Throughout my whole childhood, I made sure to designate some time each winter break to crafting a well thought out New Year’s Resolutions list. The holiday season has always elicited a strong sense of inspiration and made me super hopeful about the potential of the year ahead. I tried to be specific when it came to making my resolutions, having two separate lists: one for tangible goals to achieve in the coming year, and one for more intangible goals: such as personality traits and habits to work on developing in the year ahead. The first list always featured big benchmarks, from getting my driver’s license to running my first half marathon. The second allowed me to do some introspection. I would encourage myself to improve my Russian and practice guitar for fun more often (both of which were featured on the lists too many times throughout the years before I gave up…oops?) I was decent at accomplishing everything I set out to do because I’m the kind of person that thrives in accomplishing things when the steps to get there are within my control. I knew the exact measures that I had to take to achieve each goal, whether it be the more tangible or more character-based ones. At the end of each year, I would sit down for my annual ego boost as I checked off resolution after resolution. And then came 2020. The year of absolutely no control.
Not only did 2020 bring a worldwide pandemic into the picture, but it also brought in one of the most uncertain and difficult eras of my personal life thus far. Reading back my resolutions for that year makes me want to rip my hair out because it’s actually hilarious how few of the goals I accomplished. I told myself that I would take a boy break (hi Andrew), establish a strong relationship with a professor (hard to do in asynchronous classes), settle on a major (changed my major in 2021), find ways to feel more awake (didn’t know chronic insomnia would enter the picture), and achieve many other resolutions that did not necessarily come into fruition. Don’t get me wrong, I did finally get over my fear of highway driving, and I did maintain a good GPA, but I still feel like a bit of a failure when I realized that I had achieved very little of the things that I originally intended. I knew it was a hard year for everyone and that holding myself to pre-pandemic standards wasn’t fair, but the critical voice in my head reasoned that some of the unaccomplished goals had nothing to do with the pandemic at all, and they were instead reflections of me lacking self-control and grit. I wasn’t mad at myself for not being able to work an on-campus job in the spring because logically I knew that “on-campus” was a non-existent thing during the onset of the pandemic. However, as someone who has prided herself for years on controlling the controllable, I was super disappointed with myself for not accomplishing the things that should have been within my reach. Not wanting to face that same sense of failure for another year in a row, I didn’t write a single resolution for 2021. My only goal was to survive the year, which I can happily report that I did do. It sounds like a foolish thing to be proud of, but after the challenges of the last few years, both personally and as a member of this crazy world, I am proud of having accomplished this simple resolution. The last month alone threw me for more loops than I can explain, and while I know I achieved a hell of a lot in 2021, I don’t think I’ll ever go back to my old resolution-setting ways.
While goal setting is important, I wholeheartedly believe that sitting down every winter and writing a list of New Year’s resolutions only sets us up for failure. First, we live in such an unpredictable time. We thought COVID-19 was largely under control just a few short weeks ago, and then Omicron got in the way. We thought a new presidency would alter the trajectory of our nation, but many would argue that not much has changed. Much of this last year alone reminded us to, in the words of the iconic Julie Chen, expect the unexpected. With that in mind, setting goals for a whole year without knowing how drastically different our lives can become in the blink of an eye seems illogical. Putting a timestamp on these goals feels even more wrong, as time is such an arbitrary thing. Why do we need to become a new version of ourselves on January 1st instead of when we first realize that this new version can exist? There’s nothing that sets apart a new calendar year from a new school year, or, for example, even the time from a random day in August to the same day the following year. A new calendar year seems like a good opportunity to do this kind of self-reflection, but at the end of the day, many of these resolutions become forgotten by the time the next major holiday hits. The classic joke of gyms being full in the first week of January and empty by February is sadly quite true in nature for many other resolutions, from procrastinating less to watching the news more. Our lives get so busy, and our attention becomes so directed toward everything else being thrown at us that we forget about our initial devotion to doing all we set out to do. Instead of being intentional through key habit-making practices (such as the one sociologist Christine Carter describes in this powerful Ted Talk), we set these huge goals and are often overpowered by their magnitude.
What can we do to have more effective, meaningful, and sustainable resolution-setting practices that won’t make us feel like doo doo when we fail to accomplish them? I’m not sure about the specifics, but I can point you to a bunch of people who study this for a living. I do, however, know it must start with having grace for ourselves in knowing that we live in a world where even what appears controllable is often beyond our control. Meaningful change also must be founded on genuine desire instead of self-criticism. Wanting to achieve something solely as a way of making ourselves more valuable human beings is intrinsically flawed and will only lead to a worse self-image in the long run. In the same vein, fostering a sense of self-compassion instead of self-esteem is vital throughout the resolution-setting process (a good article on the difference between the two is linked). If New Year’s is the time when all these elements come together for you, then by all means, make that resolution list. If you’re like me and many other people though, trying to figure out how to accomplish all of that while healing a lot of unhealed and little wounds, pushing yourself to accomplish an arbitrary list of expectations might not necessarily be the way to go. That doesn’t mean you can’t set and accomplish some bad-ass goals – it just means setting smarter goals and revising your relationship with the process itself.
All of that considered, I won’t be writing any resolutions and waiting eagerly for my annual ego boost. I’ll instead continue to work on some big mindset shifts that I haven’t yet mastered, such as being a better support system for myself, and I’ll take time to set more concrete goals when the time is right. As a society, I hope we all can work to find a better balance between being driven, purpose-rooted people and being gentle people in the face of what the resolution practice might refer to as failure.