Editor’s note: this article has been updated.
Out with the old, in with the new! The calendar year turns, and all around the world we reflect upon the past twelve months and make wishes about our upcoming “trip around the sun”. A new year, like a birthday, can startle us with the tangible passing of time: our days are limited and precious.
Am I using each one to its potential? Have I lost touch with some essential part of myself that longs to do more — for those less fortunate, for health and well-being, for the suffering ecosystem? Am I ready to make a meaningful change?
Too often, these ponderings and aspirations fade away as the holidays recede and we resume our busy, distracting everyday lives. How can we harness those fleeting visions and translate them into action?
Making habits that last
To open the door for lasting new habits, start by setting aside some time to build a conscious intention. Resolution-making can form a rewarding annual tradition: an eye of quiet thoughtfulness in the busy whirlwind of the holiday season. We can approach this alone, as a couple, as a family or even a community event.
Witnesses to our intentions can help words become reality: consult these potential supporters when follow-through becomes difficult. Goal-setting and goal-reaching both take practice — start with these practical suggestions.
1. Set the stage
Plan your commitment-forming event in advance to allow time to mull over the questions at hand. What might I need to let go of in order to move forward? How will I choose to direct my time and energy in the immediate future? How do I connect with the larger world now, and how could that relationship evolve over five or ten years? If we don’t take the time to consider and choose, old patterns will continue to dominate our days. Immersed in our familiar routines and surroundings, it’s easy to forget we have any options at all.
Create some room (both in time and space) where the pressures of life are temporarily suspended. Turn off or silence phones and other intrusive devices, and make sure everyone’s needs are taken care of for an hour or two. If you have a fireplace, indoor or out, flame is an instinctive focal point for this type of introspective exercise — candles work well too. Have plenty of paper and pens for writing down ideas — art supplies are a nice addition for the visually inclined.
2. Choose one thing
Begin the experience with ten or twenty minutes of silent reflection and writing (with small children, this may be adjusted to out-loud drawing time and discussion). In the brainstorming process, it’s often useful to make a long inventory of ideas. It’s a mistake, though, to make that your “to-do” list. You’ll end up scattering your energy among too many things, and giving none of them the attention it deserves.
If you have many competing goals, try the elimination game: first choose the easiest to let go of, and cross it off. Then do it again, and again, until just one remains: this is the most precious and essential. A single goal allows a wonderful clarity and focus to emerge. Phrase your resolution in as few simple words as possible. If possible, distill it to an easy mantra you can repeat to yourself as you fall asleep each night.
3. Keep it do-able
Aspire to be both realistic and ambitious. Aiming too high can be a set-up for early failure, which discourages further effort. Aiming too low misses out on the excitement of growth. Start where you are, and imagine what one or two steps up might look like.
Some personality types like to play it safe, fearing the disappointment of falling short. Others are wild dreamers, always shooting for the stars: this can be followed by getting conveniently distracted by some other big exciting idea, thus avoiding the hum-drum work of sticking with one thing. Stick with the middle way. Try for a target big enough to make you proud of yourself, but small enough that you can clearly imagine yourself doing the work.
4. Make goals measurable
A resolution like “I will be kinder”, “I will be more in touch with nature” or “I will devote more time to helping others” carries a noble sentiment — the problem is, you’ll never have a real sense of whether or not you succeeded. Instead, aim for a goal that is truly measurable: “I will attend yoga class three times per week” or “I will send five letters to my representatives each month asking them to support key legislation” or “I will dig, plant, maintain and harvest my own asparagus patch”. The content is up to you, but make sure to phrase it so that at the end of 2023, you can look back and celebrate your own progress with certainty. Imagine an activity that you can easily track by checking off boxes on a simple spreadsheet.
5. Let it come from within
It’s easy to set goals based on “shoulds” or the internalized voices of other people’s beliefs. Take a hard look in the mirror and ask yourself if your resolution stems from either guilt or the desire for approval. It’s natural to seek the good opinion of others, or to measure ourselves against an external standard of “goodness”. We all do it. But it’s easy to get lost among the phantoms of how we should look, act, or feel; we can end up doing nothing, paralyzed by conflicting fantasies of judgment.
If you choose a goal that excites your personal motivation and sparks your imagination, success will flow. If you find yourself over-eager to please others, consider keeping your resolution private to reduce that external incentive. What are your own core values? How can you enhance your commitments and let these principles guide your actions even more strongly?
