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 – 2014, 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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