Resolving to Resolve Some Resolute Resolutions

Photo by vinni on Flickr.

With the rapacious materialism of Christmas now behind us, thoughts turn to the new year, a time for new beginnings, fresh starts, and hoary clichés about new beginnings and fresh starts. Look at you, being reborn like a phoenix from the ashes as if you own the place. Why don’t you just turn over some leaves while you’re at it, smart guy?

Of course, with the dreaded new year’s resolutions come the inevitable meta-discussion about the relative worth of new year’s resolutions. So strap in, because if there’s anyone who knows how to set a big deadline-driven goal and then flub it, it’s a writer.

Every December, I see friends make big plans for the next year. At the base level, there’s nothing wrong with this. Unless you’re Leo Babauta and have ascended to some sort of post-goal-setting godhood, it’s probably a good idea to qualify your ambitions. The problem with New Year’s resolutions is that they tend to silently transmogrify into terrifying monoliths of obligation and despair when you’re not looking. Sometimes, even when you are looking.

Personally, I think the New Year’s resolution is the worst sort of crafty, backstabbing goal you can set, in no small part because the failure of the New Year’s resolution is so clichéd that your failure is practically built-in. It seems that when some people (including myself) set their resolutions, they imagine an alternate future version of themselves that doesn’t have the same personality quirks, obligations, and character flaws as the person they are this year.

Unfortunately, chances are that when January 2 rolls along, you’re gonna be the same promise-making, promise-breaking everyperson you were on December 31. Life does not come with heroic montage sequences. But let’s say you’re resolved to make a New Year’s resolution anyway. How do you keep from becoming another risible New Year’s statistic? I advise the following:

Don’t shoot the moon.

Sure, you might lose thirty pounds, run a 10k, finish that novel, take a course in filmmaking, get that promotion, learn to snowboard, bench-press a locomotive, win a hot-dog-eating contest and join the Secret Service all in one year. But chances are you’ll find out (to your considerable alarm) that there are only twenty-four hours in a day. And there’s this sleeping thing. Whose big idea was that?

I know setting a sprawling array of ambitious, life-changing goals is really tempting, because you look forward to that mythical New Year’s of 365 days from now and see yourself as a shining golden god with nothing left to achieve. But, at the risk of sounding like a representative of the Despair Council, that’s probably not going to happen. The problem with setting twenty goals is that you run the chance of feeling like a failure if you “only” complete two, or four, or eight of them.

I’m not saying set goals so modest that you can’t even feel good about achieving them — “I resolve to eat this entire box of peanut butter crackers without stopping to enjoy a beverage,” for example — but set goals you’re at least reasonably sure you can achieve. A little beyond your grasp is fine — a lot beyond your grasp is just self-punishment. And exceeding your own expectations is way more fun than falling short of them.

Never mind what everyone else is doing.

One of the big draws of the New Year’s resolution seems to be that everyone makes said resolutions at the same time, and so somehow support one another by association. In my experience, this isn’t even remotely true. What happens instead is that the first people to break their resolutions share their disappointment with others, who in turn often feel enabled rather than inspired: “Well, if Lloyd didn’t make it through that box of peanut butter crackers without a beverage, I don’t see why I should have to! Diet Pepsi, I hear you callin’!”

Then there are those profoundly annoying people who really do all the stuff they said they were going to do, and leave the rest of us swimming in their wakes like little globular mounds of failure. They’re basically the reason the unspoken New Year’s support group doesn’t work. The nerve. Can’t they have the common courtesy to wash out like the rest of us?

Never mind all that. You have to ignore both ends of the spectrum, keep your head down, set your own bar, and then jump over it. Don’t try to jump over someone else’s. You’ll just hurt yourself. Or you’ll knock down their bar, and they might break it in half and start beating you in the kidneys with it. Great, now you’ve got a clumsy metaphorical bloodbath on your hands.

January 1st is just a day.

It might seem self-evident to say this, but New Year’s is completely arbitrary — just like any other calendar day. You can set the same goal on March 13th or April 9th or June 25th as you can on January 1st. In fact, if you don’t meet your goal today, you can just reset it for tomorrow. Or an hour from now. Meaning you only really fail when you quit.

New Year’s only means something because people say it means something — so just decide that every day means something. Problem solved! Just do yourself a favor and don’t “reset” your goals 364 times in a row, unless you’ve slated Day 365 for making a new resolution called “Drink This Whole Fifth of Old Barn While Playing The Cure’s Disintegration on Repeat.”

You’re not a robot, so don’t speak in binary.

One of the easiest ways to fail at everything you do is to sort everything in your life into two piles: EVERYTHING WENT ACCORDING TO PLAN and OH I FUCKED UP ONE TIME SO NOW IT IS RUINED FOREVER. Life is messy and imperfect, and so too will be your stumbling steps toward goalhood. Your life will frequently be reminiscent of the Keystone Kops as you bumble toward that thing you’re trying to get done. Accept it.

