Thursday, December 17, 2009

About New Year's Resolutions

I’m spending the holidays out of town and won’t be posting to my blog at the end of December, but  I’ve been thinking about the massive year that’s almost over and the fresh new one peeking around the corner a lot lately, so I want to write a few posts about the transition, and why it’s such a good time for those things we call New Year’s Resolutions.

The year that was 2009
This was the most eventful year of my life, both in terms of actions I took and things that happened to me and the people around me. It's been a fabulous year, but in some ways an overwhelming one, and I’ve been thinking a lot about priorities, about how I’m going to bring with me all of the positive energy generated in 2009, while leaving behind the uncertainty, exhaustion and limited free time.

The year to come
When I was in school, I always looked forward to the two weeks we had off in the wintertime. We got out of school the Friday before Christmas and went back the Monday after New Year's Day. I loved the fact that I got presents and then had time to enjoy them before the hustle and bustle of the regular year returned. I also felt like every time I went back to school in the new year, it was like being given a gift of a fresh start. Even though my classmates and teachers hadn’t changed, I felt like I could change. 

I remember one year I received as a Christmas gift a very soft, pure white sweater. I felt so fine walking around in it, as if the snowy white sweater cleansed me, gave me a chance to be a different person in a new year. I wasn't unhappy about who I was already, it just felt liberating to leave the old behind and welcome in the new, both figuratively with a new attitude and new goals (resolutions) and literally with new clothes, shoes and playthings. I felt like I could remake myself and that gave me a sense of power over my own destiny. 

I like that feeling, and I think many people do, which is why making resolutions is such a popular pastime. Making the resolution is naming the problem, taking its power away and making us feel in control. The fact that many of us forget, ignore, or give up on our resolutions doesn’t mean that making them is a useless activity. But think about how good the act of making a resolution makes you feel, and then think about how good you’d feel if you kept that resolution.

About resolutions
As a child, I remember my mother asking us what our resolution for the new year was. We only had to pick one, and it was a fun game to play on New Year’s Eve as we ate our traditional split pea soup and played Monopoly. For some reason at some point during college, I decided not to limit myself to one resolution and instead made a whole list of things I wanted to accomplish in the new year. It has taken me some time to realize that there is a difference between a list of resolutions and a to do list. 

Resolutions, at least in my view, are a way of exploring who we want to be as people, and aspiring to a different, better way of life through things we can control, like our actions, our bodies and our minds, while a to do list of stuff you want to get done is a helpful document to keep going year round.

Approaches to resolutions
There are at least four approaches to making resolutions.

  1. One resolution. This is when you make one grand statement, such as “I resolve to lose weight,” or one smaller, less ambitious but still just as important statement, such as “I resolve to finish that Abraham Lincoln biography that’s been sitting on my nightstand for six months so I can talk about it with my grandfather.” If you are new to the resolution game, or don't want the pressure of a large list, this is a great way to go. Plus, if you finish your book by March, there's nothing stopping you from making another resolution at that time.
  2. To do list. This is when, under the guise of making resolutions, you actually make a to do list of all the stuff you want to accomplish in the year, most of which was probably stuff you wanted to accomplish last year but never got around to, such as “Clean out the garage, go on a trip to Mexico, repaint the bathroom, get my colors done, look into starting a 401K, have necklace fixed, etc, etc, etc.” I think this is a great to have, in addition to at least one more personal resolution.
  3. List of goals. This is somewhere between a to do list and list of resolutions. You have a list of things you want to have accomplished by the end of the year with no clear path set out to get there, such as “Learn a new language, save for retirement, expand my client base, improve my relationship with my sister.”
  4. List of resolutions. Resolutions are about concrete things that you want to do, and they are also aspirations for a better way to live. So one resolution might be “Cook dinner for my spouse more often,” and another might be, “Don’t let small inconveniences annoy me as much.” 
The point is there's no wrong way to set about trying to have a better year than the one that's just fallen away.

Gretchen Rubin at The Happiness Project blog posits that resolutions, made right, can increase your happiness. I definitely agree with her and her guidelines for making effective resolutions are well worth a read.

Lelah Baker-Rabe is a Los Angeles-based professional organizer. To discuss your organizing needs, call her at 818.269.6671 or email

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