There’s a Better Way to Make Resolutions

Photo: Mayur Kakade/Getty Images

Understandably, the idea of “New Year, new me” evokes a degree of skepticism, maybe even an eye roll. As we head into another year overshadowed by the pandemic, it’s difficult to think that anything will change at all, especially for the better. And look — perhaps it won’t. Perhaps things will get worse, globally, until everything explodes. But on a personal level, humans tend to rely on the illusion of time to make decisions and move forward. We have to believe that things change, that milestones mean anything at all.

So we set resolutions, vowing to take on an entirely new skin in the New Year, zipping on a perfect personality and seeing how it fits. And yet, it usually doesn’t! Humans are not perfect, and 80 percent of New Year’s resolutions fail, by some measures. “Many people do not stick to resolutions because the bar is set too high,” says Monica Berg, self-proclaimed “change junkie” and author of the self-help manifesto Fear Is Not an Option. “Often the process of how long or how much effort something will require isn’t fully understood.” Resolutions are often unrealistic and self-punishing, a way of denying ourselves joy taken to a cruel extreme. Is it any wonder why we might drop them by February?

I gave up on traditional resolutions a few years ago, knowing that they just put me in a self-flagellating, compulsive headspace. But as a goal-oriented control freak with witchy inclinations, I still engage in a lot of rituals at the end of the year, weighing up everything that’s passed and what I’d like to do more or less of in the New Year. Life coaches and other experts in more spiritual fields call what I do intention-setting, a practice that’s more about identifying broader values and goals than holding yourself to strict definitions of self-improvement. The difference, says Berg, is that intentions are about “being” while resolutions are about “doing.” “Goals exist at a set point in the future. Intentions exist here and now. If your resolution is about transformation and growth, it’s also an intention.” Intentions, then, are ongoing — you can’t tick them off a to-do list.

While resolutions often contain value judgments, intentions should come from a place of compassion. “When we set an intention, it’s usually aligned with our values and how we want to live our lives,” says life coach Amina AlTai. “A resolution might be more focused on the outcome or the end result.” Meditation practitioner Gillian Florence echoes this idea of compassion — a resolution might be to go to the gym four times a week at any cost, but an intention might be to give your body what it needs every day. While that might mean working out some days, other days it will mean resting. There’s a difference in both achievability and how it makes you feel.

And setting a resolution without understanding why we engage in the behavior we want to alter is a recipe for chaos, says AlTai. “I believe most resolutions fail for two reasons: Either the deep desire for change isn’t there, or we don’t understand the why underneath the behavior we’re trying to evolve, so we’re actually focusing on something externally when we first need to look inward.” If the desire to change doesn’t outweigh our fear of leaving our comfort zone, we’re likely to stay put.

When I set my goals for the New Year, I look over the last one to see not what I did “wrong” but what I could do more or less of, reassessing my priorities. If, for example, I wish I’d connected with my sibling more, I try not to blame myself for being busy but instead direct my attention to ways I can put them first: setting aside time to go away together, calling more often, being present when we are able to spend time together. Maybe I have to do less work to make myself more available. It’s achievable, but it’s also not something I can tick off — it’s constant.

AlTai says she asks her clients to first figure out what they truly desire — if they want a raise, there’s likely a deeper want under that, like financial security or for their work to be valued. She then recommends that they journal, keeping the intention connected to a feeling rather than a specific outcome. “Once we’ve claimed the intention, we want to make sure our belief system is in support of it; otherwise, we will impede its coming to fruition,” she says. Basically, if you believe in yourself, it’s a lot more achievable than if you punish yourself for failing. She recommends reinforcing your intentions daily — returning to a list or journal to remind yourself what matters will keep you in touch with your values.

“The New Year is an exciting milestone that presents a powerful opportunity for reflection and recalibration. It’s a built-in reminder of how far we’ve come and an important time to take stock of all the good things that happened, like the goals you achieved or the new friends you made,” Berg says. However, you don’t have to start at the New Year. “Intentions are often the outcome of reframing an unsupportive mind-set into a more supportive one,” says AlTai. “We can set them at any time.” As Florence puts it, “intentions better honor our complex humanity than resolutions do. They feel wiser and more compassionate, but that does not make them weak.”

Setting intentions will always feel, for lack of a better word, cringe. It’s human to feel a little embarrassed when you admit, even to yourself, who you want to be. I am a ritualistic person, so it feels very natural to spend way too much time doing these things. There are a ton of more specific guides and resources on intentions out there, but it’s a deeply personal and individual practice. Maybe you figure out what your intention should be while you’re on mushrooms or at kickboxing or having sex. Not everyone needs to sit with a candle or meditate or journal.

Marking the New Year with a ritual that’s more compassionate is a great way to start another, likely difficult, year. Without any real way to plan for the future, I’ll be using intentions to find space for compassion and improvement even while sitting uncomfortably still.

There’s a Better Way to Make Resolutions