Don’t decide one failure or mistake blows the whole wad, because while you might think you’re being too hard on yourself, you’re actually not. You’re letting yourself off the hook by trading in your goal for a few minutes of guilt. That’s actually a pretty good deal for your brain, even though your brain will try to convince you that you’ve really got it hard while it kicks back with a six-pack of Guilt City Beer and then grabs the remote for a comforting day of Animaniacs reruns — which you’ve earned, on account of all that guilt!

This is a cycle that’s incredibly easy to fall into, which is why it’s so important to recognize and avoid it. Slap that can of Guilt City out of your brain’s hand, and then go see the doctor, because if your brain has hands there’s probably some depleted uranium in your house.

Why did you start this?

Resolutions have a sneaky way of sapping the fun out of goals. Ostensibly, you set a goal because it’s something you want to do. But resolve that goal, and suddenly it’s something you have to do. Resentment sets in and starts poisoning the process. Soon you start looking at that thing that you wanted to do and think oh shit, I’d better do this or I am a wretched husk of a human being without the motivation God gave an eggplant. Yes, very inspirational, you’re sure to do it now!

Instead, consider taking some time to examine your goals and decide if they’re really something you want to achieve. A lot can happen in a year, and goals don’t always need to be immutable — in fact, they probably shouldn’t be. Keep your eye on the prize and remember why you wanted that prize in the first place — otherwise, why are you bothering?

And there you have it. Now, when New Year’s rolls around in a few days, you’ll be armed with the wisdom to resolve the crap out of some goals. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have to go pick up some peanut butter crackers.

13 Replies to “Resolving to Resolve Some Resolute Resolutions”

  1. Was just getting an overdue haircut when my lovely stylist asked me about my New Year’s resolution.

    “I don’t make them,” I said.

    She looked at me, waiting for an explanation, then went back to work on my thinning hairline.

    And I sat and reflected on life and resolutions and flimsy promises we make, mostly to ourselves (our most let-down partners), and destroy before we’ve even leaned on them a bit, let alone pushed.

    I’ve avoided them mostly because of the reasons you’ve listed above – because a definitive quality of the New Year’s resolution is that it is broken. And because I hate crowds.

    But the real truth is that I’ve made those promises to myself and others a thousand times, and every time let myself “off the hook” – which is just swallowing the hook, really, and setting it deeper, somewhere down in your guts. A broken promise is a lie is a lie.

    As I got up to get my coat I asked her, “What’s your New Year’s resolution?”

    “Be nicer to my husband,” she said.

    I drove back to work entertaining myself with the notion she was flirting with me somehow, and forgot about resolutions until I read this.

    I don’t think I’ll make a resolution for New Year’s. But maybe one for tomorrow.

    1. Wow, what a terrific comment, Mike, thank you so much. I really like what you said about the hook — if a resolution just becomes another note in a year-long song of recrimination, what’s the point, really? I think I’ll make some resolutions for tomorrow, too.

  2. You’re just jealous because this year I plan to finally make the long journey to Mordor, where I will cast the One Ring into the fires of Mount Doom once and for all! Wait, what’s that, My Precious? It can wait another year? Oh, ok. You’re right – eating a bucket of curly fries DOES sound a lot easier…

  3. I want to bench press a locomotive. That would be cool…

    Lovely post – really. I’ve found that setting small daily goals works better for me in the long term than grandiose visions at the beginning of a new year. Family, finances, health – all those things can rearrange priorities in an instant. But going in with a vision to be consistent in the things that matter to you – THAT’s what counts.

  4. I love this post! I’ve been thinking long and hard about my writing goals for 2012, but I know what you mean about putting it under the “New Years Resolution” umbrella – it suddenly reeks of obligation. Something I’ll have to be wary of, as I’m still trying to prove to myself that I have the ability to complete a novel!

    Whatever your goals are, for tomorrow, for 2012, for the rest of your life, good luck with them 🙂

  5. Historically, I felt incredibly jaded towards New Years resolutions–don’t crowds ruin everything with their incessant littering and slack-jawed gaping? Just as it is traditional to make the resolutions, it’s also traditional to break them. Then bemoan it. And be reassured about having lied to yourself (even if in small measure) about your intentions for the new year.

    About a year ago, I decided New Years resolutions were just yearly to-do lists. Not for the sum of bad habits that I wish could change–but a big list of things I’d generally like to accomplish.

    I’ve gone full-on app crazy this year. for the big picture goals. Wunderlist for the monthly project-based stuff. Joe’s Goals for the day-to-day stuff.

    Yearly goals (rather than resolutions) still have an inherent problem… they assume/require a bit of stability. Years have the habit of getting away from me. Changing apartments. Changing jobs. Changing cities. Changing states. A year rarely ends up the way it starts out.

    It seems to me easier to do this shit quarterly. I can’t be the only person who thinks more clearly over shorter spans of time.

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