Rethinking New Year’s Resolutions

By Leah Harris

One of the most painful, chaotic years any of us can remember has drawn to a close. How on earth to mark the transition to 2021? Social media feeds filled with “New Year, New You” memes can trigger a sense of inadequacy and hopelessness. Such proclamations may be a grim reminder of goals we set in the past that we didn’t meet. For some folks, resistance to the pressure of annual self-improvement schemes means joining the “anti-resolution movement.” Those who espouse this mindset believe it can be harmful and counterproductive to heap unrealistic and burdensome expectations on ourselves. 

The truth is that complex, “overhaul” type New Year’s resolutions simply don’t work. Almost no one can live up to them. Feminist mentor and coach Kara Lowentheil explains why: they lead to what is called “decision fatigue.” As she explains in her latest podcast episode: “If you try to resolve to take a walk every day, change your eating habits, meditate every day, go to bed at 10pm, eat six vegetables at every meal, journal for an hour a day, you have to make so many new decisions every day and you’re going to experience decision fatigue before you even get out of the house in the morning.” 

2020 showed us perhaps more than any year in memory that even the best-laid plans can be derailed by unpredictable circumstances. And for disabled people and folks living with mental and physical health conditions, the pressure to “be better” can feel especially shame-inducing. Those of us living with such conditions have always known that our lives are far from predictable. No matter how well we take care of ourselves, we may still encounter difficult and unproductive days, weeks, or months. And that’s not our fault. It’s a reality that requires exquisite compassion and flexibility when it comes to setting goals.

If making resolutions is something that does feel supportive for you, Lowentheil counsels folks to choose one thing only. “Picking one thing makes it more about accomplishing a goal. Achieving something hard that you didn’t think you could do. It’s not about fixing everything about yourself so you can be acceptable. It’s about strategic goal setting to create something new in your life that you think would be exciting or valuable or important for you.”

Still others stress the value of setting intentions over making resolutions. As Omar Itani writes for Medium, “If goals are rooted in your tomorrow and where you want to take your life, intentions are rooted in your today and who you’re actively becoming. If goals are fixated on what’s next, intentions keep you focused on what’s now. If goals are about a destination, intentions are about a direction.” Itani invites people to create a one-word intention for 2021 that answers the question: “What do I want my ultimate purpose to be this year?” 

And for some of us, the real revolution is in setting no New Year’s resolutions at all. As Hattie Gladwell, a person who lives with chronic illness, writes for HealthLine, “By not setting any resolutions as the new year approaches, I can avoid the mental distress of not being able to do the thing I promised myself I would. We need to stop starting every new year by setting these unreachable standards for ourselves. We need to just get through life the best we can, to find the joys where we can, and focus on doing what we can, when we can, without making a huge deal about it.”

Resources for further exploration: