Advice from Plato on Keeping New Years’ Resolutions

The writings of ancient philosophers can be extremely useful for daily life in the modern world. This is especially true for the Greek philosopher Plato (c. 428–348 BC). In The Republic, he outlined the ideal way a person should structure his mind, spirit, and emotions. Plato didn’t specifically mention New Years’ resolutions (the tradition of making promises for the coming year didn’t start for another couple hundred years, with the Romans). But following his advice is a surefire way to train yourself to do anything—whether it’s starting a diet, exercising, or any other goal for self-improvement.

Plato believed that humans were divided into three parts:

  • The mind, which is the seat of reason and critical thinking.
  • The spirit, which is from the Greek word thumos. This isn’t the soul, but rather the quality of spiritedness. It might better be called energy, will, or courage. It’s not concerned with just physical activity, however: Scholars have described it as the feeling one gets when righteously angry.
  • The appetites, or emotions. This includes any desires we have for purely material things, whether wealth, power, or beauty.

From the three aspects of the self, Plato determined that there were three types of people, depending on what aspect within them ruled the others:

  • Philosophers: This term was a lot more inclusive in ancient Greece, and refers to anyone who uses reason to make decisions.
  • Warriors: People who are ruled by spirit are the natural warriors, putting their righteous indignation into full play on the battlefield. Today, people tend to channel these feelings into charity work, political work, or feelings of desperation and depression when no action is taken. Regardless of their motivations, these people are motivated by changing injustices in the world.
  • Slaves: This is Plato’s term for people ruled by their appetites and emotions. Freedom was a central concept in ancient philosophy, and being free meant a person wasn’t ruled by anyone or anything, including one’s emotions and base desires.

How does all of this play into our annual vows for self-improvement? Resolutions are the result of logic. We want to quit smoking, lose weight, improve our diet, or exercise more because we know—from using logic—these changes will make us healthier, look better, feel better, and improve our life in the long run. We might vow to go back to school, read more books, overcome a phobia, get out of debt, or stick to a budget, because we know these things are beneficial to ourselves and our families.

Everything usually goes great with resolutions for about a month. The gyms are noticeably more crowded all through January. Then, something happens. We still know logically that we want to get in better shape. But we start making excuses: we’re too busy, too tired, or can do it the next day. What has actually happened is that we’ve let our lowest nature—the appetitive part that’s only concerned with satisfying immediate desires—take over and rule our decision-making. And we’ve lost the spiritedness that has provided the willpower to overcome these lower desires.

One key to any self-improvement project, then, is to be able to recognize when this shift happens, and have the tools necessary to bring logic back to its proper spot as the ruler of the situation in order to stimulate our willpower and keep us motivated. As Plato says:

It is proper that the reasoning element should rule because it is wise and capable of foresight in planning for the whole.

Here are a few tips for keeping reason and willpower at the forefront until your New Years’ resolution becomes a matter of course:

  • When your motivation for the resolution is strongest (probably before you’ve started or just after you’ve begun), write a list of all the reasons you’re making the change. Include descriptive words about how your life will be if make the change, and how your life will be if you don’t. This will help you create solid mental images of the two paths available to you.
  • Write specific goals for the resolution: How much money you want to save, what educational courses you’re going to take, or how much time you’ll devote to your new hobby. Be as specific as possible when defining your goal so you know exactly what you’re striving for.
  • Make a detailed plan of how you’re going to keep the resolution. You can’t get somewhere unless you have a map that details the exact course to take. This could include not buying certain items at the grocery store if you’re trying to lose weight, making lunches for the week every Sunday night, or taking a walk five nights a week. The key here is to be realistic. It’s not reasonable to think you’ll start working out every night for an hour, or will quit eating sugar overnight and keep it up forever. Start small, and make a timeline for slowly adding more steps to reach your final goal. Make sure to decide convenient times to do new tasks so they don’t get pushed to the back burner. Build in rewards for when you meet certain milestones.
  • Start a journal in order to track your progress, and evaluate yourself each week or month. If you slip, don’t make your resolution an all-or-nothing proposition and give up—simply start back up with your plan, and never wait for another milestone date to get started again.
  • Start a new habit. Kicking a bad habit is a lot easier to do when you replace it with a positive habit. Don’t think of how you’re “giving up” coffee; instead, think of how you’re starting to drink tea each morning.
  • Use self-talk and positive affirmations. Studies have shown that the stupidest people have the highest levels of self-confidence, and those of high intelligence are highly self-critical. This is why it’s good to incorporate some spiritedness and bluster in your self-talk in order to make changes. Logical people are often opposed to positive affirmations, but they can be a powerful a tool for success. As the Buddha said, “We are what we think. All that we are arises with our thoughts. With our thoughts, we make the world.”
  • Read books for inspiration in order to keep you on a path to developing excellence in you life. Whether something more mainstream like Gorilla Mindset or a health book, or more obscure like Julius Evola’s Ride the Tiger, stay focused on filling your mind with subjects and ideas that will reaffirm your commitment to your goals.