Statistically, you’ve already given up on your New Year’s resolutions. Your running shoes have been pushed to the back of the closet. Your journal sits empty after those first few optimistic entries. Why are we so bad at doing the things we say we want to do?
A few years ago, I spent all of December putting together a massive list of all the improvements I wanted to see in my life. The next year would be different—I would journal, pray, exercise, meal plan. I had a chart with little checkboxes and everything. My resolve lasted less than two weeks. Once I started to miss a few days, the neatly-laid-out, mostly-empty notebook took on an accusatory character, and I conveniently misplaced it until the next year rolled around and I started to do the same thing again.
New Year’s resolutions are terrible. They rarely work, but we still feel guilty that they don’t work. One reason we’re so bad at keeping our resolutions is that despite what we think, we are not choosing things that really matter to us. Surveys show the most common resolutions are “exercise more,” “lose weight,” and “save money.” None of these are necessarily bad things, but there’s a reason they aren’t priorities in many people’s lives. People don’t exercise because they’re doing other things that they like with their time. People don’t save money because they’re spending that money on things they like.
I wasn’t able keep my resolutions because I didn’t actually value those resolutions as much as I valued my life’s status quo. I hadn’t done the work of articulating to myself why I wanted to do any of those things, besides that they just seemed like good things to do. That means I had no way of connecting the actions to my underlying values.
When people resolve to lose weight in 2019, what is the value behind that goal? Do people value their body and the way it feels and moves in the world? Do they value other people’s reactions to their body? Do they value doing a certain activity, or wearing a certain type of clothes? The values behind our resolutions make a huge difference.
If I want to lose weight because I value my body and want to treat it well, then I won’t try supplements or crash diets. Living according to that value means being attentive to all the different ways I can love and protect my body. When I reach for junk food—“I value my body, and these don’t make it feel good.” When I look critically at myself in the mirror—“I value my body and refuse to have negative attitude about it.” Thinking beyond goals to the values behind them helps us see the bigger picture. It also gives us stronger footing when we slip up. If I skip a day of exercise, I haven’t stopped valuing my body, I just spent a day not fully living up to that value.
Our lives simply don’t work as a checklist. Many of the things that matter most in life can’t be reduced to doing a certain thing a certain number of times. I can pray daily and have a terrible spiritual life. I can forget to call my mom this week and still have a strong relationship with her.
Last year, instead of New Year’s resolutions, I wrote down a long list of “good things.” “It’s good for me to drink lots of water.” “It’s good for me to make friends from different cultures.” Reading is good. It’s good for me to walk and take public transport. It’s good for me to follow the news, but not too much. Months later, this list didn’t accuse me of not living up to three-dozen-odd entries. It sat as a gentle reminder, reminding me of the things I found important.
This year I want to go farther and connect these “good things” to the values behind them. Who do I want to be this year? How do I want to spend my time? I may not save as much as I’d like. I may never run that 10k or write those short stories, but if I can answer those questions, I’ll be on track to live a life that’s more authentic than the year before.
Katerina Parsons (’15) lives in Washington D.C., where she works in advocacy at Mennonite Central Committee’s Washington office and studies international development at American University’s School of International Service. She spends a lot of time thinking about US policy towards Central America and North Korea, writing, singing, and searching for the city’s best pupusas (suggestions welcome).