We’ve all heard that the journey is more important than the destination. And the most important part of the journey is the next step. But how does this apply to New Year’s resolutions? Below is a simple guide to nixing the lofty end-goals and re-centering around continuous improvement.
Your brain on resolutions
Run a marathon. Learn beginner guitar. A classic resolution names exactly the outcome you want. It gives you a mountain to climb, literally or metaphorically. While it’s nice to have a vision to work towards, these kinds of goals can often have negative psychological effects.
First, lofty goals can dampen your self-esteem. When you set a goal, you place yourself in an immediate state of failure, by definition. And since most resolutions relate to self-improvement, this may provoke feelings of inadequacy. Second, we are particularly susceptible to “false hope syndrome” when making resolutions. A variant of the planning fallacy, we can assume that achieving a goal will be easier or faster to achieve than is realistic. When reality sets in, we give up or experience de-motivation.
“False hope syndrome is characterized by a person’s unrealistic expectations about the likely speed, amount, ease and consequences of changing their behavior.”Mark Griffiths, Psychology Professor, Nottingham Trent University
Third, a narrowly-defined goal may lead to de-motivation once we achieve the goal. We can mentally disconnect the goal from its underlying aspiration or principle. That’s why most dieters quickly regain all their lost weight, and then some. People who decide to adopt a healthy lifestyle, by contrast, often sustain success.
But how do you hold yourself accountable for self-improvement without a resolution? By changing your mindset to focus on the journey. That means prioritizing continuous improvement over specific milestones.
“No plan survives first contact with the enemy.”Tim Harford, Author of Adapt: Why Success Always Starts with Failure
From resolutions to themes
For the last few years I have swapped out resolutions for annual themes. C.G.P. Grey describes themes as something you want more of in your life, a principle that you will use to make decisions. For me, last year was the “Year of Intentionality.” I wanted to do fewer things better. I wanted to avoid weaker interests that might crowd more important areas of my life. This theme gave me the grace to “Marie Kondo” my life. I said “thank you and goodbye” to the things that I like doing but didn’t have space for. And pandemic not withstanding, this was my most successful New Year’s resolution yet.
From planner to navigator
It’s an unpredictable world out there. Having detailed life plans that you regularly scrap or revise can feel like a waste. Of course an initial plan can provide a valuable starting place. Plans can help you test assumptions and approaches. And the goal you are mapping towards can give you an inspiring vision and a sense of urgency. But the scale of the plan directly relates to the probability of success. A plan to get from your couch to the front door is more likely to succeed than a plan to get from your couch to Times Square, which depends on whether your E train became an F or your Q became a 2 train.
“Plans are useless, but planning is indispensable.”General Dwight D. Eisenhower
If resolutions are truly meant to help improve your life, themes are much better suited to the job. They provide clear decision-making principles that enable you to plan your next step, no matter what life throws at you. And because the locus of control is with you, in a year’s time, you will look back and see visible growth.