Why not? people ask me. New Year's resolutions are generally supposed to be about doing something, or doing a number of things, to make ourselves better. And you know I am an advocate of self-improvement.
Self-improvement may be the underlying point of New Years' resolutions...maybe. But that's not what they do to people. Making New Years' resolutions is one of the most torturous things we do to ourselves in public, culturally speaking.
Here are five reasons you should do something else with your energy and good intentions besides making the resolutions (and what you should think about instead):
1. New Years' resolutions are often not grounded in reality. They assume that we will change something immediately and permanently about our habits or character. Enter the night-owl's resolution to go to bed by ten and be up by six; the couch potato's decision to run a marathon by mid-February; the introvert vowing to go out three times a week. There is not necessarily anything wrong with making these decisions—but we shouldn't make them based on the date printed on the calendar page. Even if you didn't know anything about human nature (from having lived and worked with other humans), then knowing yourself should give you a hint about what to expect of your behavior.
What to do instead: If you want to make a change, then assume you're starting where you are. Consider your means while you're thinking about wanting something bigger. (For example: wanting to eat better but cook less, a la your favorite celebrity, does not automatically mean that you're going to have the means to hire a personal chef on New Year's Day.) Make incremental changes, based on behaviors and other investments you can support. (For example: If we want to eat better but cook less, maybe cooking and freezing meals on the weekends could be a place to start.) These changes are about you, so make them about your life and circumstances today.
2. They may be based on an assumption or idea that isn't good for us. When I was in my twenties, I don't think I knew a single female who didn't include a New Year's resolution that was based on weight loss. I have issues with that to begin with--resolving to eat better and move our bodies more frequently is a great idea; but making a commitment to be smaller is something separate. We don't do it healthfully. Most often, we adopt a slash-and-burn technique, whereupon we decide that we should or could do anything to ourselves, as long as the final result is weight loss. Stop eating/drink only shakes/eat a very low calorie diet for 3 months? Why not? Our cultural assumption is that the behavior is acceptable, as long as someone is losing weight! Tip: If we want to adopt a change to become healthier, and it isn't something we would tell a five-year-old to do, then it isn't something we should do to our own bodies.
But this issue aside: when we are deciding to make our bodies smaller, we seem to select a new goal weight based on a number we pull out of a hat. I hear women say all the time that they have goal weights that are wildly inaccessible. (Deciding to lose five pounds is one thing. Deciding that we have to fit into our high school prom dress is something else altogether.)
There's a whole other piece here: those people on weight loss game shows are working out for 6 hours or longer every day. Um...are you planning to quit your job and make weight loss your full-time endeavor? That's what they're doing. And while that seems to work out for a little while, producing some drastic results, you should take a look at what happens to them in the long run, when they go back to their regular lives.
What to do instead: What if you decided to treat your body better overall? Eat better, sleep more, move more. There is lots of research suggesting that those habits are the best determinants of longevity.
3. We think mean people know better than we do. Look: deciding to change your mind about habits is a big decision. It's tempting to cede authority to people who may know more. That's helpful. But when they're not nice to us, that's...there's just no reason to do that. Excluding police, military and people who work in rehabs, nobody needs to scream in your face in order to communicate their message. People can be courteous. That's part of the code of interpersonal relations for every grown person. We're responsible for not being jackasses.
On the practical side: How can people hear us if they're feeling overwhelmed by our rudeness? Yelling triggers people. It may take them back to a time when they were children, powerless and trembling; it may take them back to summer camp during their teen years, when they were feeling wild and reckless; or it may take them back to theater camp...a combat zone...cheerleading practice...a bad relationship. The fact is, we just don't know what we are calling up for people when we are something other than kind. So why not work from a place of kindness and compassion? Or, if we can't muster that up, the least we can do is be cordial.
What to do instead: Spend some time thinking about how people in your life interact with you. Are they kind? Cordial? Helpful? Honest? Evaluate whether their comments have some merit. Listen: we are not all going to be best friends...but if someone is not nice to you, fire them. Kick them out of that position in your life! If you think someone is not treating you well, then your job is to find someone who will be--especially if you are paying (emotionally, financially, energetically, etc.) for the service.
4. They make us feel bad. Granted, we only feel bad because we feel inadequate. And we feel inadequate because our resolutions weren't based on reality. I'm not advocating for staying where we are, or deciding not to implement progress because failure makes us sad. I'm saying that we punish ourselves for failing to make good on promises that we couldn't possibly have kept.
What to do instead: Choose to make changes that are going to make you feel good about who you are in the place where you are right now. Put your inner critic's voice on silent. Be mindful about the choices you are making in your life.
5. They don't help us focus on long-term improvement. New Years' resolutions are short-term goals--even if they are couched in long-term language, they are usually made with the same kind of fervor that we displayed when we were five and still wishing for a pony to appear in the backyard. For many of us, the resolutions that we make on January 1st are quietly abandoned by Valentine's Day. That can leave us feeling crushing shame, self-blame, and disappointment. The truth is, the whole thing is a setup. Any time we make a huge proclamation about what we are going to do, we are setting ourselves up unless we find a way to shape it to our daily lives.
What to do instead: Make a list of what you want to have more of in your life! Post a copy on your bathroom mirror. Put one in your wallet. Put one in your car. Make it accessible to you wherever you go. And this list--once you have it, then you can filter your decisions through the contents, to see whether you were going to help yourself move your life towards the fulfillment of your goals. This is a big difference, because it gives you an easy way to incorporate your desires into your daily life,instead of setting you up for failure--which is what the resolutions do.
I am an advocate of living in joy! Finding ways to bring more of what we want into our lives must include creating flexibility. We live better when we leave room for changes to take place...when we leave space for changing our minds! People shift. Circumstances change. Even if we're not big fans of whatever the new baseline is, we can still decide to accept them, so that we can work inside them to create what will work for us.
That's it, I guess. Be present in your own life, so that you can go out into the world and make more joy. This means making good notes about what we want to create, and how we can move towards it. It means staying present in our bodies, so we notice our reactions; what pains us; where we are holding our sorrow. It means surrounding ourselves with people who challenge us, as well as those who are our fans. It means finding new and different ways to treat ourselves with kindness.
If you have to make a resolution, that's the one to start with.
Happy New Year to you!