6. Write it down
Thoughts and conversations can easily fade away as days and weeks pass. Many of us don’t regularly use pen and paper these days — as the Digital Age progresses, my handwriting has grown rusty and clumsy with disuse. But for resolutions, plain black ink can serve well.
Write out your intention carefully and clearly, including any relevant details (what, when, where, with whom, how often). Keep it somewhere it will be safe and where you will see it regularly, for example taped to a corner of the bathroom mirror or the inside of your bedroom closet door.
You might also choose to keep a copy tucked into your wallet or a desk drawer at work, for frequent reminding. Aim for somewhere it will be seen in the morning, when your energy is higher and the day stretches before you.
7. Set up your supports
If you’re sharing your goal with those close to you, ask one or two key people to check in with you periodically for reminders and updates. It can help to have a friendly ear, both to congratulate you for sticking with it, and to empathize if you feel yourself falling short.
If you’re making your resolutions with a group, make sure everyone has time to share their thoughts and commitments if they’re ready. Some may opt out of group disclosure, preferring to keep their intentions private. If you decide not to share your goal with family or friends, consider other forms of sharing which may be helpful: some find that membership in an online community or keeping a blog is a good alternative. Even if you’re anonymous online, you can still experience the benefits of sharing progress with others and getting feedback. A journal is another option, in which the page is your witness, and you can be your own listener and supporter.
Make a chart where you can mark your progress either monthly, weekly, or daily. Post it somewhere you can’t ignore it. If you like, go ahead and invest in some adhesive gold stars — deep inside, we each have that little-kid longing to see our name on the wall with a shiny sticker of progress.
8. Celebrate progress regularly
As Pavlov demonstrated, rewards reinforce behavior. Of course ideally, the changes you’re making will be their own reward, but there’s no harm patting yourself on the back from time to time. Don’t wait until the end of the year; set a shorter-term period, for example two months, and do something nice for yourself in recognition of following through. A favorite treat, a movie with a friend, or a picnic at a favorite place of beauty.
Use this moment of celebration to renew your commitment and make any necessary adjustments: if you were too ambitious and are feeling overwhelmed by the time commitment, scale it back a little. On the other hand, if you’ve found it effortless to meet your goals, consider upping it to the next level!
9. Go easy on your failures
Habits are powerful. Change is hard. If you find yourself slipping in your resolve for a few days or weeks, it’s tempting to berate yourself and throw in the towel. Remember, short-term results do not determine long-term success or failure — however, your response to the lapse is crucial. Try to find a way of being gentle with yourself without letting yourself off the hook.
Most importantly, let go of the past every day, and seize the present. Cancelled a volunteer shift because you were swamped at work? Call and schedule another one right now for a realistic time. Got lost in a good book and forgot about your daily brisk walk for a week? Let last week go, but lace up those trail-runners and grab your hat, because there’s no time like right now.
When you mess up it doesn’t mean you’re “just that kind of person.” We all struggle with making meaningful changes in our routine: if you’re not struggling, maybe you haven’t aimed high enough!
10. Consider the Earth
This year, instead of focusing exclusively on self-improvement, let’s look beyond our living rooms. The damage and upheaval our species has caused the planet is knocking on all of our doors, asking for our participation in its healing. How do I feel ready and able to help? For some, a financial commitment makes sense, while others may choose to take action, either locally or globally.
And don’t forget that change begins at home: consider how you might focus on conserving water, reducing food waste, growing your own vegetables, or even starting a community garden.
Kids might benefit from some attainable suggestions like picking up trash on a favorite beach or trail, making posters to encourage recycling, planting trees to sequester carbon, or building and maintaining shelters for birds or bats (of course, they will usually need support to follow through with these plans too).
In many cultures, the turning of the year is a profound opportunity to release the past and embrace the future as bountiful, joyous, and auspicious. Traditionally, the Japanese eat soba noodles on New Year’s Eve because the long buckwheat noodles symbolize strength, resiliency, and long life — and they are easily cut, as we sever all those parts of our past which no longer serve us and our values.
In my childhood, our family climbed onto the couch as the countdown began and leapt off together at the stroke of midnight, springing excitedly into the vast unknown. In Scouts, we made little “wish boats” out of scraps of birch bark and twigs, sending them off down the river carrying our hopes. We can all take this leap of faith using our own traditions or favorite symbols. Beginning in joyful anticipation is one more way we set ourselves up for success.