Rethinking Resolutions

January 1st, 2016 by Lee Ann Thill

It’s that time of year again, and my social media feeds have been filled with a variety of perspectives on New Year’s Resolutions. Some people embrace them, some approach them more gingerly, and still others dismiss them. Since we have a propensity to mark time, and make meaning of the time we have, and since we are naturally compelled to be future focused with a desire for self-improvement and actualization, it is no wonder that the New Year’s Resolution is a cultural tradition.

Resolutions can take many forms, but some of the more popular ones include losing weight, exercising more, getting organized, managing time or stress more effectively, procrastinating less, cutting back on screen time (phones, computers, TV), and being more attentive to relationships. Going back to that idea of self-improvement and actualization, the common question at the root of all of these could be: What can I do to change myself for the better this year?

However, it seems that many people struggle to accomplish these goals, often making the same resolutions year in and year out. Just as meeting a goal leads to positive feelings and a sense of accomplishment, not meeting a goal can make people feel demotivated and defeated, and in some cases, reinforce the behavior the individual initially wanted to change. It’s natural to struggle to make changes, even those that are ultimately for our benefit, so I wonder if it might be worth reconsidering that root question. What if the question was not, what can I do to change myself, but, what can I do to change the world?

By reframing the question, and considering what is important to us out in the world, we become open to not just making a difference for others, but often as a byproduct, accomplishing some of the more personal goals that characterize many common New Year’s Resolutions. What cause calls to you? Is it homelessness, literacy, health advocacy, racial justice, climate change, local arts, animal rights, LGBTQ rights, or another of the vast number of causes that need our collective action? Once you identify a cause that resonates with you with urgency, you can begin to identify specific ways to become active in that cause.

What can happen if we change our root question when thinking about a New Year’s Resolution? Like so many people, I have struggled to maintain a regular exercise regimen. In the past, I have made that my New Year’s Resolution, but found myself unmotivated to stick with it for more than a few months at best. In 2015, I decided I wanted to get connected to a community of people helping animals, and much to my own surprise, ended up joining a running team sponsored by a nonprofit organization committed to that cause. Whereas I could barely run one lap around a track six months ago, in the fall I ran my first 5K, and a couple more since then! The lesson I learned is that finding motivation outside of myself is making a difference in helping me change a behavior. All of this is to say that my intention was to help animals, and I did that through fundraising to support an organization dedicated to that cause, but the running team provides social support I need to stay active, so I met a fitness goal, and I’ve also made a lot of new friends.

So what is a cause that matters to you? How can you get involved in that cause in a way that feels meaningful, that allows you to extend outside your comfort zone just enough to experience that sense of becoming the person you want to be? If you feel stuck on making personal changes, find a way to change the world, and you might be surprised by the personal changes that develop as a result.