I have mixed feelings about New Year’s resolutions because I have mixed feelings about any concrete goal. I understand their utility as preached by leadership gurus—we need a solid definition of success so that we know when we reach it. It feels good to get something done, check it off the list, and move forward. Concrete goals provide a very clear marker by which to measure our progress. Here’s the hitch: The more clearly we define success, the more clearly we define failure. Most of us hate to lose as much as we love to win, if not more so. That means a series of failed goals can obscure solid progress, especially if our goals get too ambitious or other parts of our lives disrupt our routines.
By the middle of January, most New Year’s resolutions have fizzled out. We return to our lives of sloth and gluttony until next year, when the cycle repeats for another few weeks. This makes intuitive sense when you think about how much easier it is to set a goal as opposed to putting in the work associated with meeting that goal. When you make a resolution, you mortgage the time and energy of future you, and as happy as future you might be to hit that great goal you’ve cooked up, future you may also curse your name when he has to wake up at 4:30 in the morning on a Wednesday to meet some arbitrary goal that popped into your champagne-soaked brain on New Year’s Eve. Future you has to grind it out, stop procrastinating, exercise more, eat less, watch less television, get more sleep, eat more vegetables—all the stuff whiny, pampered, lazy present you has had the luxury to avoid.
To complicate matters further, when I sit down to look at my big-picture goals I see a lot of stuff that resists a solid metric for success. Let’s say I decide to learn a language. If I make my goal “fluency,” then how do I know I’ve reached it? I might define a level of fluency I want to attain, like the ability to order a meal in the average restaurant, or the ability to follow television dramas without subtitles. Those are rather esoteric goals in the service of overall language learning, though. More to the point, any concrete goal along the “learn a language” continuum will likely be an intermediary step in an eternally ongoing process. Most big goals are like that.
If we set specific goals in order to make progress, it pays to ask about the greater context—progress toward what? If I use a very hazy, long-distance goal as a compass heading, I can afford to make my short- or medium-term goals more concrete. Whether I meet them or fail to meet them, the next step will still require me to generate new, concrete, achievable goals. That makes it much easier to see failed goals as slower progress than anticipated, which in turn makes the next round of targets more realistic. In other words, I insure myself against missed goals by allowing myself to regroup, figure out what went wrong, and establish a new target that keeps me headed in the right direction.
Constant assessment renders most traditional New Year’s resolutions inoperable within the first month or two, which appears to track with common experience. By failing to ask ourselves why we set those resolutions in the first place, we end up ignoring any real progress we might have made. Worse, particularly with weight-loss resolutions, we may end up abandoning progress that has not yet become visible. It’s a long year. There’s still plenty of time to recover.