A Kinder, More Effective* Approach to New Year’s Resolutions


Photo by Corey C. Johnson @coreycjohnson on VSCO

*In my humble opinion.

Right off the bat, I should note this is not actually about New Year’s resolutions. I know. It’s right there in the title. But you see, it’s the fourth week of January in the year of our Lord 2020 and I had to get your attention.

No. Resolutions, no matter how well-intentioned, are deeply flawed. They are “where our boundless optimism meets our profound self-hatred” and I refuse to peddle their madness any longer. It would be one thing if they actually worked, but they often don’t. So here we are. 

Now, that isn’t to say self-improvement is wrong. Or wanting to achieve some of those benchmarks we set as resolutions are bad, per se. In my mind, the problem lies in the idea that we have one chance all year to get it right.

Beginning in January, we lay down our hopes and dreams, maybe in a beautiful journal that frightens us just to write in—Because, what if we mess it up?! What if our handwriting doesn’t look like the professional calligraphy we saw on Instagram?!—and then, as they say, that’s that. There is never a page in mid-March that asks us to reset our intentions. Nothing at the end of August that wipes the slate clean and says, “Hey, let’s start again.”

If you fell off the wagon sometime in April, you’re probably still in the same place. And if you’re anything like me, you’re on the side of that road holding a second glass of wine you resolved three months prior to not pick up, with a plate of gluten, scrolling through Twitter, still not drinking enough water, with a stack of highly acclaimed though yet unopened books piling up in the ditch next to you. Namely, everything you were supposed to have achieved by now. 

To make progress and then continue building on that progress, you need a different approach. . . . You need some tools to help you stand up again and again and again. To help you keep going after you fail (or, better put, after you fail to live up to your own expectations, which are likely wildly too high and too hard on yourself).

No. To make progress and then continue building on that progress, you need a different approach. A kinder, gentler approach that doesn’t leave you behind if you’ve gotten off track. Or forgotten to fill in a quirky little calendar or habit tracker. You need some tools to help you stand up again and again and again. To help you keep going after you fail (or, better put, after you fail to live up to your own expectations, which are likely wildly too high and too hard on yourself). So here we are. Let’s dive in.

Start with a mantra

A resolution is a firm decision to do or not do something. It’s black and white. A mantra is a slogan you can repeat to yourself; an intention you can set. It leaves room for grace—something we could all be better at granting ourselves. And it’s larger than a simple task.

You can resolve to give up alcohol or you can set an intention to treat your body better. Both might get you to the same place, but one doesn’t punish you for slipping up. It also continues to guide you after you’ve dropped said resolution, which might comfort anyone who has thrown moderation out the window because they had one piece of pizza…and then polished off the rest of the box.

There are also many ways to support the intention behind your mantra. Treating your body like a temple could include getting more sleep, stretching, spending time with friends, etc. But none of these things are written in stone. Try them, don’t try them again. Add something new. The how is flexible, but still all in service to a higher goal for yourself. 

Begin as you mean to go on

A clean slate doesn’t have to wait until a new year, a new month, or even a new day. Every moment, every bite, every sentence can be a new beginning. Every action is your chance to start again. Pause, and begin as you mean to go on. That is, in the ultimate way you want to live. I do this constantly, usually with food, since it has been a source of difficulty for me since I was young.

Case in point: I have (and still do, on occasion) come home, grab a bag of tortilla chips, pop open a jar of salsa, and go to town. At a certain point (the timing is always different), I will pause, chip midair, salsa precariously dangling, and realize what I’m doing. In this moment of awareness, I can keep going, or I can use it as an opportunity to begin again. And put the chip down. Without punishing myself by withholding dinner or going on a hard five-mile run (which is inadvisable after a salsa fest for many reasons). You may feel like you’re starting over 1,000 times a day, but after a while, it will become second nature. 

If you’re growing wary of food and drinking examples, here’s another from my pile of mantras: Treat others the way you want to be treated. Say you’re with a group of moms and you’ve interjected with your own story twice when the opportunity presents itself again—you have such a good parenting anecdote! Do you speak over another mom to share it? Or do you sit back and listen? This is your new moment. You know what to do.

Trade resolutions for layers 

Similar to starting again moment by moment, the idea of layers is explained perfectly by Rainbow Rowell:

So, what if, instead of thinking about solving your whole life, you just think about adding additional good things. One at a time. Just let your pile of good things grow. – Rainbow Rowell

Instead of taking one big swing at everything that’s supposed to make you and your life better in January, free yourself to discover them throughout the year and add them to a list as you think of them. Or don’t write them down at all—if you remember them, they’re worthy of doing. And most importantly, they still count whether you did it a hundred times in a row or three times, skipped two months and then did it once more. In March of last year, I discovered bee pollen. Something I’d been meaning to try and add to my diet for years, but had never gotten around to. After two days I declared, “I’m one of those people who sprinkles bee pollen on things now!” and I’ve sprinkled it on just about everything ever since. I never wrote it down. I didn’t add it to my planner. I just do it.

Weighing baking ingredients. Making my own lunches. Locking the bathroom door so I can finish a magazine article when the kids are driving me nuts. I don’t know when I started doing these tasks that, to me at least, make a difference in my everyday life. I just added them, one by one, without making a big to-do, and that was that. 

BY Kate Smith - January 24, 2020


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