New Year’s resolutions date back 4,000 years to the ancient Babylonians who were first documented to hold celebrations in honor of the new year, which happened mid-March, when the first crops went in the ground. Part of the ritual involved making promises to the gods to pay their debts and return any objects they had borrowed. If the Babylonians kept their word, the (pagan) gods would bestow favor on them. If they failed to keep their word, they would fall out of favor with the gods, a place no one wanted to be. Thanks or perhaps, no thanks to the Babylonians, this ritual has since evolved into the act of setting New Year’s resolutions that we know today.
According to a YouGov survey, 37% of us made resolutions going into 2023. 87% of those who set an objective say they are confident they will keep to their resolutions. That number will drop to 9% by the end of the year. This doesn’t mean that setting intentions is a pointless pursuit, they can help to create meaning and provide clarity around which areas of your life you place the most value in at a given time. However, the crucial question we often forget to ask ourselves is why we set the intention.
Optimization is everywhere. We are reminded everyday of all the ways we can be better, and it feels especially abundant at this time of year. Studies show adopting new eating habits, exercising, and weight top peoples list of things they hope to fix. While you’ll find being kinder, more spiritual, and worrying less much further down the list. Notice too, that we place value on physical changes that may be harder to attain over mental and emotional changes. Changing yourself is hard work, but we’ve decided an arbitrary date on the calendar signals a new beginning and is just the push we need to “optimize”––clear the slate and embark on the quest for perfection. To add insult, these resolutions only perpetuate anxiety if we fail to meet the often unrealistic targets we’ve set ourselves.
There’s no bigger buzzkill than ringing in the New Year with loved ones, only to have a list of things you want to change about yourself lingering in the back of your mind. Not only can resolutions take you out of the present moment, but the pressure and expectation to achieve can also negatively impact your relationship with the resolution you’ve set. The problem with resolutions, as we’ve seen, is that they’re usually big lifestyle changes or firm life decisions. Rather than setting small goals, building habits, and taking it day by day, resolutions can cause us to hyper-fixate on the end goal. This hyper-fixation can take us out of our day-to-day and cause us to drift away from our intuition and gratitude for what’s currently present and available to us.
ALTERNATIVES TO RESOLUTIONS
If we’ve got you reconsidering the resolutions you made for 2023, here are some things you can do that will add value, rather than stress, to your life:
- Think of what you can add to your life vs. take away—try making a bucket list for the year, jotting down things you’re looking forward to or starting a new hobby.
- Create a gratitude practice—this can be done as a meditation or journaling practice by simply picking a few things you’re grateful for. Pro tip: for optimal effects pick something new each time.
- Make a to-done list. Rather than beating yourself up for unchecked boxes on your life’s to-do list, take inventory of what you’ve already done. Do this daily or weekly and then review your list at the end of the year. You’ll see how much you’ve actually accomplished without the burden of a list.
- Create habits. If you do have a resolution you’re attached to, try figuring out the motivation behind it and build lasting habits instead.
SETTING SMART GOALS
A resolution can often feel daunting, to say the least. It’s usually a big, bold claim that something in your life either needs to start or stop immediately. The solution? SMART goals. SMART stands for specific, measurable, achievable, relevant and time-bound. This tried and true method works in business, and it can work in your personal life too.
Specific: Get right down to the nitty-gritty. Rather than just saying “I want to save more” try creating more of an action plan, like “I will save/invest x% of each paycheck.”
Measurable: Create a journal or use an app to measure your success—this can be a big motivator to continue.
Achievable: Be realistic! Aiming to achieve something that compromises your lifestyle, or happiness isn’t sustainable.
Relevant: Remember the why! What’s your intention for setting this goal? Make sure it’s something you want/need in your life and it’s coming from a place of authenticity and not low self-esteem or societal standards.
Time-bound: Making a timeline will help you to celebrate little wins and milestones along the way.
Setting goals not for you? Take a page out of James Clear’s book. The Atomic Habits author says if you want better results, forget about setting goals and focus on systems instead. Goals may be good for setting direction but systems are where progress shines.
He outlines some examples on his site:
- If you’re a coach, your goal might be to win a championship. Your system is the way you recruit players, manage your assistant coaches, and conduct practice.
- If you’re an entrepreneur, your goal might be to build a million-dollar business. Your system is how you test product ideas, hire employees, and run marketing campaigns.
- If you’re a musician, your goal might be to play a new piece. Your system is how often you practice, how you break down and tackle difficult measures, and your method for receiving feedback from your instructor.
A well-designed system always wins. By focusing on your systems, the results will take care of themselves. It’s up to you to commit yourself to the process and change will unfold.