Why New Year’s Resolutions Have Gotten a Bad Rap (and why you should still set a few)

Another year down and, for most, it’s also another painful process of looking back at last year’s unmet goals and resolutions.

If you’re like 92% of those who set any goals at all, you’re looking in the mirror right about now feeling guilty and disappointed with the person you didn’t quite become (thinner, happier, richer, stronger, smarter).

With goal-setting odds stacked overwhelmingly against you (all but a mere 8% crash and burn somewhere between January’s excitement and December’s memory lapse (what was it that I resolved to do this year?), it’s easy to feel those nasty little joy-suckers of shame, disappointment and regret.

We’re then tempted to resign ourselves to a life of mediocrity, wondering why our excessively tenacious bad habits won’t pack up, go away and leave us alone.

And so we tear ourselves down for being so unforgivably weak. Or resign ourselves to a life without goals, without decided-upon trajectories or sustained and motivated improvement.

“If I can’t lose these 20 pounds, I might as well have another donut!”

Besides, goals and New Year’s Resolutions NEVER work anyway, right?

I mean, come on! Eight percent? Would you drive your car to work if you knew there was a 92% likelihood that you crash and burn on the way? So why set a goal or make a New Year’s resolution against such odds?

It’s even become trendy to bag on Resolution making and goal setting in the blogging world. We’re counseled to avoid the self-inflicted punch to the emotional nose.

Statistics don’t lie, after all. Most resolution makers eventually lose their resolve.

I was talking to an employee at the gym yesterday about how small the crowd was, as a matter of fact. Her reply to my observation was revealing.

“Yeah,” she said. “But it will be packed starting tomorrow with New Year’s Resolution makers. But that will only last a month or two.” Sound familiar?

So it’s tempting at the end of the year to think, “I didn’t achieve a single goal I set a year ago, so what’s the use setting one this year? Why invite an inevitable slap to my already tender face?”

But here’s the thing.

Sometimes Goals Change us; They improve us. But Sometimes We Change our Goals; We improve them.

Perhaps 97% of all goal setters fail to reach the goals they set the year before because goals are flawed mechanisms for personal growth. They simply don’t work like all the anti-goalers claim.

Perhaps it has more to do with the inherent weaknesses of humanity. We are all dogs returning to the vomit of our weaknesses and addictions. We’re inherently unmotivated. Puppets to temptation, laziness and all the dark traits of mortality.

Or maybe goals fail us because we fail our goals. We fail to set goals lofty enough to inspire sustained action.

But what if there was another explanation? What if there was no need to feel guilt and shame and regret for not having performed as well as planned? What if, as a matter of fact, there were plenty of reasons to celebrate not reaching your New Year’s resolutions?

Why We Change our Goals

What would you do if you started out driving to the mall to buy a new shirt when it dawned on you that you hadn’t seen your mother in three months and should stop by for a visit? When you finally got home at 9pm that evening, would you stare blankly into the mirror in contempt for having failed at so simple a goal as buying a shirt from the mall?

Of course not!

Similarly, what we want to accomplish by June is not always what we targeted in January. Life happens. We reevaluate along the way and reprioritize while aiming at something else.

We do this quite naturally, sometimes subconsciously: Someone gets sick; a friend gets knocked down by life; a relationship teeters on the edge; we meet someone new; we find God or lose our faith or a loved one or a job; natural or man-made disaster strikes; an unexpected diagnosis makes us reevaluate life trajectories. Opportunities open and close. We take detours, backtrack, try over, redirect and move along life’s ever evolving path as we walk it.

It reminds me a bit of Hogwarts in the Harry Potter movies where stair cases move while young wizards are trying to get to where the stair case’s new location no longer takes them.

Life shifts and moves and repositions itself even as we walk its staircases, corridors and pathways.

And so our goals often change without us always noticing we’ve changed them. We start walking in one direction and end up somewhere entirely different, almost without conscious thought, simply adjusting to life as it happens.

Then we look back at the year, see what we haven’t accomplished and get depressed at yet another failed year of unmet goals.

Reality Check

Reality often paints a very different picture, one of wonderful accomplishment, even if not always as grandiose or in the precise areas as those imagined back in January.

But if we stop and think about what we actually did, whose lives we touched, what people we influenced, what words were said that inspired or comforted or resolved what issues, what actions were taken toward what ends, the skills acquired, hobbies started, improvements made and meaning added to life, we can usually feel quite good about the year despite the absence of First Place ribbons in other parts of our lives.

Besides, is it truly a failed goal if in the process of trying to lose a few pounds, we pick up better ways of eating and increase the number of times we take a walk around the block? So the pounds are still there and we’re not gym-rats with crazy abs and an enviable backside.

But if I’m eating more broccoli and spinach than I ever did before and go to the gym or take a walk several times more than I used to, well, have I really failed? A number may not have been met, but a lifestyle has altered. And that’s worthy of celebration.

You wouldn’t toss your car keys in the garbage because you made a wrong-turn or drove slower than you intended.

Perhaps throwing goals and resolutions out for wrong turns and incomplete successes is just as foolish.

So as 2015 approaches, go ahead and evaluate 2014. But be nice. Allow plans to have changed and priorities redirected and goals allowed to die on the vine in pursuit of other things, often better things.

Then set new goals. Resolve to accomplish new priorities for the New Year. But try on a new attitude for size. Look at your goals and resolutions more as guidepost along the path of life, markers you aim at, but know you may deviate from in pursuit of new goals formed along the way as you travel.

U-turns, after all, are both legal on roads and in life.

Don’t go yet!

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