The Key to Actually Keeping Your New Year's Resolution
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The Key to Actually Making a New Year's Resolution and Keeping It

I've learned the hard way how to do this.

A woman covered in streamers and holding a glass of champagne
Getty Images

I’ve learned the self-defeating way that making New Year’s resolutions doesn’t typically work in my favor. I’ve made many — sometimes confused with their somewhat posher cousin of goals — only to slip up and then abandon them altogether, in shame.

Authentic timing is key to kick-starting personal transformation. It’s usually not an arbitrary date on the calendar that determines when the time is right to work toward something I’ve identified as important to me. Rather, what feels more like a sure-footed beginning is when enough finally presents as enough, regardless of the date or month of the year.

I tend to attempt to make several big changes in my life all at once, only to falter under the heavy load of expansive self-improvements. One January I vowed to not drink alcohol, eat sugar or spend any discretionary income on myself, which quickly began to feel oppressive instead of achievable.

When I flub a resolution I deem it a failure, which feels bad internally. Instead, I like to set intentions — desires I can work toward incrementally. Easier to frame in a positive light, those babies are much gentler on the psyche. “There is goodness in making a promise to yourself; it’s not a bad thing to want to keep your own word and show up for yourself,” was explained to me by Aundi Kolber, a licensed professional counselor and author of Try Softer. “It can turn harmful when our desire to make a promise to ourselves is rooted in pushing ourselves harder, further and faster than we have capacity for. When we require ourselves to go outside of our body’s actual capacity in order to meet some abstract criteria of value is when it can start to become harmful.”

Deciding to read more books worked better for me than vowing to watch less TV. At first glance, the difference may seem subtle. But positive emotions that spring from adding something of value to my life, like more of the interpersonal connectivity inherent in storytelling via the written word, are substantially more motivating than negative emotions that well up from denying myself something I enjoy — like bingeing on Netflix.

How we succeed at change is all about our attitude going in. When I procrastinate on a writing assignment, I feel awful — and it gets me nowhere. However, imagining how relieved and accomplished I’ll feel when I meet a deadline is an effective and inspiring way to get started. It’s the difference between igniting a bonfire inside my tender heart as opposed to a small and warming fire under my butt.

Many resolutions people make are common or trendy, such as losing weight or getting organized. Which begs the question: Do we want to make these changes, or do we merely think we should?

I know I should eat healthier and exercise more, but no longer fitting into my jeans is the motivation that spurs me on toward change, not the shift of the calendar year. I’m more apt to travel far to reach a destination I truly want to land on far more than achieving success in arriving in a place I told myself I should journey to.

Kolber also offered this: “Allowing ourselves the flexibility and compassion inherent in taking small steps toward our desires — while assessing and cultivating our capacity, resources and support systems — may be the best place to put our focus.”

For me that means all I’m going to work toward so far in 2022 is choosing to meditate more often than I did last year (which was three times). I’ve learned how much more effective making a single decision can be. When I quit drinking for a year, I practiced spontaneous sobriety. Instead of wrestling with indecision in the moment, each time I was presented with an opportunity to imbibe, I’d already made the one overarching choice not to drink. 

This freed me from the throes of the agonizing decision-making process when facing social situations and days I felt stressed to the point of needing a coping mechanism. Instead, when drinks were offered I chose replacement behaviors in line with my desire to be alcohol-free — like drinking ginger ale or playing relaxing music. Incidentally, I didn’t actually quit for a full year but merely for 350 days. On day 350, I realized the resolution to quit for a year felt arbitrary and was not really what I was trying to accomplish. I wanted to know I could change my relationship with alcohol — that I had the power to decline it. I proved to myself I could, 350 times in a row. That’s what it felt like to have a goal achieved, and an intention honored.

Days, weeks, months and years are made up of multitudes of moments, and not the other way around. What do you want for yourself right now in this moment? What choice will you make or small action will you take today in order to move closer to the results you want?

Maybe the best resolution going forward is simply to be kinder to both who you are now and who you were back then, while allowing yourself to be more intuitive about how you evolve into who you want to become.

Grandiose resolutions that don’t align with our capacity tend to shout, “My way, or the highway!” like a drill sergeant. Setting intentions and taking small, manageable steps, however, will murmur, “This way will get you there, too, honey — and you may even enjoy yourself along the way.”

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