If you ask the internet what the most popular resolutions are, a bunch of sites return the same basic Top 10 list, with very minor variations in the order of the items.
People charge into each new year determined to exercise more and to weigh less. They want to “get organized,” whether that means cleaning out the garage and decluttering their desk or straightening out some mental work processes. They intend to learn a skill — for years, mine was mastering the guitar. I didn’t. My favorite on the list is the perennial “live life to the fullest,” because how do we even know when we’ve gotten there or what full, fuller, fullest looks like?
Like most resolution makers, I’ve often, over the years, vowed I’d save more/spend less. I usually end up doing the opposite for some reason.
No. 7 on most lists is some variation of shedding a bad habit, like smoking, while 8 is a vow to spend more time with family and friends. The last two on the top 10 are traveling and reading more. To accomplish the former, I’d need to resolve to make more money. And for the latter, I’d need to find more time.
But the thing I like about the tradition of starting the new year off with a resolution is the clean-slate feel and the optimism that are at the heart of the process. Studies suggest that just under half of us enter the year determined that this time we’ll do things differently and make and keep our resolutions. About 8% of us actually will do so. But I’d rather be among the failing share than among those who don’t think about the positive changes that would make life better and that the new year could bring — the positive changes that I could bring.
A growing body of evidence, though, suggests that a more productive path would be to set goals instead of making sweeping resolutions. I think it’s a psychological thing. “I want to do something, so that’s my goal” feels more attainable, perhaps, than “I will do something.” Falling short of a goal just means I keep striving, while failing at a resolution always feels like a failure that demands I give up and admit defeat until Dec. 31 rolls around again. Goals don’t necessarily heed the calendar. And big dreams can be broken down to bite-size chunks.
Someone I loved very much once told me how he quit smoking. Saying goodbye to cigarettes was just too daunting, he said, so instead he set small smoke-free goals: He’d hold off on lighting up until he finished a task. Then, instead of smoking that cigarette, he’d decide to wait until after dinner. And when dinner was over, he’d go for a walk first... And one day, he told me, 40 years had passed and he hadn’t technically quit smoking (which was actually something he’d resolved to do and failed at numerous times). But he’d skipped the withdrawal and the mental part of his addiction; he’d just put off smoking until he didn’t even think about it any more.
Resolutions are charming and have an interesting historical significance, but they often fall by the wayside and may feel like failure instead of a mere setback.
That, to me, is the appeal of goals. They can be ambitious or kind of puny, but they add up to something. Resolutions are charming and have an interesting historical significance, but they often fall by the wayside and may feel like failure instead of a mere setback.
Writing a book is hard, at least for me. Writing a few pages every day is something I’ve done for decades. Drinking more water is harder — and less defined — than having a glass of water as soon as I arise. I keep hearing it’s a mindset change that pays off and I suspect it may be true.
So this year, for the first time, I resolve to stop resolving and my goal is to set doable, specific goals. I like the idea of reaching for the stars. But I’ll probably get farther if I just decide how far to climb three times a day.