A Case Against New Year’s Resolutions

Sharpen your pencils.

It’s time for your list of New Year’s resolutions.

If you’re like millions of other Americans, your list includes things like lose weight or quit smoking. If you’re a renegade, it’s probably jazzier – go skydiving or climb Mt. Everest, perhaps.

For years our New Year’s resolutions have served as miniature bucket lists for our lives, our guide for becoming better people in the next year.

The Resolution List is king of the to-dos, but I won’t be making one. Consider it a personal revolution against arbitrary deadlines.

Life is stressful enough without the illusionary time limits we place on ourselves. We already follow a frustrating yet necessary set of deadlines in our everyday lives – pay the electricity by such-and-such, finish the work project by Wednesday, drop off the kids by eight, pick them up at five. Our lives are measured in blocks of time designed to fit as much as humanely possible inside the waking hours, yet for some reason we are compelled to impose even more on ourselves – own a home by age 25, make a million by 45, retire soundly at 65. Or in the case of the miniature bucket list: quit smoking in six months, lose ten pounds by March, go on vacation in July.

Then our 45th birthday arrives and we panic. March comes and we’ve only lost five pounds. We’re still lighting up in October.

January first rolls around and the whole cycle starts again.

Birthdays and New Year’s are red emergency beacons on our mental calendars, alerting us that it’s time to take stock of our lives. When the day approaches, we frantically think of what we should have done and plan for what we will do. Once we’ve conveniently got that handled, we get involved in daily life and our Resolution and Bucket Lists get pushed to the back of the imaginary filing cabinet, only to reappear again when the cycle starts over.

That’s not to say that we shouldn’t set goals for ourselves. It makes perfect sense to want to lose weight or quit smoking, just as it’s logical that you’ll want to make a million by fifty or go to Europe this summer. But I often wonder why people are so determined to impose deadlines on their life plans. Why isn’t it good enough to say “I will quit smoking”? Why does it have to be “I will quit smoking by June first”? In some cases, deadlines are required. In others, they are negative inspiration.

I have goals just like anyone else, but I’m not presumptuous enough to think that I have enough control over life that I can make the pieces fall into place by my own tidy schedule. Life happens. If you’re too focused on the red emergency beacon, it may happen without you.

This year, consider making just one New Year’s Resolution: In 2011, I will concern myself with today. Today, I won’t smoke. Today, I will go to the gym. Today, I will put fifty bucks in my investment account. Today, I will hug my children.

A wise person once said, “If you want to make your dreams come true, the first thing you have to do is wake up.” So, it’s today. Are you awake?

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This column appeared in the January issue of Thrive.

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