Why you shouldn’t make New Year’s Resolutions

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AHS State Champion Track Team 2008

I don’t set many goals. This may be surprising to people who see me as a highly motivated person. Because I don’t struggle to be effective with my time, some people might assume I’m a goal setter. But I’m quite the opposite. While it is true that many successful people set goals, I am not convinced that I therefore should follow. Historically, many successful people also smoked.

It was about eight years ago as I began college that I first noticed that I didn’t like setting goals. As a track runner in High School, I had ran the 400M and the 800M. I was very successful and pushed myself so hard that I puked after every 800M. I would spend much of the meet with my eyes closed trying to sleep, hoping to accelerate the time between now and my next event. I was miserable until at last the meet was over. After winning my race, I felt euphoria for having accomplished my goal. It was heavenly.

I am still proud of my track career, but I did not continue running in college. It was not healthy for me. The only things that kept me running were my own goals. Ever since quitting, I have never competed in the 400M or the 800M because why would I. I never enjoyed it. I only enjoyed completing it.

On the other hand, while I enjoyed much less success on my high school soccer team, I still play soccer as often as I can. The difference is that playing soccer is enjoyable to me. There is no goal or outside reason that motivates me to play. I simply love to play and so I play. I look for opportunities and I regret missed chances.

The problem with goal setting is that it is almost entirely achievement-oriented. It turns life into a checklist and turns our lived experience into a streamlined, task-directed narrative. Success is measured by the number of check marks you put on a page. The enjoyment of this sort of goal setting is goal completing. The reward comes after the work. And once the goal is complete either a new goal must be chosen or the activity ends. At its worst it leads to self-doubt and at its best it’s self-affirming.

Now, I am not saying you ought to throw out your to-do list. To-do lists are helpful for staying organized and tackling large tasks. I also do not mean that we should not be self-reflective or consider the future implications of current decisions.

But I am suggesting you avoid getting stuck in goal setting and forward looking. Goals look forward to the end of the meet, they push you into what is next rather than allowing you to appreciate what is now and not later. It is my opinion that there is much more time and joy to be had in the experience itself than after its completion.

New Years is a time where many people set goals about working out and losing weight and so I offer my own anecdotal advice. I can say honestly that I work out virtually every day and I remain physically fit even though I never set a goal. Instead, my exercise has become habitual. I want to work out because I enjoy it. I don’t go crazy, normally twenty to forty minutes. Sometimes I push myself and sometimes I take it easy. Sometimes I run, sometimes I play soccer, sometimes I do push-ups and sit-ups.

I don’t have to force myself into it. On days that I am unable to work out, I don’t hate myself. Instead I feel an absence in my day—not because I didn’t complete a goal, it’s not a personal failure, but because my body and my mind are used to feeling rejuvenation.  Perhaps the easiest way to describe the difference between what I experience now and past goals is that habitual behavior feels more natural. I’m working with my body not against it. I find fulfillment in the task itself, not the completion.

In a way, goal setting is backwards. It feels unnatural in the way it seeks to assert mind over matter. While sometimes this may be necessary to break bad habits and create new ones, we should seek to establish habits rather than permanently and endlessly erect new goals. There is danger in clinging too vigorously to goals. We can all easily recall people who have created a false religion out of fitness. They set higher and higher goals and push their bodies far beyond what is good and healthy. Eventually their arms look like overstuffed bags of produce.

So this year consider setting no goals; the odds are you’ll fail anyways and if you don’t, success might be even worse.  Imagine an alternative. What if instead of focusing on goals you spend time considering what aspects of life you’d enjoy amplifying. Instead of amping yourself up mentally in a battle against your body, sign up for the soccer league you haven’t had time for, or set up a weekly date with your wife, or plan a cycling vacation. Instead of thinking of all the things you do poorly, think of the things you have always wanted more time to do. Instead of setting goals, think of skills and habits that would make your life more enjoyable and meaningful. Then build a habit.

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21 thoughts on “Why you shouldn’t make New Year’s Resolutions

  1. I love this idea–learning to live mindfully instead of driven to an end point. Mindful living finds peace in the moment (or at least the ideal is that).

