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In Defense of New Year’s Resolutions

Updated: Jan 6, 2022

If you meet me at a party in December, I will ask you if you have any New Year’s resolutions. It’s so nice to have a small-talk path to a conversation that really interests me. In my financial planning sessions with clients, I make a lot of space for visioning around goals. Watching them crush it is addictive to me. I bring the same level of fanatical enthusiasm for goal-making whether they are saving for a sabbatical in Peru or planning to get their advance directive in order.  So, do you have any New Year’s resolutions? Much to my chagrin, many of the people to whom I pose this amazing question do not have or like NYRs. Here are my rebuttals to all ya’ll’s issues.

Critique #1: January 1st is Arbitrary I think it’s useful to use the demarcations that we already exist in. I know we’re all about being counter-cultural, but if you wanted to have goals anyways, why not take advantage of the flow that goes? One of my favorite things about New Year’s is the simultaneous finishing of something and beginning of something new. In gold and fireworks and toasts, we are surrounded by reminders of the passage of time. Ah, I just love that. Dai, Milkman, and Riis write about the Fresh Start Effect saying that, “temporal landmarks serve as interruptions, leading people to take a higher-level, big picture view of their lives, people’s motivation to achieve their aspirations will increase.” Though written in 2014, this evokes a lot of the massive changes that have happened due to the interruptions of the pandemic. For all of its devastation, for some of us, it clarified what we really wanted. So as it roils on, why not now for believing in personal change in 2022?

Critique #2: No One Follows Through Is that so? Perhaps following through on things would be a good resolution for you this year! In a super unscientific survey of my friends, of the 41% of people who make resolutions, 77% made progress on the goals that were outlined. But I know, it’s super depressing to look at goals that were never achieved. If you have follow-through baggage, I have a few suggestions.

  • Check Capacity. From its inception, right-size your goal to your energy, desire, and needs. An intention made in the New Year can focus on healing and giving yourself time. Or it can be something that is super easy to check off, but is valuable nonetheless.

  • Support and reminders. Set up a system of support and reminders. If you want to learn a language but always promise to do it and don’t, try signing up for a class. Or even a newsletter that will remind you about your goal. Bring friends in, but only as an additional support—after all, people are flaky, just like you.

  • Go nuclear. Make a solemn vow in front of your best friend to do the thing, and promise to pay x consequence if you don’t do it. It’s very hard for long-term desires to compete with short-term ones in our reptile brains. Even the score by adding in a short-term consequence if you don’t do your long-term goal. I think this can be super helpful at pruning goals from the get-go. If you can’t part with $600 if you don’t attend 12 protests this year, maybe that means that you always knew that wasn’t a goal you planned to follow through on. For a tech solution for the commitment device, try

  • Opposite day: Go Vague. Specific goals can be helpful to give us something achievable to strive for, but it also gives us an easy out when it’s clear it can’t be done. If you simply set a goal to “read more books”, then even if you read one in January and one in December, you can look back and get a little boost from knowing you did it.

Dai et al continue, “it is worth noting that even fleeting fresh start feelings following temporal landmarks can potentially be valuable for at least two reasons. First, the abundance of fresh start opportunities throughout the year offers repeated chances for people to attempt positive self-change, so even if they initially fail, they may subsequently succeed (Polivy and Herman 2002). Second, transient increases in motivation may be sufficient to help people fulfill important one-shot goals such as receiving a medical test or signing up for a 401(k) account with monthly payroll deductions.”

Critique #3: Popular NYR Goals Are Bullshit Many people make weight loss goals in the New Year. It is hard to navigate goal-making territory, decidedly including the article I reference, without coming across a lot of toxic approaches to food and body. But I also don’t think that we should allow fatphobia to own the territory of aspiration. Only that we must ensure that our aspirations are spiritually sound. Underneath the goal of weight loss is often the desire to see beauty in yourself, be connected to others, and avoid stigma. If health were not a patsy for beauty standards, starting Lipitor would rank higher on resolutions lists. Check if going to the gym is helping or hindering your goal to appreciate your form. How does this goal help me? How does it help others? No one can hear your motivations but you, so listen closely to them—if the tone of your goal is mean, it’s not the right goal. Another angle on the "failed" resolutions: perhaps if your resolution is negative to you as a person, your mind protects you by blocking it out.

Critique #4: Self-Improvement is Capitalist Brainwashing If you’ve spent enough time in discernment about choosing a goal, let’s question the proposition itself. Are goals bad? Some people are content to be like a leaf floating in the wind. These people are not me, and maybe they are right. A little letting go can go a long way. (Sounds like a nice NYR!) But if having a hand in the direction of your life sounds good to you, then don’t give up yet. The mind churns all day with stuff we should do or be. Most of that is garbage. But there are things that we want in life that have to do with our deepest, truest selves. And they don’t all happen on their own. You can be a loving mentor to yourself and start to nudge toward your dreams, before it’s all over. Take some time to reflect on the things that you’ve wanted in the past and then done. When I was in my early teens, I wanted nothing more than to be the lead singer of a band. When I thought of it, I ached. I played instruments and hung out with people who also liked playing music. Eventually I found the right folks and then I did in fact sing my heart out as the lead singer of a band. It’s not that my life’s purpose was to be a professional musician, but rather I gave life to my dream so that it could rest. The thing is, we’re not necessarily building toward anything linear. If I think about my son, it’s easy to think of what I want for him and for our Relationship. But it’s also so clear that he changes every day, and no time is like this stage. So, bringing intention into delineated segments of time is not only about the ultimate, but about the form that this period will take; how fully we have lived it.

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