It’s a new year, and for many of us, that means it’s time to make New Year’s resolutions. This year we will exercise more, learn the guitar, eat less meat, spend more time with our friends. If we take a skeptical view of the matter, by February we will have forgotten all about our resolutions or given them up in frustration. By March we’ll refer to them with sarcasm or laugh at ourselves for not sticking with them.
So if resolutions are so hard to keep or remember, why do we bother? Is there any value to this tradition? In spite of their fate as fodder for jokes, New Year’s resolutions come from a deeply hopeful, wonderfully human place. They are a way to reconnect to ourselves, remind us of what we care about, and teach us that who we are in the new year isn’t defined by who we have been in the old one. Especially after a year like 2020, we could all use a bit of that.
So how can we approach our New Year’s resolutions with sincerity and hope this year? How do we form—and keep—meaningful personal goals? Read on for some ideas.
Step 1: Reflection
In our busy lives, we rarely have time to reflect on the big picture. Stray wishes and desires often occur to us as we keep our lives running from day to day, but we may not have the time or energy or resources to do justice to them. Making meaningful resolutions starts with giving ourselves a little time for reflection.
If possible, find yourself a quiet space where you can be alone for a window of time. Bring some paper and a pen for taking notes. Try to make it relaxing: make a cup of tea, put on soothing music, do a breathing exercise, or go for a walk to clear your mind. The goal is to disconnect momentarily from the cares of your daily life so you can get in the big-picture mindset.
Start to think about your daily wishes and desires. These could be big or small, personal or community-oriented, serious or light. Set a timer for 10 or 20 minutes and write down everything you think of. What do you want to do in your life? What do you want to have? How would you like things to be? Nothing is too silly or too grand for this exercise. Write down anything that comes to mind; later you can prioritize and distill these ideas.
Step 2: Creating your resolutions
Once you’ve written down your list of desires, it’s time to prioritize. We’re probably not going to realize all of our dreams in a single year, but we can choose a few to work toward! Try to identify one or two goals that matter most to you. Especially if your resolutions require forming new habits, you’ll have a better chance of sticking with them if you don’t take on too many at once. Your goals should be personally meaningful—not things you think you should want, but things you truly feel strongly about. It’s also important to choose goals that are within your control: you don’t necessarily have to realize your goal within a year, but you should have the power to influence the outcome.
If you’re having a hard time prioritizing your goals or if you have trouble keeping track of a resolution over a whole year, consider setting monthly resolutions. Each month you can set a small goal and see which efforts make the biggest difference in your life.
Step 3: Making your resolutions concrete
Now comes the hard part: making your resolutions a real, actionable part of your life. This is where most of us get hung up, because it’s hard to find the motivation and discipline we need to keep our new habits when our initial energy wears off. However, some thoughtful planning and a little self-compassion go a long way toward helping us keep our goals.
First, consider how your resolution fits into your life specifically. Take the classic resolution to exercise more. If everyone you know goes to the gym but you’ve never warmed to it, chances are you won’t find joining one any more appealing this year. Would another form of exercise fit your lifestyle better? Perhaps you enjoy hiking, or dancing, or playing tennis. You know yourself better than anyone, so consider how your specific habits and preferences may influence your resolution. What are the little challenges that currently prevent you from keeping your goal on a daily basis? Can you find a way around them?
Next, break your resolution into small, achievable steps. “Exercise more” is a fine starting point, but “hike at Middlesex Fells at 1:00 every second Saturday” or “run a mile on Tuesdays and Thursdays in February” are concrete. Work backwards from your goal to lay out the steps you can take to get there. Then set a time frame and put the steps on your calendar.
Often we get overwhelmed by the size of our goals and don’t know where to start, or we can’t seem to find time for them. But big achievements are just the result of many small actions. Laying out the steps to our goal makes it feel achievable, and putting each step on the calendar reminds us that our dream deserves as much attention as our daily responsibilities. That said, take those other responsibilities into account when you plan out your calendar, and be realistic. If you know you’ll have a particularly busy month at work, don’t try to overload your schedule.
Step 4: Staying on track
We all lose track of our good intentions eventually. So how do we make sure this is just a bump in the road, and not the end of our resolution? One strategy is to share your goals with an accountability buddy. Tell a friend you trust about your resolution and the steps you’re planning to take. Ask them to check in with you each week or month, and offer to do the same for them. Or if your resolution can be kept in company, find a like-minded partner or group with the same goal.
Most importantly, have compassion for yourself! When we let our goals slide for a while, we tend to feel shame and a sense that failure is inevitable. Ironically, when we feel this way, we’re more likely to give up and shrug off the whole project. A little perspective shift can be helpful here. Instead of spiraling into thoughts about how you never stick with a goal, try to consider how much farther you got than if you’d never made the resolution to begin with. Each step you took because of your resolution is one step more than you would have taken if you’d never made the resolution to begin with. Remind yourself that each day is a fresh opportunity to commit yourself to your resolution, and try not to give your slip-ups more mental weight than they deserve.
Finally, it’s okay to be flexible. Remember that your resolution exists to serve you, not the other way around! If circumstances in your life change and you need to reassess your goals, that’s just fine. And if you lose sight of why your resolution matters to you, you can always return to a moment of reflection. Pause to remember why you set your intention in the first place—and if it’s not working for you anymore, ask yourself why. As we are changed by the process of pursuing a goal, our resolutions can always change with us.
What’s your New Year’s resolution this year? Feel free to share in the comments below!