  2. These are interesting and valuable ideas. I wonder, though, if you are critiquing a certain style of goal-setting rather than goal-setting as such. The “alternatives” you propose in your last paragraph could probably all be considered types of goals–though I agree that they are healthier and more likely to succeed than the more traditional “mind over matter” type of goal. I also think that even that type of goal can be valuable when something thoroughly and unavoidably unpleasant has to be gone through–or something that cuts against the grain of your life. (And I think you acknowledge as much when you concede that “sometimes this may be necessary to break bad habits and create new ones.”)

    1. I think you’re right. I have considered editing it to be less adversarial towards the idea of goals–and perhaps I still should. I also wish the last paragraph was a little stronger. I guess the idea is mostly motivated by the way Rachel (our sister) talks about yoga philosophy–working with the body instead of against it. Our passions support our goals they don’t necessarily hinder them. We don’t overcome the body metaphysically, we direct it, or perhaps it directs us. You only set a goal because you already want to do it. When we focus too much on the goal we spend time and energy convincing our body of its own suggestion. In a way it’s like a dog who scratches at the door when his owner gets out the leash. The dog is over-anxious to begin what was the owner’s idea in the first place.

      The other point I could have made stronger is that I enjoy being productive when productivity becomes natural and habitual. On the other hand, when a goal is something that I grit my teeth in order to complete, it drains my energy and will power. The more our long term goals can become habitual, the more we can focus our will power on other things. But even this redirection may have an end. When our desires line up with what is good, goals become meaningless. When I wake up I don’t want to have to set a bunch of goals or complete a bunch of goals to make my day successful or meaningful. I just want to live meaningfully, so that productivity happens accidentally.

    2. I agree with your thinking that goals are not in and of themselves bad things. I think goals are healthy when they represent more of a direction to go in than a velocity or end point. I don’t know how I feel about “mind over matter” goals being effective; I don’t think they ever have been in my life, at least not in a positive way. “Mind over matter” to me means learning to endure unpleasant or unhappy things, and I’ve only found success where I’ve been able to make something more pleasant or find happiness– by listening to music while cleaning or just deciding to be excited about science when reading a ginormous scientific article.

      1. I think sometimes I find joy in “besting” my “natural” desires. But this sort of success is mostly temporary. Long term success, as you point out, requires suturing our mind and body, not putting one over the other.

  3. Hi Josh! I’m a friend of Brian and Dia’s and a big fan of “thebrotherssabey.” I was interested in reading this post because I also have some qualms with traditional views/practices of goal-setting that happen around this time of year. However, I believe goal-setting to be healthy and effective if it is done right. Hopefully someday I’ll learn how to do it “right.”

    I agree with what Brian said: it sounds like your qualms are with a style of goal-setting rather than with goal-setting itself. Certainly if we get more satisfaction out of completing a goal/to-do item—checking it off our list—than we do from what we have experienced or how we have changed or improved in the process, the perhaps that is an ends-centered method of setting goals in which we lose a lot of the potential value. However, I think that a meaningful end goal, set with intermittent plans, can be set and followed through with, and that meaningful change and enjoyment can be found in the process (rather than simply in the completion).

    I don’t know what your religious beliefs are, but the example of goal-setting I always look to comes from God, as written about in the Bible and LDS scripture. In short, this is how I see it: God’s goal = “this is my work and my glory: to bring to pass the immortality and eternal life of man” (Moses 1:39). The plans he made to achieve that goal: (The plan of salvation) education in a pre-earth sphere, life and learning in mortality and the creation of families, opportunity for alignment with God’s will post-death but pre-judgment, and finally immortal life and exaltation for all of his children who qualify.

    I see this as an ideal example of a goal and steps toward accomplishing that goal that are not merely to-do items, but rather essential elements of change and progression, facilitated by a specific plan. I think that each of us could likewise make goals for progression in our personal/family lives, accompanied by smaller, meaningful steps that will keep us on the desired path.

    1. Thanks Hannah for your comment! It’s great to hear people respond. I like your connection of goals to plan. I would only add that ideally we become a person who does intuitively what we once had to think about. While this is a shallow analogy, It’s sort of like imagining God setting a goal to listen to all his children’s prayers. Instead he does it because it’s who he is. As I’m imagining it, the goals are internalized until they cease to be goals anymore. A less ridiculous example would be waking up with a desire to pray rather than a goal to do so. Eventually life becomes organic and adaptable rather than task-directed.

