What’s wrong with New Year’s resolutions? The short answer might be: it depends. This time of year brings with it an onslaught of “bettering” ideas for us all, whether we are looking to change our reading/eating/cleaning habits, work towards healthier relationships (with others or ourselves), or increase our times spent on things we enjoy or value. The new year also brings response articles about how resolutions can increase stress and unhealthy self-criticism, which are some important points to remember (for some of them, see https://www.cnet.com/health/why-you-shouldnt-make-a-2021-new-years-resolution-according-to-a-psychologist/). For those who have experienced trauma, New Year’s resolution talk can bring up old (and perhaps unhelpful) survival patterns of over-responsibility and can lack compassion for the impact of loss and grief.
However, the biggest challenges with resolutions aren’t in making them at all, but in what (or why) we are choosing to include as resolutions in the first place, as well as how frequently we are revisiting what is important to us.
To address the “what and why,” we might try taking a step back to look at our life and who we want to be in it. What qualities would you like to be described by (especially by those you care about)? If you imagine yourself a year from now, looking back at 2021, what would you most like to have done, experienced, and/or shifted your approach about? For this step, try to stick with broad categories/qualities such as “health” or “kindness” instead of specific goals (yet) such as “walking every day” or “donating food.” For example, there can be a number of ways to value health beyond walking (which means you don’t have to abandon your plan for a more healthy 2021 if you happen to twist your ankle next week or if it’s snowing outside). Also, you might consider which of these values are truly from you, versus what we think we “should” want. For help with a “values review,” try this tool from Dr. Russ Harris: https://www.actmindfully.com.au/wp-content/uploads/2019/07/Values_Checklist_-_Russ_Harris.pdf.
Next, brainstorm all of the ways you can live out your chosen value. For example, actions in line with a quality such as “kindness” could include donating household items, volunteering to shovel snow, offering to pick up groceries for a neighbor, or texting a friend to share something you like about them. As you make your list, you may begin to notice some activities that are easier to do daily, weekly, or annually; as well as areas that may be more in line with your financial or ability levels than others. And, don’t shy away from putting things down that you’re not sure you could follow through with; circumstances may change, and some ideas that are less feasible may jog your creativity to find activities that are feasible (e.g., if you are not able to buy supplies for a local charity drive, perhaps you can share the information with your neighbors or offer to pick up supplies that others have donated).
Finally, and perhaps most importantly, finding time not just once per year but once (or multiple times) per day to orient yourself both to your identified goals AND the underlying values you’ve chosen to prioritize. Some scientists argue that average adults make upwards of 35,000 decisions per day (https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/stretching-theory/201809/how-many-decisions-do-we-make-each-day)! How do we expect the vast number of decisions we make to line up with a resolution made once (or even a few times)? Luckily, there are many “right” ways to do this orienting work as well, including setting a time each morning for mindfulness or daily planning, scheduling times on your calendar, or asking for support from a friend or family member.
And with all of our want to change in the new year, we might also consider an invitation to practice compassion as a resolution for 2021. The dangers of resolution setting becoming another opportunity for hyper-productivity, unhealthy self-criticism, and “toxic positivity” might be inoculated by inviting space for self-compassion, especially following a year full of (and perhaps with continued) loss and trauma. Compassion is absolutely a value that one could choose to commit to as a resolution, both on January 1st as well as every day in 2021. And within a world that has increasingly reminded us of the limitations of our own sense of control, having a choice to decide what’s important to us and who we want to be in this world is not only important, but often necessary, to foster our individual and collective resilience.