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Why I don’t make New Year’s resolutions. But if you do, try this.

Posted by Amy Gutman  December 28, 2012 11:45 AM

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2013 Yield

Last week, a pro­ducer at Huff­Post Live emailed me to ask if I’d be will­ing to talk about New Year’s res­o­lu­tions for an upcom­ing seg­ment. In par­tic­u­lar, she wanted to ask me about a piece I’d writ­ten about willpower and whether I’d been able to accom­plish this year’s goals.

It seemed like some­thing that I should do, and so at first I said yes. But I hedged my response by say­ing that I don’t really make res­o­lu­tions. We had a bit of back and forth – What exactly did I mean? – and I finally said, you know, I think you should talk to some­one else.

Until this con­ver­sa­tion, I hadn’t quite real­ized how deep my resis­tance runs. Sim­ply put, New Year’s res­o­lu­tions strike me as a set-up. A set-up for fail­ure. A set-up for stay­ing stuck. Res­o­lu­tions assume a fix­ity that, in my expe­ri­ence, sim­ply doesn’t exist. The goals I set last year – or last month – often aren’t the same as those that will move me for­ward today.

This is espe­cially true in times of tran­si­tion, when life is inher­ently unpre­dictable. This blog – Plan B Nation – began as a per­sonal explo­ration of strate­gies to nav­i­gate loss and uncer­tainty after the Great Reces­sion. One of my major ongo­ing lessons has been the impor­tance of stay­ing open – of not insist­ing that the future take a cer­tain form.

As I drafted this post, I hap­pened on a print out of writer Vir­ginia Woolf’s New Year Res­o­lu­tions that I’d totally for­got­ten about until now but likely had been sav­ing for just this moment. (I’m pretty sure these must have come via my Vir­ginia Woolf scholar friend Anne Fer­nald.) Dated Jan­u­ary 2, 1931, the list begins:

Here are my res­o­lu­tions for the next 3 months; the next lap of the year.

To have none. Not to be tied.

Indeed. (And I espe­cially love the fact that even the res­o­lu­tion of mak­ing no res­o­lu­tions extends only three months forward.)

Speak­ing for myself, I could never have pre­dicted the events of this past year – that I’d move back to Boston to start a new job in a totally new field. This wasn’t a path I could have envi­sioned, let alone planned. And yet, it’s turned out to pro­vide much of what I most needed.

This is why I don’t think of goals as end­points – I think of them as step­ping stones and exper­i­ments. This means stay­ing curi­ous and open even as I take action. Is this goal still serv­ing me? Or is it time for some­thing else?

Which isn’t to say that goals don’t have their place, just that it’s best to hold them lightly. Action­able goals are the means to an end. They are not the end in them­selves. Goals can be great tools, but they are ter­ri­ble masters.

That said, of course, we do need to get stuff done. Whether your goals are for a year or an hour, here are a few tac­tics you may want to try.

Be strate­gic in how you use your lim­ited stock of willpower. (I talk about the specifics of this in my Huff­in­g­ton Post piece, which draws heav­ily on the book Willpower, by Roy F. Baumeis­ter and John Tierney.)

If you’re strug­gling with a goal, reflect on whether you’re con­tend­ing with a com­pet­ing goal. This strat­egy comes from my one-time pro­fes­sor Robert Kegan, who pro­poses the fol­low­ing four-column exer­cise. Iden­tify in turn: (1) Your goal (e.g., I want to find ful­fill­ing work), (2) The behav­iors that run counter to this goal (e.g., I take jobs that aren’t mean­ing­ful to me), (3) Com­pet­ing com­mit­ments (e.g., I need to main­tain a cer­tain income and level of sav­ings), (4) Assump­tions that under­lie and sup­port the third-column com­mit­ments (e.g., If I go back to school or take a job that pays less, every­one will think I’m irresponsible.)

The point here isn’t to  pro­mote a par­tic­u­lar course of action but rather to gain a bet­ter under­stand­ing of what dri­ves you – an aware­ness that can lead to a pro­found shift in per­spec­tive. (The exam­ple above is based on an inter­view I did with Kegan ear­lier this year for this piece in Psy­chol­ogy Today.)

Keep your eyes on the prize. The true goal isn’t to go to the gym every day or write a novel or orga­nize your office or any of the other zil­lions of tasks that we set for our­selves. The true goal is to live a happy life – a life infused with value and mean­ing, what­ever that is for you.

I wish that for myself, and I wish that for all of you. Thank you for shar­ing my 2012. Here’s to the year to come.

© 2012, amy gut­man. All rights reserved.

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Originally published on the blog Plan B Nation.
This blog is not written or edited by or the Boston Globe.
The author is solely responsible for the content.

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About the author

Amy Gutman is a writer and lawyer with eclectic interests and a resume to match. Her writing has appeared in The New York Times, Salon, Psychology Today, and the Chicago Tribune, among other venues, and she is the author of two suspense novels, both published by Little, Brown. Currently a lecturer in the Commonwealth Honors College at UMass Amherst, she lives and works in Plan B Nation. More »

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