Updated: Jan 18
Dr. Paul Taylor-Pitt takes us through his thoughts on New Year's Resolutions and their potential effects on our mindset, encouraging us to reframe how we view our ambitions and set goals.
by Dr. Paul Taylor-Pitt
Apparently, January 17th is National Ditch The New Year’s Resolutions Day, so let’s gleefully tear up the post-its we wrote at 3am after a few too many gins on Hogmanay and celebrate the liberation that comes from freeing ourselves of guilt and failure. Feels good doesn’t it? I say this with some hesitation as I have a complicated relationship with New Year’s Resolutions.
I think they’re both brilliant and terrible at the same time. They’re brilliant because it’s great to want to change and accept change, as it’s inevitable. We can’t stop it no matter how hard we try, so I encourage myself and others to surf that wave of change energy and put it to good use. That’s a tick in the column for ‘why New Year’s Resolutions are a positive thing’.
On the other hand, New Year’s Resolutions may not be the best for us. Ironically they can end up acting as another weight on our minds rather than something which encourages us to pursue self-improvement and prioritise our wellbeing, as originally intended. The most common resolutions made on January 1st are:
Now you could argue that there’s nothing wrong with prioritising our health, but I have little warning bells that sound when I see those things clustered together at the start of a year. Could they be motivated more by what society deems as attractive rather than a positive choice to make our lives healthier? When most of the evidence shows that these kinds of resolutions tend to fail horribly by the end of the first month, we can end up feeling even worse about ourselves than we did at the end of December. So that’s a big red cross in the ‘why New Year’s Resolutions should be banned’ box and ultimately that’s where I stand. They just don’t work. So let them go, enjoy the freedom and give yourself the opportunity to think about it differently.
There’s neurobiological studies that show there can be a negative impact of setting goals too early in any venture. By that we could mean a project, an appraisal, a new year. Contrary to popular belief, SMART objectives do not inspire creative thinking. A combination of sympathetic nervous system activation and the adrenaline that kicks in when we set strict goals too soon means we actually limit our ability to achieve them because we get tunnel vision. We stop ourselves from imagining all the ways we can make them work, which makes it harder to actually succeed. We end up putting so much pressure on ourselves that we get in our own way. It’s not to say that goal setting is a bad thing, it just needs to come at the right time and place. Whereas when we invite ourselves to daydream, to imagine all the ‘what if’ possibilities, we encourage a different kind of biological response. We get all inspired and creative, from a relaxed easy frame of mind. It’s so much nicer and easier to make change happen from this position. We are more likely to reach and stretch further towards our goals when they come from a place of inspiration.
So with this in mind - and body - here’s a little exercise you can try once you’ve ditched the resolutions. First, find a nice space to be in. For you that might be sitting on the grass in a park, or snuggled on a massive bean bag with a good scented candle going. For me it’s when I’m swimming, or as I call it working the Think Tank. You’ll know you’re in the right space because your body will soften and you’ll feel held. Now you’re there, if it works for you maybe close your eyes. Sometimes it can be easier to get images that way, but for others it’s just as fine to do it with your eyes open. You do you. Here there’s no need to create any kind of meditative stillness or inner peace. You don’t need to do anything at all other than breathe, and to ask this question: if I fell asleep right now and dreamed about X, what could that look like? Obviously, replace X with whatever you want to dream about. It might be “the best job” or “me at my happiest” or “making a difference” or “having confidence in that meeting next week”, whatever holds meaning for you. There’s no pressure here to come up with the answer in fact there probably isn’t just one. Instead, give yourself permission and encouragement to imagine as many possibilities as you are able to. Once you’ve given yourself some time to do that, grab a bit of paper or your notes app or a nearby wall and let yourself play. You might draw some pictures or write some words or make some shapes - this is just for you, nobody will ever see it. All you’re doing here is representing what your dreams look like.
From here, there are lots of ways to move forward. Maybe that’s all you needed to do, or if you have the energy you might write one action you feel inspired to take. Maybe you could make a list of one or two people you want to have a conversation with about this. It might be that there's a decision needed so you could think about what the possible best outcomes could be. It’s your dream. Nobody can tell you how to realise it, but there are lots of ways you can get closer to making it real and they can come from the smallest of steps. The most simple action can have the biggest impact, so take it easy.
I want to leave you with one more thought. What if we don’t actually need to make ourselves change? What if all I am today is all that I could be, and that is enough? Sometimes our resolutions can be a way of resisting celebrating who we already are, because we live in a world where our queerness or our gender or our race or our disability or our size or how much we earn or the colour or our hair are repeatedly diminished and stamped on.
Having the faith in ourselves to champion who we already are is a radical act of rebellion. Fifty years ago, Arnold Bessier said people don’t change when they try to be something they’re not. People change when they become more themselves. I’ve adopted this as my own personal mantra when I, or anyone, is facing a tough situation. My response is consistently: Be More You. In 2023 I invite you to be more you, and ditch the resolutions.
Dr Paul Taylor-Pitt (he/him)
Paul is an award-winning Organisation Development Specialist, Mentor, Coach and Facilitator with three decades of professional experience to draw from. He was named one of HR Magazine's Most Influential Thinkers in 2022.
You can find more information about Paul's work here.
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