Why I don’t make New Year’s resolutions. But if you do, try this.

2013 Yield

Last week, a pro­ducer at Huff­Post Live emailed me to ask if I’d be will­ing to talk about New Year’s res­o­lu­tions for an upcom­ing seg­ment. In par­tic­u­lar, she wanted to ask me about a piece I’d writ­ten about willpower and whether I’d been able to accom­plish this year’s goals.

It seemed like some­thing that I should do, and so at first I said yes. But I hedged my response by say­ing that I don’t really make res­o­lu­tions. We had a bit of back and forth – What exactly did I mean? – and I finally said, you know, I think you should talk to some­one else.

Until this con­ver­sa­tion, I hadn’t quite real­ized how deep my resis­tance runs. Sim­ply put, New Year’s res­o­lu­tions strike me as a set-up. A set-up for fail­ure. A set-up for stay­ing stuck. Res­o­lu­tions assume a fix­ity that, in my expe­ri­ence, sim­ply doesn’t exist. The goals I set last year – or last month – often aren’t the same as those that will move me for­ward today.

This is espe­cially true in times of tran­si­tion, when life is inher­ently unpre­dictable. This blog – Plan B Nation – began as a per­sonal explo­ration of strate­gies to nav­i­gate loss and uncer­tainty after the Great Reces­sion. One of my major ongo­ing lessons has been the impor­tance of stay­ing open – of not insist­ing that the future take a cer­tain form.

As I drafted this post, I hap­pened on a print out of writer Vir­ginia Woolf’s New Year Res­o­lu­tions that I’d totally for­got­ten about until now but likely had been sav­ing for just this moment. (I’m pretty sure these must have come via my Vir­ginia Woolf scholar friend Anne Fer­nald.) Dated Jan­u­ary 2, 1931, the list begins:

Here are my res­o­lu­tions for the next 3 months; the next lap of the year.

To have none. Not to be tied.

Indeed. (And I espe­cially love the fact that even the res­o­lu­tion of mak­ing no res­o­lu­tions extends only three months forward.)

Speak­ing for myself, I could never have pre­dicted the events of this past year – that I’d move back to Boston to start a new job in a totally new field. This wasn’t a path I could have envi­sioned, let alone planned. And yet, it’s turned out to pro­vide much of what I most needed.

This is why I don’t think of goals as end­points – I think of them as step­ping stones and exper­i­ments. This means stay­ing curi­ous and open even as I take action. Is this goal still serv­ing me? Or is it time for some­thing else?

Which isn’t to say that goals don’t have their place, just that it’s best to hold them lightly. Action­able goals are the means to an end. They are not the end in them­selves. Goals can be great tools, but they are ter­ri­ble masters.

That said, of course, we do need to get stuff done. Whether your goals are for a year or an hour, here are a few tac­tics you may want to try.

Be strate­gic in how you use your lim­ited stock of willpower. (I talk about the specifics of this in my Huff­in­g­ton Post piece, which draws heav­ily on the book Willpower, by Roy F. Baumeis­ter and John Tierney.)

If you’re strug­gling with a goal, reflect on whether you’re con­tend­ing with a com­pet­ing goal. This strat­egy comes from my one-time pro­fes­sor Robert Kegan, who pro­poses the fol­low­ing four-column exer­cise. Iden­tify in turn: (1) Your goal (e.g., I want to find ful­fill­ing work), (2) The behav­iors that run counter to this goal (e.g., I take jobs that aren’t mean­ing­ful to me), (3) Com­pet­ing com­mit­ments (e.g., I need to main­tain a cer­tain income and level of sav­ings), (4) Assump­tions that under­lie and sup­port the third-column com­mit­ments (e.g., If I go back to school or take a job that pays less, every­one will think I’m irresponsible.)

The point here isn’t to  pro­mote a par­tic­u­lar course of action but rather to gain a bet­ter under­stand­ing of what dri­ves you – an aware­ness that can lead to a pro­found shift in per­spec­tive. (The exam­ple above is based on an inter­view I did with Kegan ear­lier this year for this piece in Psy­chol­ogy Today.)

Keep your eyes on the prize. The true goal isn’t to go to the gym every day or write a novel or orga­nize your office or any of the other zil­lions of tasks that we set for our­selves. The true goal is to live a happy life – a life infused with value and mean­ing, what­ever that is for you.

I wish that for myself, and I wish that for all of you. Thank you for shar­ing my 2012. Here’s to the year to come.

© 2012, amy gut­man. All rights reserved.

5 thoughts on “Why I don’t make New Year’s resolutions. But if you do, try this.

  1. Yes, like the four col­umn idea also. I respond to work­ing with some­thing visual. I attempted a post myself on res­o­lu­tions with what I hope will be a dif­fer­ent twist for me, http://bit.ly/13J2rbe. We’ll see how that goes. Thanks.

  2. Since I fre­quently get “stuck” try­ing to find a clear path for­ward, I’m con­sid­er­ing doing the four-column exer­cise to see what comes of it.

    Thanks for writ­ing a blog worth reading.

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