New Year’s Resolutions: Why Bother?


Inspired by the turning of the calendar, I sat down the other day to review my 2018 resolutions - and found that I had failed miserably. Of the 11 goals I set, I only achieved one -- reading 12 books -- and only because I cheated. To get across the finish line, I threw in a few music history books I’d read for class prep, plus a book I technically finished on January 2 of this year.

I know I’m not alone in falling short of new year’s resolutions. In fact, today, January 12th, is even designated Quitter’s Day because studies show that this is when most people first fall off the bandwagon. Still, I was surprised at my outcome. It wasn’t a bad year; in fact a lot of great stuff happened. I finished my doctorate. I got a job. I played a lot of memorable performances. I had some good times with good people. But the resolutions were a total bust. I was curious: what went wrong?

My mistake WASN’T that I didn’t take it seriously enough. Being a self-improvement junkie, I pooh-poohed the idea of doing my own loosey-goosey process. No, sir. I wanted to learn the right way to do it, from the experts! So, in late 2017, I searched the internet and enrolled in a popular online course called “5 Days to your Best Year Ever.” With a promise like that, how could I resist?

The course, designed by leadership mentor and author Michael Hyatt, was pleasant and easy-to-follow. It provided short videos on each of five steps, after which you were assigned to work through the accompanying workbook. Certainly, part of the value of such a course is that paying actual money provides extra motivation to actually do the work...

The five steps of the course were:

  1. Believe the possibility. This step entailed identifying the “limiting beliefs” that are holding you back and replacing them with “liberating truths.”

  2. Complete the past. Here, you review the prior year and how your expectations were or were not met, and learn from the experiences.

  3. Design your future. This is where the goal-setting begins, using the SMARTER rubric (a slight extension of the SMART goal criteria you learn in high school).

  4. Find your why. After setting goals, this step entailed identifying key motivations for those goals to keep the momentum going.

  5. Make it happen. This is where the mechanics of goal-setting came into play, such as breaking down goals into smaller tasks with deadlines and reminders.

Makes total sense, right? I made my way through the workbook, confidently at first, trying to imagine my best year ever. However, when it came to actually setting goals in Step 3, I hit a wall. Designing my future turned out to be really, really hard. I should have known it would be for me; I’ve never been much of a dreamer. When it comes to my future, I’ve always had a big blind-spot where my aspirations should be (hence the multiple careers). Feeling more often than not that I’m in survival mode hasn’t helped either. So envisioning some grand version of my 2018 was awkwardly difficult. Embarrassed, I went to the course’s Facebook group to read what other people had written. “Just for guidance,” I told myself. In the end, I drafted a number of generic goals: drink more water, read more, learn a language, go to the gym.

As I reviewed last year’s workbook, I was appalled to realize just how much I had relied on external ideas. My goals could have been Jane Doe’s goals. And it wasn’t just the goals. In Step 1, when asked to name a limiting belief and turn it into a liberating truth, I wrote:

Limiting belief: the financial system is rigged towards those who already have money.

Liberating truth: it’s time to hack the system and find a replicable path for the little guys.

Reading them now, those statements don’t even sound like me. I definitely pilfered them. Is it any surprise that I didn’t meet any of the goals? They weren’t even mine in the first place.

I could have concluded at this point that resolutions are dumb and useless, and that we should just forget the whole silly tradition and just live our lives. But something still intrigued me about this ritual, and I wasn’t sure what.

So, this year, I tried again. I worked through the exact same steps and the exact same questions, this time looking back on 2018 and ahead to 2019.

This time around, a funny thing happened: it felt a lot easier. I was able to answer the questions with greater authenticity, less hemming and hawing, and no peeking at anyone else’s answers. As a result, I made some truly eye-popping realizations. In Step 2 for instance, in reviewing the year’s highs and lows and some recurring themes, I was able to come up with some major life lessons for myself going forward. Among them? When you know the next step, stop thinking and just do it. Don’t apologize; act like a badass and you will become one. Cut yourself some slack if something’s not perfect; get it next time.

These life lessons may sound universal, but this time they packed some punch because they were actually about me. They highlighted some of my greatest weaknesses: I can, at my my most doubting moments, be a risk-averse, overthinking perfectionist with low confidence who relies too much on the feedback of others. Harsh? No; honest, and liberating. By verbalizing these weaknesses, I can recognize them before they sabotage the actions that might move me forward. By knowing myself a little better, I can better craft goals for my ideal life. One of my resolutions this year is to write more, whether on this blog or elsewhere. The exercise of putting my thoughts out into the world without apologies or second-guessing will be a good challenge for me — and hopefully helpful to others too. This blog has been great for that, but I still draft 2-3 entries for every one I have the guts to publish, and I still sometimes ask the opinion of confidantes before I post these humble little musings. I’ll be working on posting with more confidence and less hand-wringing this year, for my own sake.

Like so many things, it’s not the outcome of my resolutions, but the journey of setting them that has spurred the most growth. And I’m getting better at making that journey my own. That last bit might actually be the secret of new year’s resolutions, and why I’ll keep doing them. The real measure of whether the year was a success might not be whether you lost 30 pounds, or traveled in a new country, or earned your first million dollars. Rather, it might be whether you now see yourself more clearly, and thus more hopefully, than you did before. If so, your best year yet is sure to follow.

Thanks for joining me on this journey, and wishing you all a happy 2019!