JLAP: The trap of setting New Year’s resolutions

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“New Year’s Day now is the accepted time to make your regular annual good resolutions. Next week you can begin paving hell with them as usual.” —Mark Twain.

I hate new year’s resolutions. That’s right, I said what I said.

Depending on whose research you use, between 80% to 92% of New Year’s resolutions fail, and U.S. News & World Report says most lose their resolve by mid-February. If you’re still reading, I’m going to go out on a limb and guess I’m not the only one who has found myself in mid-February with an unused gym membership and a refrigerator crisper full of wilting vegetables. I don’t pretend to have the solution, but if you’re interested in exploring alternatives, I’d love some company along the way.

Alternative #1: Every day is an opportunity to begin again

There’s nothing inherently wrong with wanting to make changes or be better at something, and there’s also nothing magical about Jan. 1. If we don’t map out the entire year within the first 24 hours, we don’t miss our opportunity until next January. In fact, winter is the time when nature is shutting down and resting. I can only speak for myself, but that might not feel like the most accessible time to start some ambitious new program. The truth is that change is available every day of the year. If I eat a donut (or two) on Jan. 2, I haven’t missed the opportunity to be healthy, and if I don’t practice yoga for a week, I can always roll out my mat the next week.

Alternative #2: Let purpose be your bouncer

I can resolve to lose 25 pounds and set objectives to reach that goal (and I have), but the first time I weigh in and the scale goes up instead of down it’s a slippery slope downhill for me. What if I reframed that as an identity or purpose of being a healthy person? This identity or purpose then becomes a filter through which I pass all my decision-making. “The Art of Gathering” author Priya Parker urges, “Let purpose be your bouncer.” While Parker makes this statement with respect to planning gatherings, it is equally applicable to our lives. In my example, what decisions does a healthy person make? Do I take the elevator or the stairs? Do I eat the donut or the oatmeal? If I combine this with Alternative #1, then even when I make a decision that isn’t consistent with my purpose I can always begin again with the next decision.

Alternative #3: Something is better than nothing

A New Year’s resolution for me might be something like, “I will practice yoga for an hour every day.” This may work for a few days, but what happens when my schedule gets in the way or I’m just not feeling it that day? Past experience tells me I might be harsh with myself about it or get discouraged. But if I abandon my all-or-nothing thinking, maybe what I set out to do is to stand or sit on my yoga mat every day. That may not sound like much, but it’s probably something I can do most days. I’ve set myself up for consistency, and once I’ve established the habit of sitting on my mat then I can start to build on it. Author Robert Collier wrote, “Success is the sum of small efforts, repeated day-in and day-out.” What might happen if, instead of setting big goals, we celebrated our small efforts?

Alternative #4: Plan for roadblocks

According to “Atomic Habits” author James Clear, you shouldn’t expect to fail but you should plan for failure. What does that mean? As lawyers, we have some experience with planning for worst case scenarios, so let’s put it to good use. Take some time to consider what might prevent your desired behavior or choice from happening. What might get in your way or pull you off course? How can you plan to work around these roadblocks or get back on track when they arise? I might anticipate that my stress response is to want to eat sweets, or that after a long day at work I may not feel like driving to the yoga studio or even logging on to a Zoom class. I can plan for those roadblocks by having a healthier sweet food available or giving myself permission to eat one piece of chocolate and really savor it. I might keep my yoga mat rolled out in my office and stop in the middle of the day to just sit and breathe for a minute or two. When I’ve taken the time to think about what might get in the way and how I’ll respond I’ve not only increased the likelihood that I’ll do something instead of nothing, but I’ve also decreased the likelihood of getting discouraged.

Alternative #5: Practice self-compassion

(Sound of needle scratching across record.) What? No, self-compassion is not an oxymoron and it’s not just a way of letting ourselves off the hook. If you’re like me, you may have been raised thinking that criticism is the way to motivate yourself or that being compassionate to yourself is self-indulgent. Author and mindfulness expert Kristin Neff says, “Instead of mercilessly judging and criticizing yourself for various inadequacies or shortcomings, self-compassion means you are kind and understanding when confronted with personal failings.” It’s the practice of treating yourself with the same kindness when you are having a difficult time or notice something you don’t like about yourself that you would extend to a friend or loved one. Self-compassion allows us to be honest when we hit those roadblocks, to do something instead of nothing, to remind ourselves of our purpose, and to begin again. Every resolution I’ve ever broken was accompanied with a serious dose of self-criticism and shame, and they did nothing to help me succeed. Self-compassion has opened a world of possibilities, and I’m ready to see where they lead. I hope you’ll join me as we journey into 2022.•

Loretta Oleksy is a deeply curious lawyer/social worker/yoga practitioner who lives in Indianapolis with her husband and their three dogs. She serves as the deputy director of the Indiana Judges and Lawyers Assistance Program and offers mindful life and work coaching through her collaboration with Thought Kitchen. Opinions expressed are those of the author.

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