the usual unusual,” for instance by driving a different route to work, wearing a new color, or ordering a different type of coffee.

3. "Try a new food every week" — maybe those Brussels sprouts you avoid or the ugly fruit you bypass.


For those of us who are sticking to the tried and true for 2019 — weight loss, exercise, healthier eating — it might be useful to employ the help of one or more aides not available to the Babylonians, Romans, Medieval knights or even our grandparents.

The availability of self-help apps is only a download away. If you do a search with your favorite search engine for “Best apps for (fill in the blank with losing weight, fitness, meditating, healthier eating, etc.), you will be rewarded with a list of apps that might be the “personal coach” you need to help you fulfill your resolutions.

For now, I am feeling pretty smug about finally accomplishing one of my 2018 resolutions.

Cerise Oberman, SUNY Distinguished Librarian Emeritus, retired as dean of Library & Information Services at SUNY Plattsburgh. She can be reached at Tim Hartnett is associate librarian at SUNY Plattsburgh, Reach him at

Recommended for you