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.