Living Well: Ditching Traditional New Year’s Resolutions

Though many of us have been focused on holiday parties, family festivities, and winter activities, there is another holiday tradition looming just around the bend: New Year’s Resolutions. And rather than let this tradition sneak up on us, I suggest we take some time to reflect and prepare for the ball to drop in 2013.

I would also like to posit an idea for all of us. I think it’s time to ditch traditional New Year Resolutions entirely in favor of something a bit more attainable: let’s call them New Years Intentions.

You see, I’ve never liked the word resolutions. It invokes the tried (and often failed) tradition of making quantitative goals that more often than not wane after a month or two. They don’t do us much good.

I know firsthand the sometimes paralyzing effect that a very specific “goal” can have on people. In college, I trained for three marathons never to run an actual race. Why? Because I had it in my mind that I wanted to run them in exactly 4:20 minutes. And I could not imagine finishing the race at any time slower than that goal.

However, I knew deep down that getting exactly that time was unlikely at best, since there are so many factors that can affect you on a 26.2 mile run, like blisters, wind, and fatigue. I honestly believed that I was more likely to quit the race mid-run than slow down and finish at a slower time.

I am happy to report that since then I have changed my thinking about goals like time in a race to realize that the bigger win is to finish the race in the first place! After that, race time is just icing on the cake. I have now successfully completed two marathons, each over my original 4:20 minute goal. But the point is that I ran them. Whereas before, when I cared so much about a specific time, I was too afraid to fail at that pace to even attempt the distance in the first place. Though many people may not be as extreme as I was back then, my story demonstrates how extremely specific goals may limit us from taking action in the right direction and making any progress at all.

Sometimes “all or nothing” thinking paired with goal setting is just as bad as low motivation. Neither end of the goal-setting spectrum allows us to move forward and get closer to the lives we want.

So now I propose making intentions instead. Because unlike an unattained resolution, an intention is an ongoing effort. When you stray from an intention one day—i.e. vegging out with the girls or postponing the job search because things are hectic at your current job—you can come back to it the next day and pick up where you left off with new commitment to your aim. It’s a more malleable approach, because, let’s face it, life throws curveballs.

As you work toward whatever your intentions for the new year may be, it’s important to remind yourself that the road might not be easy and a specific quantitative goal may not be attained within a limited timeframe. But everyone who ever accomplished anything—say, for example, the dozens of inspiring Everygirl career features—did so with a lot of hard work but indubitably faced certain setbacks.

You will stumble.
When you set a resolution, you often put quantifiers on the goal. Stop watching TV, go to yoga twice a week, lose 10 pounds, quit your job by March, etc., all have specific guidelines that need to be met in order for the resolution to be fulfilled. This often is not realistic for those of us who are constantly evolving and changing.

When an intention is made, however, we can change those strict resolutions into more flexible, attainable versions of the same goals. For example, we can incorporate more exercise and vegetables into our lives rather than trying to lose a specified amount of weight by a specific deadline.

And when we find ourselves overindulging in sweets on Valentine’s Day, we won’t beat ourselves up or throw in the healthy intention towel completely. We can simply acknowledge that we didn’t fulfill our intention to the fullest and cut back the next week. By continually working on our intentions through the good days and bad, we may just find that we drop those pounds without the strict timeline or all-or-nothing approach.

There will be deviations.
Further, we may find that at some point later in the year we may want to amend our intention. Or circumstantial changes in life may mean that what was a goal on January 1 is no longer realistic (this could be for financial, health, familial, or any other reasons). Rather than lose 10 pounds we may find that losing 8 pounds leaves us feeling pretty darn sexy. And those extra two pounds we keep turn out to be muscle, which is healthy. This adjustment to our aim is a lot easier to make when we come from an intentional perspective.

In this case we won’t have to qualify why we didn’t meet our resolutions. Instead, we simply fulfill the intention of being healthier in a new way.

Incremental progress is still progress.
Last but not least, the great thing about intentions is that they allow you to see all progress as a good thing. If it takes you longer than you’d like to meet a resolution, it’s easy to get discouraged. But when you approach your life changes from an intentional point of view, you can see how far you’ve come from where you started and celebrate that as success. As Joyce Meyer says, “You may not be where you want to be, but thank God you aren’t where you used to be. You are doing okay, and you are on your way!”

This positive approach to intentions is often more effective (avoiding that burnout factor that resolutions have) and kinder. It allows you to celebrate the journey, not just the destination.

Tell us, what intentions do you have for 2013 that will bring you closer to the life you want? How are you framing your intentions for 2013 so that you can stretch yourself but also remain committed when things are tough?

See other Living Well columns by Jess Lively here.