The Philosophy of Resolutions: A Reasoned Guide to Success

January 4, 2017
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We have entered into the season of change. Of renewing our commitment to transformation. Of reasserting our dedication to a better life. Of adopting or giving up habits and lifestyles choices that will see us towards our further personal development. In short, it’s that blank slate of beauty known as resolution season.

And that means every blogger worth his salt is going to have the requisite resolution post decrying how to begin, why you will fail and what you can do to make those resolutions stick. This hackney and predictable blogger is no different in that regard, but I wanted to approach the topic of resolutions from the mindset of philosophy. Big surprise, huh?

We might think that philosophy is ill-equipped in helping us to achieve our resolution goals, but there is a particular philosopher, Jean-Paul Sartre, who had something to say about the difficulty of change in regards to resolutions – be they for the new year or simply for the new you. It is that philosopher we will explore in the hope of strengthening your resolve and to aid you in achieving your resolution goals for this new year.

Why resolutions fail

Sartre, in his seminal work Being and Nothingness, begins his exploration of resolutions by looking at the radical freedom that we have in every moment and what it means for our ability to support the conviction of our resolutions. In his example he looks at “the gambler who has freely and sincerely decided not to gamble any more and who when he approaches the gaming table, suddenly sees all his resolutions melt away.”

The resolution to not gamble is there in the gambler – it exists strongly and forcefully and is pulled into the front of his mind as soon as he sees the table – but he understands that there is no force within the resolution itself that is actually preventing him from gambling again. There is nothing tangible that he can rely upon that will allow him to keep his resolution. In short, the gambler has the freedom to gamble again at any time.

He must face that freedom within him to gamble or not to gamble every time he is confronted with the opportunity. He must stare down the anguish of his freedom and reaffirm his resolution countless times and forever. There is no power in his resolution that does not come from his perpetual choosing of it.

So it is the same for you and the resolutions you have made. You do not have the luxury of referring back to your personal promise to yourself and think that it alone is powerful enough to prevent you from going back on it. You have to reaffirm that choice everyday in every action because you are condemned with that level of freedom.

Your resolutions have no power to compel you to act in accordance with them. They are merely ideas that you want to make real. They exist as thoughts that require you to bring to actionable life. To that ends, you must determine, again and again, to take that action to which you before resolved to take.

And therein lies the difficulty of keeping and maintaining resolutions. It is an exercise in vigilant awareness of temptation, a resolute strength of your decision and of a willed power to choose rightly again and again.

So how do we stick to our resolutions?

When we make those initial resolutions it seems to us that we have “established a real barrier” between ourselves and our past behavior. We want the change badly. We think that simply in making it the resolution is burned into the depths of our being, and as such, will prevent us from committing to actions that will break our resolution. And in this thinking we fall under the hypnotic, deterministic trap that we have changed simply because we so deeply want to change. But there is nothing so far from the truth.

That desire for change will fade. It will give way – like a dam bursting under pressure of the regular flow of the torrential waters that would have you maintain the actions you have ingrained into your daily activity. If you are not vigilant the cracks will become the shattered remains of the strength you put forth in order to change, and you will be left with the erosion of failure and the toll it takes on your confidence and progress.

So what are we to do?

As Sartre says in his own words;

“I must re-create [my resolution] as experienced fear. It stands behind me like a boneless phantom. It depends on me alone to lend it flesh. I am alone and naked before temptation as I was the day before. After having patiently built up barriers and walls, after enclosing myself in the magic circle of a resolution, I perceive with anguish that nothing prevents me from [breaking it].”

In short, in order for our resolutions to be a successful mechanism for change we must re-enter the experience of the initial emotional reason for our resolution. We must return to that visceral passion and bring it to mind perpetually – as though it were the first time – with all the agony, pain and cost of failure. Through that revisiting we are able to find the strength necessary to defend our resolutions to ourselves and find the will to change the negative habits that have become so ingrained in us.

You have to return to the resolution in it’s full force. Something which Sartre calls “synthetic apprehension of the situation”. What this means is that we must re-envision the results of our resolute failure. When faced with a choice of adherence to our resolution, or the breaking of it, we must relive, with the greatest and gravest of detail, the pain of failing to uphold our decision. The pain of being overweight and out of shape and the price it demands on our health and future. We must relive the sickness and costs of our smoking on ourselves and our family. We must relive the misery of our current monetary situation and the stress and anguish it brings to our lives. We must relive all the past reasons that pushed us to our resolution and we must imagine the future state of our lives if we fail and we must use them as motivation for our resolution and return to it as often as necessary to make it stick.

In order to see them through, we must commit again and again to the resolutions we have made. We do not have the luxury of simply referring back to our original decision to change. We are forced, through the burden of our perpetual freedom, to reaffirm, time and time again, the strength and force of our decision. An exhausting proposition but a necessary one to make our resolutions real.

But there is hope outside of the exhaustion of choosing a resolution. There will come a time when it will become easier to stick to your resolution because you will become your resolution. It will not be something outside of you that you are forcing on yourself. It will become an habitual fact of your being and not a merely contingent affirmation you must constantly resolve to affirm.


There is nothing wrong with desiring deeply to change something about ourselves. It is in fact, a great and courageous exercise of our personal freedom to decide to make better what became ruined in our lives. It is never too late to face down the problems of our lives and decide to take up arms against them. But there is a deep anguish that must be acknowledged in trying to stick to your resolutions. An anguish that is born of your perpetual freedom to choose your direction in every moment of life.

We must acknowledge this burden of our freedom and recognize the necessity of reaffirming our resolutions in every moment. We must retreat back to the force of our initial decision and relive the emotions that pushed the resolution to the forefront of our minds. Only in the strength of those visceral, emotional recollections are we able to constantly choose the right action to see our resolutions become reality.

You must firmly and constantly reaffirm your resolution through a developed awareness of yourself; your actions and your intent. It is in that tiny space of awareness that the success of your resolutions lie. Of being able to apply the correct choice in every free situation you have to otherwise choose poorly.

And that is the simple philosophical recipe for success in guaranteeing your resolutions. It is not easy. There are no short cuts and it is completely up to you in every moment to make your resolutions last, but in this personal responsibility and choice lies a wellspring of self-confidence, self-determinism and strength that can carry fully into the rest of your life. 


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