Stop forcing resolutions in January

When it comes to creating better habits, timing and intention are key.

Lorenza Centi
The Whole Truth
Originally Published: 

As we enter the third (!!) year of this pandemic in the middle of an umpteenth wave, setting intentions outside of staying the fuck alive feels like a lot to ask right now. But if, like me, you can’t shake off the capitalist urge to try and come up with New Year’s resolutions for 2022, I’m here to tell you that we’re better off without them. At least, for now.

Look, this is not one of those angsty think pieces about why New Year’s resolutions are inherently bad. It’s perfectly natural and acceptable to harness the energy of a brand new year as motivation to “be better.” The real problem is that many of us approach setting resolutions all wrong: We feel pressure to come up with these lofty goals on a whim and often, all we end up doing is feeling inadequate because they make us reflect upon everything we haven’t achieved.

It becomes even more depressing if this year’s resolutions look a whole lot like last’s (as it turns out, “getting abs” takes longer than I thought). When you take into account that about 80% of resolutions crash and burn, we have to start wondering if we’re approaching it all wrong.

There’s a plethora of listicles out there that will tell you exactly why most of our resolutions fail: The expectations we set are unreasonable, we’re actually secretly scared of achieving them, or we just get impatient. There’s also the curious concept of assigning of these goals to the beginning of the year. That pressure to “change for the better” that we culturally adhere to in and of itself, is oppressive.

But after speaking to some experts, I believe the greatest reason resolutions fail is because we’re too often focused on the performance element of setting and announcing our goals, as opposed to really thinking about what we want.

It’s essential to identify the driving force behind our resolutions, says Pauline Wallin, a Pennsylvania-based licensed psychologist. She tells me that whether something is internally or externally motivated can make the difference between achievement and failure. “If you want to lose weight mainly to look better or to feel less self-conscious, that’s an external goal,” she explains. “If you want to lose weight mainly to lower your cholesterol or manage your blood sugar and hopefully live longer, that’s an internal goal.” In other words, goals that are motivated by a longer term goal are more sustainable and therefore more likely to succeed.

We’re too often focused on the performance element of setting and announcing our goals, as opposed to really thinking about what we want.

But I know from personal experience that it can be hard to determine where exactly my motivation is coming from when so much of our lives are spent online. These days, it feels as though we’re supposed to tell everyone around us the positive things we do for ourselves and others — that’s literally why social media platforms like Instagram exist.

Not feeling shitty about ourselves when we’re confronted with the cacophony of gym selfies in the coming weeks will be difficult, and resisting the urge to show your friends how much you’re doing to better your own life will be even harder. But some research has shown that announcing a goal makes it less likely to achieve them because it gives us a premature sense of accomplishment. And this is, at its core, my biggest issue with New Year’s resolutions: It’s so hard for them not to turn into an exercise, good eating, and “self-care” in virtue signaling.

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But Giovanni Dienstmann, an author and self-discipline coach based in Australia, gave me a more optimistic perspective. He is hopeful about the utility of New Year’s resolutions, because they are a way of setting priorities. But he believes that the reason people don’t fulfill their resolutions is because they set them without any profound intention — the way someone might want to have a ripped body just because the prospect of feeling desired is exciting.

“I like to say that pleasures are the fast food of happiness. They are quick, they are easy, but they don’t really fulfill us,” he says. “Instead, the life of meditation and self-discipline is about prioritizing purpose, finding the things that really fulfill you, that really make you happy.”

It turns out that a huge part of setting goals is as basic as sitting down and deciding which achievements are realistic as well as which ones would actually make your life better in the long run. Identifying what will make us deeply happy takes time, of course, but it is a necessary part of setting resolutions that will last. Someone might, for example, set a resolution to get a promotion at a job they don’t love without thinking about whether it will actually make them happier. After really thinking it through, though, that person might decide that the resolution they actually need to set is to quit.

Diesntmann also says that once you identify the goals that will give you purpose, you should create a detailed plan for how to achieve them. If your resolution is to stop drinking in 2022, you can’t just assume that you’ll suddenly turn down drinks with co-workers or refuse a glass of wine at a friend’s birthday. Instead, you have to implement structure and a contingency plan for unexpected situations: What are you going to do if your best friend is persistently offering you a drink after a stressful day of work? The more specific you can be about what you’ll do in moments when you want nothing more than to abandon your resolution, the more fool proof it will be.

Lastly, the belief that you can actually achieve and deserve to achieve your biggest dreams is one of the biggest obstacles a lot of us will have to overcome, which is why Dr. Wallin tells me to avoid the word “try” when setting resolutions. “‘Try’ is just wishful thinking without a plan, and is likely to be abandoned,” she tells me. “In the words of Yoda: Do or do not. There is no try.”

If you’ve already done the work for the past few weeks to set meaningful goals for 2022, then setting New Year’s resolutions will be a breeze. For the rest of us, there’s no shame in sitting back and taking things slow until we figure out what we actually want and how we can reasonably achieve it. Whether we wait until February, August, or October to start pursuing something, the most important thing is that we do it at our pace and set ourselves up for a real victory. Our resolutions shouldn’t be tools to better our public image — they should be personal vehicles to arrive at joy.