I’ve always resisted making New Year’s resolutions, in part because I’m terrified that I’ll fail to keep them and in part because I learned long ago that as soon as I make one I get a pit in my stomach that immediately begins to suck all the joy out of life.
In fact, it’s no wonder most of us give up on our resolutions so quickly. We set goals that are lofty and well-intentioned, but then we try to achieve them in ways that make us feel terrible.
We turn against ourselves as we become our own totalitarian rulers, police, and prison guards in our efforts to repress our impulses and control our cravings. We turn into merciless disciplinarians when we think we’re falling short and stamp out signs of indulgence and glee like zealous, unreformed Grinches. It’s no surprise that after a few weeks of fighting and punishing ourselves we give up and opt to wait until the next year to start the process all over again.
It doesn’t have to be this way. Setting our intentions for the year can be a beautiful process through which we honor, respect, and love ourselves. We can set intentions for the year that are joyful, meaningful, and—best of all—effective.
Here are the 10 keys to making humane New Year’s resolutions that you’ll actually keep:
1. Don’t should on yourself.
Studies have shown that willpower is like a muscle that can be fatigued. Instead of relying on willpower, which is a limited resource and vulnerable to dips in blood sugar, exhaustion, and stress, find motivation in pursuing what’s good rather than avoiding what’s bad.
What do you long for? More joy? Fun? Play? Fulfillment? Kindness? Compassion? Confidence? Courage? Ease? Peace? Focus? Action? Love? Commitment? Adventure? Make it your intention to bring more of these things into your life rather than to fix a flaw, improve yourself, or finally keep up with everyone else. Try to accept the truth that you’re a beautiful, gifted, and perfectly good enough person with strengths and limitations just like every other human being on this planet and focus instead on what you’re wanting more of in life.
One way to do this in practice is to take a moment to give yourself credit for what you’re already doing well in the area related to your goal. For example, if you’re wanting to spend less money, try acknowledging the areas you’re already thrifty in, and then aim to extend that into other fields.
If you can’t think of any aspect that you’re doing well, your standards are
probably definitely too high. Redefine what “good” means using more objective criteria or ask a friend to help you get some perspective.
Another way to practice focusing on the positive is to take a moment after writing down your intentions to list something enjoyable about each one. Not something you’ll appreciate once you’ve achieved it, but something you’ll relish about the process itself. Focus on finding some small piece of pleasure in anything you do towards your goal.
2. Don’t do as much as you do do.
(I recommend referring to poop as much as you can in your resolutions.)
If you keep buying clothes and cramming them in your closet, eventually your closet will get full.
The same thing happens with goals and commitments. We want to do it all: spend time with family, show up for friends, take classes, volunteer, cook, write, paint, learn another language, start a business, do yoga, bike, swim, knit, run, do triathlons, read nonfiction, make music, start a garden, plant a tree. But based on what we’re committed to, most of us are already exhausted, stressed, and reaching our limits. We don’t have the time or energy to take on anything new, no matter how wonderful it is.
So in order to do more, remember to do less. Value down time and give yourself time to rest and replenish. Without that, you won’t have enough energy for anything you do.
Also, give yourself permission to stop doing things that aren’t essential and say no to new commitments that don’t make you come alive. Set yourself up for success in new ventures by making sure you have ample time and energy for them.
3. If the thought of doing something makes you feel like you want to vomit, then don’t do it.
Translation: Listen to your body.
This particular gem came to me when I was informally coaching a friend about a job he was thinking of taking. The job was in an industry my friend had worked in all his life and was desperate to escape. The question was, should he take a high-paying job in his former industry in order to save money for the business he wanted to open? It was a fair question. I asked him how his body felt when he thought about taking the job. “Like I want to throw up,” he said.
“Listen,” I said. “If I could boil all of my coaching expertise into one piece of advice, it would be: If the thought of doing something makes you feel like you want to vomit, then don’t do it.”
I offer this advice to you now, free of charge. When setting your resolutions for the year, check in with how each one makes your body feel. In other settings, this might be known as a gut check.
When you think of this particular course of action, do you notice tension, tightness, slumping, churning, pain, or queasiness? If so, it’s probably something you think you should want but actually don’t. If you notice warmth, relaxation, tingling, ease, comfort, or other pleasant sensations, you’re probably on the right track. Sure, there may be fear or uncertainty there, but there should also be some sensations that indicate that your body is responding favorably to your proposal.
Your body is wise and knows what you want and, unlike your mind, it’s not so vulnerable to fears, rationalizations, and social pressure, so my best advice is to listen to it.
4. Stretch but listen to your gut.
Be ambitious, but recognize your limitations. We all have them, so there’s no shame in acknowledging them. In fact, accepting your limitations can actually feel kind of freeing because then you don’t have so spend so much energy denying them or recovering after blowing past them regularly.
