Break the Cycle of New Year’s Resolution Disappointment

Photo: Taiyou Nomachi/Getty

TThe beginning of the year is a fantastic time to be a therapist. Every January, anxious overachievers across the country pour into offices like mine, equipped with fresh planners and sleek new gym clothes. They list their New Year’s resolutions, outline their goals, or announce the “word of the year” they’re determined to personify.

You don’t have to be a therapist to know what happens next. Roughly 80% of the resolution-makers will abandon their goal, and most will spend the remaining months of the year beating themselves up, to varying degrees, for dropping the ball.

But Ive noticed that the 20% who do manage to reach the finish line don’t feel much better off. I’ve had plenty of clients admit that they aren’t any more relaxed or content than they were the year before, even after accomplishing the goals they set for themselves. Running a half marathon is great, but it doesn’t help them get along with their mother or give them hope when the country feels like it’s going up in flames.

So, when people are skeptical of resolutions — and as you’ve probably guessed, I’m one of them — I encourage them instead to create New Year’s principles.

Principles are your beliefs about what your best self looks like. They describe who you want to be in challenging situations and difficult relationships. And they can be a life raft amid the flood of daunting headlines, family drama, and late-night worry spirals that all of us will face at some point in the new year. Here’s my case for calling quits on the resolution-making and instead devoting your energy to thinking a little more long term.

Principles are more flexible

It’s true that specific, measurable goals are easier to accomplish than vague declarations. It’s tough to know when you’ve earned the right to remove “be better about working out” from your list, whereas “run five miles a week” is an easy yes or no. But the downside of specific and measurable is that it often doesn’t leave room for life’s curveballs.

Principles, on the other hand, help you stay flexible when challenges inevitably pop up. A new baby or a big promotion might make it difficult for you to squeeze in those five miles. But the principle of prioritizing your health daily could be expressed in a number of ways. Suddenly, going to bed early or not having that extra drink look like opportunities. They aren’t steps toward some far-off milestone — they’re the whole thing, played out in small chunks.

Here are some other examples of goals turned into principles:

Goal: I will read 100 books this year.
Principle: I am committed to making space in my life for curiosity.

Goal: I will finish every single work assignment on time.
Principle: I will be honest about what I can and cannot do and honor my commitments.

Goal: I will join a dating app and go on at least three dates.
Principle: I will pursue my desires, even when disappointment and rejection are possible.

It’s also worth pointing out that any of these principles can be broadly applied. “I will be honest about what I can and cannot do,” for instance, can also help guide you in your friendships and family relationships. Telling your boss you don’t have time to add another project to your plate and telling your cousin you’re too slammed to go to her open-mic night both involve flexing the same muscle.

Goals often target specific arenas of life, but principles often prove useful in all of them. And when you create multiple pathways for success, you’re less likely to slip into the self-criticism that can lead to depression or anxiety.

Principles are an antidote to anxiety

Speaking of anxiety: Principles can push you to do the opposite of what anxiety would compel you to do. Think of your most anxious behaviors: Do you micromanage everyone at work? Do you bury your face in your phone at social gatherings? Then your principles might look like “I will step back and let people be responsible for themselves,” or “I will talk about what genuinely excites me, regardless of who is in the room.”

Living a life shaped by principles means that you’re overriding your anxious autopilot. You’re making a conscious choice to be guided by your best thinking, instead of your worst feelings.

Principles aren’t about perfection

New Year’s resolutions are often focused on an endpoint, like learning 10 new recipes or reaching a zero balance on your student loan. But your principles will keep you busy for the rest of your life. They’re about the slow and steady work of growing up.

I realize this sounds incredibly unsexy. You can’t really brag about your principles in an Instagram story or log them in your planner with a sticker system. But isn’t it a relief to know that you’re allowed to be a work in progress?

Principles are a community service

I’ve had clients confide that they feel a little selfish for focusing on self-improvement with all the chaos around us. When the world is going up in flames, who cares how many books you manage to read each month or how organized your closet is?

But think of it this way: If you want to be a source of support for the people around you, your principles can help you do it. The world will always be a chaotic place, and it will always need people who can stay focused on what matters over the long term, instead of reacting to the anxiety of the moment.

I’ve had the privilege of hearing many therapy clients come up with their principles over the years. I wrote a book about their stories, because I’m always astonished by how similar we are when it comes to trying our best: Most of us just want to remember to be kind to our neighbors and to ourselves. We’d like to be a little more responsible for ourselves and a little less responsible for everyone else. We want to be open to new ideas but also stand up for our beliefs when they’re tested.

I keep my principles taped to the back of my phone. There’s one in particular that I want to guide me in the coming year: “I am committed to being the calmest person in the room.” I expect that I’ll fail at this task more days than not.

But I also expect that there will be a few triumphs. I’ll refrain from snapping at my husband. I’ll hear a stranger instead of hustling past them. I’ll let a rejection roll right off my back. And in those moments, I will make the world a little bit calmer than it was before.

Kathleen Smith is a therapist and author of the book Everything Isn’t Terrible: Conquer Your Insecurities, Interrupt Your Anxiety, and Finally Calm Down.

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