Don’t Worry About Failing at “Resolutions” This New Year (Just Set Better Goals)

published Jan 4, 2017
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(Image credit: Emma Fiala)

I’ve never been a person who’s good at New Year’s resolutions. I’d always set my sights on a bunch of lofty aspirations and then wind up dropping off after a few months or a few weeks, never getting to exactly where I’d hoped I would by the time the next December 31st rolled around. And it always felt terrible, because I thought I was failing.

In 2016, I decided to try something new. I set goals that were totally different from the kind I normally would: Instead of focusing on results, I started focusing on doing more activities that I knew would make me happier. I promised myself I would practice guitar more, take more selfies, let myself eat french fries more often, wear clothes I liked but didn’t think I could pull off, and cut back on my chronic apologizing (I’ve always been one of those people who says “sorry” before stating an opinion, or talking about my feelings, or when someone else bumps into me, for example). Some of these goals may seem silly, but I chose them because I hoped they would both push me out of my comfort zone and teach me to love myself a little bit more. And rather than wait until 9 AM on January 1st to get going, I started on my goals right away.

The year is over now, and while admittedly my schedule got the best of me and I didn’t quite get as far on my guitar as I’d initially hoped, I came so far on the other goals. I became much more confident in myself (it’s a work in progress, but all progress is good progress!) and started to enjoy the little things in life a lot more. Even throughout the year, I began to feel more motivated, and I found myself setting new goals and trying new things as I thought of them—whether that happened in January or October.

Most importantly, my 2016 experiment taught me that my past resolution failures didn’t happen because I didn’t have the resolve or the follow-through to accomplish the things I wanted to get done, it’s just that I wasn’t going about it the right way. I wasn’t setting productive goals for myself, which set me up for that failure feeling.

Resolutions are usually unattainable goals

You’re probably thinking about creating your New Year’s resolutions right now—the whole process is supposed to be a positive thing, a way of making the next year better than the last, and a way of becoming a stronger, happier person, but it doesn’t always work that way. If you’re struggling to get through your resolutions every year, the problem probably isn’t you, but rather, the way you’re setting goals.

We often think about the things we want to achieve, but we don’t break them down into smaller, productive steps that we can actually take—I know I’ve long been guilty of this. For example, many people set resolutions like “I want to lose 20 pounds” when a better, more productive alternative might be planning to go to the gym once or twice a week until you feel comfortable with it, then slowly adding more days of exercise in until you have a solid routine you like. Another good alternative could be choosing a few different fitness activities and signing up for introductory classes for all of them, then picking one (or more!) to stick with, once you know what you’re getting yourself into. The reason these goals work better is that they’re actionable and they have a better attitude behind them—rather than focusing on a number that might not even be attainable, you’re focusing on the activity itself, and finding what works best for you.

The other issue is that we often don’t set goals that will actually make us happy. We set goals that we think will make us happy, in an almost hypothetical way. (“If I just did xyz, my life would be so much better.”) My goals always used to be weight- and fitness-related, but an important thing that I learned is that when I stopped making that my main goal and focused instead on the little things that actually did make me happier and feel better about myself as-is, I actually felt more motivated to exercise because it wasn’t coming from a place of self-hate, but self-love. Instead of trying to change myself, I just tried to be kinder to myself by working on the other, smaller goals I’d set, and that helped so much.

You don’t have to start them on the 1st

The other problem with New Year’s resolutions? They give us a reason to procrastinate—we get to decide on our goals weeks or even months in advance, and then wait for the clock to strike midnight before we actually begin. The idea of waiting for a fresh start at the top of the year might seem comforting, but the reality is that any day can be a fresh start if you want it to be—all you have to do is start working on the things you want to accomplish, and you don’t need to wait for the calendar to approve of it. That also means that if you think of goals you want to achieve now, even after you’ve rung in the New Year, you can start them whenever you want—there’s no need to limit yourself.

If you haven’t set resolutions for this year—or even if you have, but are still thinking about alternatives—try this: Think about the little things that make you happy, consider any hobbies you might want to pick up or get better at, and think about any other big goals you might want to achieve—then break them down into smaller, more productive steps. Starting all of them at once might be overwhelming, depending on your goals, but start slow. Pick one thing you can get started at right away, and take the first step.