For example, one of my goals is to write more. I would like to say I would write every week, but my sense is that’s too much of a stretch for me. So, recognizing how much energy and discipline it takes me to get started writing, I’m going to aim for one writing project at the beginning of every month. Because, let’s be honest, I’m still in the early stages of this and am currently no Danielle Steele. Nor do I want to be.
Tip: This is a great time to listen to your body/gut, which, in addition to knowing what you want, has an eerily accurate sense of what you’re capable of.
5. Be specific and make a plan.
This is pretty straightforward. Instead of saying, “I will eat more vegetables,” say, “I will eat more salads for lunch and make more collard greens for dinner.”
If your goal is to run a marathon, plan specific days and times when you will be able to train and mark them on your calendar.
If this is challenging for you, write down a list of the things you will need to do to accomplish your goal and then put them on a timeline or calendar.
6. Identify potential challenges.
Studies have shown that taking the time to identify potential barriers makes people more likely to follow through on their intentions. So think realistically about what might get in your way.
Do you lack resolve to go to the gym once you’ve made it home from work? Are you too tired after a long day to cook the vegetables you want yourself to eat? Do your kids interrupt you when you try to meditate, or does one person always trigger you despite your best efforts to speak kindly to others?
Write down a plan for how you can handle each obstacle and imagine yourself doing it in the moment for an even greater likelihood that you’ll successfully overcome them.
7. Find support.
It’s easy to beat up on ourselves when we fail to reach our goals, but it’s a pretty useless exercise. If it weren’t, I guarantee you it would have made you reach every single one of your goals by now.
So instead of beating up on yourself when things don’t go as well as you’d hoped, ask yourself what support would have helped you be successful. Often when we fail, it’s because we didn’t have the right support.
Support can look like many things. It could be a friend to go running with, or a bootcamp community to help you get up in time to exercise. It could be a family member who checks in with you on your efforts every now and then or someone to just listen when things get difficult. It could be someone to help you notice progress when you can’t or who can celebrate with you. It could be someone who’s done what you’re hoping to do who can share their experience and wisdom with you. It could be a friend, parent, spouse, child, therapist, pet, or coach.
There are infinite forms of support, so experiment and find out which types help you succeed.
8. Give yourself enough time to see results.
Change takes time. I work with most of my clients for 6 months because creating new habits, learning new skills, and changing patterns in our thinking and behavior takes time (not to mention practice).
Set yourself up for success by having reasonable expectations and acknowledging that if you’re setting meaningful and ambitious goals for yourself, they’re not going to happen overnight.
9. Celebrate success!
This is critically important. Acknowledging our success—even when it’s partial or incomplete—is hugely motivating. It also reinforces our sense that we’re capable of achieving our goals.
So take the time to look for progress daily, weekly, and monthly, and celebrate it. I recommend writing down at the end of the day what you did to move towards your goal or intention and any progress you noticed.
For all accomplishments and milestones, no matter how small, give yourself a high five (literally, if possible) and take a moment to bask in your success. For the larger ones, do something fun with somebody else with the explicit intention of celebrating your achievement.
10. Dare to be imperfect.
Know going in that you will make mistakes, fall short, fail, and get back up again.
Nobody can do things perfectly, and there’s no reason they should. You don’t have to be perfect to be successful. Try not to slip into the trap of all-or-nothing thinking.
Temporary lapses don’t undo all the good work that you’ve done; in fact, they give you an opportunity to let down your guard and be lazy, selfish, or indulgent (aka enjoy life). Everyone needs to do this now and then or we start to lose our sense of joy and humility (often accompanied by a non-too-endearing habit of harshly judging others for taking the liberties we’ve been denying ourselves).
If this isn’t enough reason for you to allow yourself some slip-ups and indulgences, then remember that these momentary failures give us a valuable opportunity to learn more about ourselves as well as a chance to replenish our fatiguing will power. You can get back on the wagon next time and be stronger than ever.
We take this whole resolutions thing too seriously. Whether we resolve to become better people or not, we will. Life’s challenges and our innate desire to learn will make sure of that. We can help ourselves mostly by embracing the opportunities to grow that life throws in front of us and giving ourselves the loving support and encouragement we need and deserve as we do so.
So I invite you to resolve that this will be the year that you trust yourself to grow and flourish rather than force yourself to. That you accept everything—pimples, fear, anger, laziness, ice cream cravings, and all—and build off of all the goodness you find within you. Let this be the year that you finally acknowledge that you’re an amazing, talented, caring, creative, and stupidly brilliant human being with enormous gifts to offer the world when you just stop fighting yourself with punitive resolutions.