Why January Is the Worst Time to Make a Life Change — and When to Do It Instead

Could bad timing be the reason your goals always fail?
new year's resolutions

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Every January, the New Year brings along with it a flutter of chatter about everything that could have gone better this past year — and plans to make big changes to improve the next. These goals and resolutions are well-intended. After all, what’s wrong with a little self-improvement? But even though they’re popular, life changes probably shouldn’t be made in January — at least, not if you want them to stick.

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“While it isn’t unusual to get revved up for the New Year, it may be not be the most realistic time to set the course for a major life change,” says Virginia Williamson, certified counselor and family therapist. When making a big life change, you want to be as emotionally, financially, and mentally stable as possible. But the end of the year is often shaky in terms of all three.

“Unless you have always experienced idyllic holidays, there is typically some emotional fallout from the holidays that may require a slowdown rather than a ‘full speed ahead’ mindset,” Williamson says. “There may need to be some recovery time afterward in which you do not place a high degree of demand or expectation on yourself.”

The holidays often add some financial strain to the equation, as well. After having maxed out on gift-giving and travel expenses, it may not be realistic to expect to invest money in making a change.

And most importantly, your mindset as you head into January is probably not at its best. When tackling a goal, it’s important to keep in mind why you’re attempting that goal in the first place. Is the goal coming from a genuine place, or are you simply responding to cultural pressures about what you “should” be doing? “This pressure can make it easy to have a sense of urgency,” Williamson explains. “However, there’s a reason that you have not been successful in reaching this goal in the past.”

Clinical psychologist Dr. Carla Marie Manly agrees. “Even when they put forth their best efforts, the timing and pressure can feel daunting for those who aren’t internally ready for change,” she says. “Individuals in this category often feel intense outward pressure to perform, yet external pressure is not nearly as powerful a change agent as internal readiness.” In other words, forcing yourself to make a goal you’re not intrinsically motivated to achieve might not be the best plan.

“Those who feel forced to change, whether through conscious or unconscious pressure, are less likely to make and maintain positive changes,” Manly says.

So when should you try to set self-improvement goals? “An individualized approach is best when it comes to finding the right timing,” Manly says. Her advice is to wait until you feel emotionally, financially, and mentally stable. That timing looks different for everyone. “For example, a person who has a great deal going on in January — perhaps as a result of financial, work, or relationship stressors — may not be ready for big life changes until finances are tidied up or other major stressors are handled. Big resolutions in January might fall flat simply because the individual is already emotionally and physically exhausted. It’s always a wise idea to make big changes when we feel refreshed, invigorated, and at our best.”

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So unless you’re genuinely ready, don’t bother with a big resolution this January. It’s smarter to stray from the crowd and ditch the concept altogether — or make a small, realistic New Year’s resolution instead.