resolutions are junk

Your goals at work

Resolutions are a useless way to fix your life. The reason they fail so utterly for most people is that they are nothing more than a goal, and the most a goal can be is a step towards fixing your life.

People make resolutions like “Lose weight” or “Go the gym more” or “Read a book a month”. Again, these are goals. These are items on a checklist. Does anyone believe that a checklist is going to fix the stuff that’s wrong in their life?

Goals are useful tools if used properly, but the proper use of goals is not to complete goals; it’s to fulfill our values. What we believe and what we value are what guide our lives, not our to-do lists. Lists enumerate the ways in which we are not free, not fulfilled, not living our life on our terms.

Values are what we should be living our lives by. I think most people would agree, but that doesn’t mean we are in a position to live by our values. I don’t think my experience in this regard is too far from uncommon.

Had you asked me two years ago if I was living a values-driven life, I would have said Yes, and I would have believed it. Then I got into regular mental health care, and my counselor suggested the book The Happiness Trap. This books is an explication of the mindfulness-based therapy ACT: Acceptance and Commitment Therapy. The key to ACT, beyond developing and utilizing a mindfulness practice, is to identify explicitly what your values are.

I could not do this. Turns out what I thought were values were a combination of two things: doing things because they seemed to be right, or because I felt I ought, and setting goals without understanding what the real purpose to those goals ought to be. Because I did not know what my values were, I had no way to live my life based on those values. I was substituting things like feelings, opportunities, and guesses.

So starting about April of 2020, I began working through what my values might be. Some were easy to identify; others took time. I would pick a word, like “learning”, and then consider how that might or might not be a value. At one point, “knowledge” seemed to be the value I was aiming at, but in the end, I returned to “learning” because it is the act and not the end result that I care most about.

Having values that I can list and define allows me to set goals that are meaningful. Goals are stepping stones along a path. Failing to meet a goal is not a failure; it’s an opportunity for a reassessment and a restart. There are many good reasons a goal might not be met, so making them vital life-markers is a mistake. If my goal is to run a 5K this summer, and I hurt my knee or have family issues arise, have I failed in some way? Of course not.

If my value is health and fitness but I never get outside and bicycle or walk and my diet is low in nutritional value, that could be considered failure – although that kind of absolutist language doesn’t do a lot of good. Not meeting a goal is disappointing, but not living according to my values means I need to take a serious look at what I’m doing and why I’m not staying more aligned to my values.

I got thinking along these lines while listening to a podcast I enjoy, Holding Kourt, with Kourtney Turner and her husband, Justin, the Los Angeles Dodgers’ third-baseman. They were talking about resolutions, and she talked about a couple she’s been able to keep the past few years. It turns out, unsurprisingly, that these successful resolutions are aligned with her values. She didn’t say so explicitly, so I’m not sure if she understands why those resolutions worked and others haven’t.

As a means to fix your life, resolutions and goals are junk. You’ll do better to identify your values and to be specific. Get them down to single words; here are some of mine:

creativity

learning

fitness, health

respect

To you, these are just some words that have various meanings. To me, these are the foundation of my life and my mental healthiness. Writing this piece makes me see that I need to revisit my notes from 2020-21 and update my values, so to speak. I need to reconnect with the ideas and then see what may have changed. This will allow me to look over my life as it stands now and decide what I’m going to do – what goals I will set – in order to live out my values.

Values are never junk. They are what you base your life on. Without knowing them in your own mind, and in your own words, you’re going to have the same kinds of problem I have lived with: living my life without much of a clue and wondering why nothing seems to be going right.

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