By Stephanie Roberts
The New Year is traditionally a time to reflect on where we are in our lives and to think about improvements that we'd like to make. It seems obvious that the first step in choosing appropriate New Year's Resolutions should be to define specific goals for what we want to achieve in the coming year. I'm a huge fan of goal setting, but I'm no longer convinced it's the best way to approach this whole resolution thing.
Focusing on specific goals leads to those oh-so-familiar resolutions such as "Lose 10 pounds by February 1st," "Go to the gym five times a week," "Stop arguing with my [mother/brother/in-laws/your personal nemesis here]," "Get out of debt," "Quit smoking," and so on. These are all admirable and worthy objectives -- until we binge on that last box of holiday chocolates, start skipping workouts, let Mom get under our skin (again), succumb to a post-Christmas sale or give in to the craving for a cigarette, and the self-recrimination begins.
The purpose of New Year's Resolutions is to help us focus on positive changes we want to make in our lives. Our intentions are good, but often all that we accomplish is to repeat past failures, undermine our self-worth, and add to our burden of guilt because once again we didn't follow through on what we said we were going to do.
A 1998 survey conducted by the University of Washington reported that 63% of the people questioned were still keeping their #1 resolution after two months. That sounds pretty good given how prone we humans are to temptation, but frankly I'm not all that impressed. Two months is a good start, but it's not much time to make lasting changes and I can't help but wonder what that study would have revealed three, or six, or twelve months down the road.
If the prospect of making New Year's Resolutions triggers feelings of guilt because you've been making the same ones year after year -- without ever losing that 20 pounds, or exercising more, or quitting smoking, or getting out of debt, or really-truly-this-time-I-mean-it finally getting organized -- perhaps it's time for a new kind of resolution.
I've come to the conclusion that the best resolutions are process-oriented, not goal-oriented. They focus not on achieving a specific goal by a specific date, but on making subtle and important shifts in how we are living in each moment. I'd like to see more of us make resolutions like "Treat everyone I meet with kindness," "Respond to anger with compassion," "Honor and respect my body," "Make better use of my talents and abilities," or "Be a mindful caretaker of my financial assets."
These kinds of resolutions deliberately break the #1 goal-setting rule: "be specific." Their vagueness is their greatest asset, because instead of setting a concrete milestone (which we then beat ourselves up for not reaching), they provide a gentle guiding light that keeps us headed in the right direction as we make our cautious way forward to becoming better at being who we are.
Process-oriented resolutions help us avoid the pitfalls of failure and guilt by making it easier to reinvent our lives moment by moment. If we slip up and eat that donut, lose our temper, pull out a credit card or light up and take a deep drag, our resolutions remind us that we can make a different choice next time.
This does not mean you shouldn't set goals this year! Goals are terrific, and important, and I definitely recommend creating a specific, written list of your desired achievements. I also, however, suggest separating goal-setting and resolution-making into two distinct tasks.
This year, instead of defining your New Year's Resolutions by what you want to achieve, use them to describe something about the type of person you want to be. Think about what you want to accomplish, then make resolutions that provide a foundation of attitudes and behaviors that will support you in achieving the specific goals you've added to your list.