Skip to main content

I’ve always loved the feeling of a fresh start that the very word “January” always conjures up. As the band Sleeping at Last puts it in their song “January White,” “So let’s press undo. / Rearrange the old and call it new— / January white.” I like dreaming of what the new year will bring, gathering my writing supplies and marking out calendars and schedules and workout plans, deciding who I want to be in that new year and how to get to that goal.

But this year, I don’t feel that way. As I look forward to 2021 (and believe me, I am looking forward!), I find myself simply lacking the enthusiasm to dust off my dreams, plans, and goals and set to work once again. Part of this, no doubt, is coming from a newly deepened awareness that things don’t always work out as planned. Maybe there’s a little frustration and anger about the monkey wrench 2020 threw into the jobs, weddings, and future plans of so many of my friends. And part of me, I’ll admit, is just tired—tired of waiting for things to change, tired of dreading new complications, tired of the monumental effort that this year has called out of all of us.

As my favorite bullet journal YouTubers rolled out their 2021 layouts and planners started to fill the stores, I realized that this year I just didn’t want to make New Year’s resolutions. Instead, I’m taking a different approach to the New Year, one that’s less about control and more about hope.

Systems, not goals

You’ve probably heard the claim that systems are more effective than goals for real lifestyle change. Admittedly, many New Year’s resolutions do resemble habits, which can be a part of systems. But building a successful system means being willing to revise and change that system often, continually asking yourself, “Is this working for me?” and, “Am I still pursuing something that I think is good?” rather than holding yourself to a standard that you chose on January 1.

The principle that “systems are more effective than goals” might sound a little clinical as an escape from New Year’s resolutions, but this year, I think it’s actually a good mindset to be thinking more in terms of the life we want to live right now as opposed to the life we want in the future or the goal we’re pursuing. For example, rather than turning on a dime on January 1 to overhaul my whole sleep and work schedule, I started waking up early again about two weeks ago and have let my instincts help guide me in building a daily routine that is effective for what I’m working on now. All of it is flexible—the projects I have going on right now, the hobbies I’m enjoying, and even the daily sunlight hours—influence how my current schedule looks, and so I’m more optimistic about carrying the method, though not this precise framework, into 2021 and letting myself go with the flow as things change.

Plus, this method means not driving a wedge between “the person I am now” and “the person I want to become.” Approaching every day with a system that is flexible and the intention to spend that day as well as I can means not thinking in black-and-white, “before-and-after” terms.

Hope, not a bucket list

I think what has always appealed to me about the beginning of a new year is the underlying feeling of hope—that this year will be better than last year, that new things are on the horizon, that anything could happen. This year, I’m letting that hope come to the forefront, because I think it’s more important than resolutions.

At their best, dreams, goals, and plans are an embodiment of hope. But at their worst, they’re an illusion of control. Sometimes I approach a new phase in life determined to make it work for me, setting myself unrealistic expectations and pushing myself incredibly hard to make things happen. If 2020 didn’t teach us anything else, it taught us that sometimes we just don’t have control.

But that doesn’t mean we can’t be hopeful. As I look forward to 2021, I’m trying to think in terms of hopes rather than plans. The things I most want out of the new year aren’t things that I can control—they’re huge things, like an end to the global pandemic, peace in my country, and happiness for my family and friends. Like all the most important things, and all the things we most deeply desire, I can’t make these things happen, no matter how good my intentions. That was always true, but this year in particular has made it abundantly clear.

Of course, you can make 2021 resolutions and still be hopeful, but I’ve found it helpful to let go of huge, overarching goals for a while. This way, I can lean into the experience of letting things come as they may—while being prepared to meet them with the systems I’m putting in place in my life. I can’t control the year ahead, but I can give myself space to meet that year with hope and courage.