Why New Year’s goals and resolutions don’t stick (and what to do instead)

From the archives, a post I wrote in January 2020 that’s still very relevant!

Every year on New Year’s Day, I would retreat and spend the day journaling to rehash all the things I hadn’t done the previous year, and set goals that I failed to keep for the next. After a few months, I’d beat myself up for the failures. Rinse and repeat, over and over. Not a good recipe for a healthy self-esteem, that’s for sure.

But 2019 was different: I felt no compulsive need to figure anything out. There was no puzzle to solve. Sure, I’d like to get to the gym more often and cut back on carbs, but my life is pretty simple these days. I’m a lot happier. I don’t feel compelled to make any big changes.

What happened?

I spent all of 2019 getting aligned with what brings me joy. It was an elimination diet of sorts; I literally eliminated everything from my life — stuff, job, home — and set out on a nomadic journey to feel my way back into a life that fits me like a tailored suit.

I recognize that not everyone can (or would want to) take the kind of crazy leap that I did. But I’ve made some observations from my transformation process that can apply to anyone.

  • Focus on how you want to feel. Emotions drive behavior, not logic or a list of to-do’s. When we get really clear on how we want to feel in every aspect of our lives, and start taking baby steps to feel that way more frequently, we gradually shift everything in our lives. There’s a reason why Marie Kondo’s Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up is a global sensation; she’s simply helping people surround themselves with what brings them joy by getting rid of what doesn’t. This book was instrumental in helping shift my own life and I highly recommend it.
  • On a related note, start with releasing. We’re all operating with a finite amount of time, energy and resources that are currently allocated to other things. Most of those other things (people, activities, stuff, work, etc) don’t bring us joy. They’re simply the accumulations of life that we’ve picked up, like a snowball that grows as it rolls downhill. The older we get, the more of this accumulation gathers unnoticed and unquestioned. We all need to get better at saying no, setting boundaries, and offloading what we can. Let’s eliminate the NOs so we can clear space for more YES.
  • Then add easy YESes. It’s hard to commit to the tougher resolutions like diet and exercise if the rest of our lives are lacking joy; you’re just piling shoulds on top of shoulds. No wonder we don’t stick with them! Try this instead: start with clearing some space in your calendar by replacing a NO with a YES… perhaps a cooking class, dancing in your living room, or painting rocks… whatever floats your boat. Clear some space in your closet by taking NOs to a resale shop, and trade them in for something that makes you deliriously happy when you wear it (I just picked up some happy striped socks for Christmas!) Start your day with a routine that puts a smile on your face; I make a perfect soy latte, journal and write poetry. What brings you joy? Do more of it. Simple.
  • If it’s not a Hell Yes, it’s a No. How many of us agonize over whether something or someone is right for us or not? Let’s make this perfectly clear and simple: if it’s not a hell yes, it’s a no. Agonizing, debating, writing pros and cons… it’s all useless. Seriously. Look back over your life; can you honestly find one thing you’ve debated that turned out to be a hell yes? Ok, maybe 1 out of 100 times it might be worthwhile… but that means statistically you could save yourself a lot of time and trouble by moving on already. Make room for Hell Yes.
  • Let the process be more organic. If there’s one thing I’ve noticed by stepping off the hamster wheel, it’s this crazy focus on goal-oriented performance. Americans especially are programmed to operate in a linear fashion: set a goal and start ticking off boxes. But most human beings aren’t designed to work that way; like a blind person, we slowly sense our way a new life by making small changes and seeing how they feel to us. If they end up feeling good, we’re likely to do more of it. If it doesn’t, then we stop. So please stop flagellating yourself into performing according to some inhuman standard, and start having more fun with this process. Play. Experiment.
  • … but stick with it. If you’ve decided how you want to feel — let’s say strong and empowered — then the activities that directly contribute to that emotion – in this case, exercise – are no longer optional. It doesn’t matter how you feel in the moment; what counts is that you’re doing the thing that will help you achieve your bigger, more important emotional goal. Chances are the first few weeks are going to suck, and that’s ok. You’ll eventually hit a point where you realize: hey! I’m feeling strong and powerful right now! And boom… this whole process starts getting easier.

Dear reader, what will you say NO to this week in order to clear space for YES? How do you want to feel this year, and what will you start doing to feel that way more often?

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