Skip to main content

For all its sparkle and hype, New Year’s is one of the most natural holidays. It’s the holiday when we humans acknowledge that we are a part of nature and participate in its cyclical structure: Our lives have seasons, and each year is a fresh start. However, because we are self-directing beings, it’s up to us to determine just how fresh we want that start to be.

New Year’s gives us the opportunity we need to pause, to reflect on the past year, and to lay out the framework for the next phase of life. This process is what we call “making resolutions.” Although it seemed silly to me for many years—the first activity in a year of “Hallmark Holidays”—I’ve come to see the importance of New Year’s resolutions: They help us to take stock of our past year and our present state of being, and they give the coming year of life a shape and a purpose. The troubles and joys of day-to-day living take so much of our time and energy through the year; we lose a sense of the forest for those very many and very diverse trees that fill up our field of vision. It’s important to step back and take a bird’s-eye view of things, so that we can both enjoy a sense of accomplishment and assess how we’d like to improve.

But often the enthusiasm of New Year’s is undermined within a few short weeks, or even days. I don’t know about you, but I don’t feel fresh in January, and my gas tank is often on low. When the zeal of the fresh start encounters the counter-force of the habits I’ve developed over a lifetime, I often lack the energy to follow through on what I’ve resolved to do. Excitement devolves into apathy, and by March I’m dejectedly grumbling to myself that There’s Always Next Year.

While the post-holiday doldrums are largely unavoidable, I think a large part of the problem lies in my resolution-making process (or lack thereof!) I generally do one of two things: Either I painstakingly make a list of resolutions that overhaul every aspect of my life, or I utterly avoid the process until a few days into January when guilt motivates me to sketch out a few half-hearted goals that I forget and abandon as soon as I articulate them.

The problem with Method 1 is that it demands the impossible. New Year’s resolutions are all about changing our habits of being in one way or another, and habits take time (sixty-six days, according to recent studies!)—especially if you need to work against one habit to develop another one. No one can do fifteen new things well: we humans have limited energy resources, and so we can’t do everything at once. And failing at many things is the best way I know of to make sure we fail at everything.

The problem with Method 2 is that it totally undermines the importance of the enterprise: Why should I bother grappling with some half-hearted resolutions I dreamed up late at night some Thursday in January when plagued by nebulous guilt?

So, in these early days of 2019, here are some things we can do to make good, intentional, and achievable resolutions.

The first step is to take time to reflect. With resolutions as with dating, intentionality is half the battle. Respect yourself and your life enough to sincerely reflect on your habits, vices, virtues, goals, dreams, desires, and weaknesses. Let yourself picture—vividly—what you want your life to look like, and how each of your proposed resolutions would play into that. Also, make yourself be honest about what your life would or does look like without that particular habit. This will be useful motivation when the initial zeal wears off and the long winter wears on.

As a second step, I think it could be helpful to categorize areas of life that you’d like to improve or change in some way. The categories that come to mind for me have to do with financial responsibility, self-discipline, career excellence, spiritual life, and time management. Once I’ve made these categories, I plan to pick something from each category to work on.

The third step is to make a plan of execution. Here I’m toying with a couple of options.

01. Method One 

Pick a few resolutions (I’m thinking five or fewer) and to make concrete plans (I’m talking daily, weekly, monthly) for how you can accomplish them. Anticipate how your patterns of life will change over the year (Are you traveling or moving? How does summer affect your daily schedule?) and plan now for how you can accomplish your resolution despite those shifting factors.

02. Method Two

Make monthly or quarterly resolutions. The idea here is to focus your energy on a particular resolution (or perhaps two) for a more limited time. I think this would be particularly useful if you’re preparing for any large change in life (a big move, a career switch, applications to school, etc.) It could also work as a kind of motivational compound interest, where you maintain your old resolution and add a new one each month or quarter. One way or another, you work your way through your list gradually rather than working on everything from the get-go.

In these first few days of the New Year, as you take stock of your past year and anticipate the year ahead, set yourself up for success! If you can take yourself seriously enough to set aside time to prioritize resolution-making, you’ll start the new year right with resolutions you can keep.