      1. Yes! Hopefully those things we may have to initially set goals toward become intuitive. You said it very well.

    2. I’ve never seen your writing before, Hannah. I’m impressed! It’s clear, confident, and polished. If you want to make a goal of writing a guest article for our blog, we’d probably be interested in publishing it.

  4. Carol always reminds me what an amazing athlete you are. Now your article has just inspired me to set a goal that in my next life I will run a 400 as fast as you did. Then I’ll be happy and my wife will be impressed with me…. 🙂 I think that’s why most people set New Years resolutions–trying to do things they don’t really want to do, but wish they’d been able to post about or say they did.

  5. NOOOOOooooooo!!!!!! My first gut response, but after reading the article, it does make sense to habit reform, not goal set and fail. Just listened to a Franklin Covey speaker and he shied away from goals and used reforms and improvement in target areas. He did use the phrase, “I will reach this _____ by this date_____. And this philosophy fits the 21 day habit formation recommended in much of my current reading. He recommended using one day a month to reevaluate your progress and that seems much more successful than saying, That was my goal last year and next and will be next year too! Habit not willpower!

    1. Well I hesitate to connect myself to Covey simply because he wrote a self-help book. Maybe its jealousy of his success or my own individuation, but I find myself disagreeing with self-help books as often as possible. Half jesting of course. I can definitely appreciate habit reforming. My critique of goals stems from realizing that my goals have often made me less happy, more dissatisfied with myself, and less productive.

      I think the key to successful habit reformation is a (some will laugh at this term) humble confidence. Some interesting studies suggest that people who are too confident (prideful) often relapse before their more humble counter parts. A gentle sense of humor about our mistakes and a joy in life and new opportunities goes a long way!

  6. You seem to focus on an individuals goals, because for the new year, many individuals set goals. But I think for a thing like a company, where there is no mind of it’s own, goals must be set and written, otherwise the employees of the company won’t be as productive. It gives everyone there the same goal. What do you think?

    1. That’s something i didn’t even consider. There does seem to be a lot of value of clear goals that people can share. Well said! I wonder if there is a corollary for habitualality. I’m thinking of a married couple setting goals to overcome arguments. that would certainly be positive. But I also imagine that ideally the goals would disappear into spontaneous and natural kindness. If you can’t see this happening, it might not be a good goal. I also think of many of my favorite experiences with family, most are spontaneous, just sitting around talking. But to be fair, I will have to admit that other favorite memories include climbing 14ers which is sort of the epitome of goal setting.

  7. I totally agree. I feel like achievement-centered goal setting engenders dissatisfaction with where we are right now. Considering the fact that once we accomplish a goal there always arises another in its place, predicating our happiness on their completion is destined to produce an unhappy life. I believe that we’ll experience so much more peace when we can find joy in the journey even while short of our “desired state”, while at the same time seeking some kind of natural improvement.

    1. I like how you phrased ” find joy in the journey even while short of our “desired state”, while at the same time seeking some kind of natural improvement.”

  8. I’m not sure where I stand on this overall, because I have definitely experienced the frustration and lack of fulfillment from goals and check-lists that you describe. However, I think that the “mind-over-matter” goals still have a supplementary role to play to the “desires-based” habit forming you are promoting.
    Specifically, I’m thinking of acquiring new talents and skills, where the desire that fueled the first steps of learning often runs up against large initial skill barriers before satisfaction can be derived from the skill itself, or that desire can be starved out by long disheartening plateaus in skill level. I certainly agree that developing habits is key, and that is how the barriers are eventually surmounted and desire is refueled by enjoyment on a higher lever, These need a different sort of desire–one that is not directly linked to wanting to do a task that you’re not very good at yet, but includes disciplined goal-setting as well as the sense of humor for making mistakes that was mentioned, and a sense of possibility or vision that usually comes from a role model or master of the skill.

  9. Well said. I think you are exactly right. I have also incorporated mind-over-matter goals and find them rewarding in their own right. I think will power and discipline are invaluable traits to develop, as you suggest. And I think you hit the nail on the head when you said that we need to have a gentle “sense of humor” about making mistakes.

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