Making New Year’s resolutions that don’t make me miserable

New Year’s resolutions don’t work for me. And it turns out I’m not alone. According to a study described on the website Statistics Brain, after one week 25% of people have dropped their resolutions, and by the end of the year, fully 92% have dropped.

graph depicting percentage of resolutions which fail
Percentage of resolutions which fail

Actually, the study reported on the success rate of people in regard to their resolutions, which puts the success rate at the end of the year at a measly 8%. I prefer to turn the statistics around and look at the percentage of resolutions that failed, not people.

Every year I made myself miserable by setting overly ambitious goals and then failing. Over the years, through trial and error, I’ve learned a new approach to making resolutions.

My healthier, saner approach to resolutions

  1. Reflect on what I did right last year.
  2. Reflect on what I would like my life to look like in the coming year.
  3. Make just a few resolutions.
  4. Make suggestions not commandments.
  5. Let go of the guilt.
  6. Give myself permission to change course.

Reflecting on what I did right

I find it helpful to take some time to jot a few notes about what I felt good about in the preceding year. What could I be proud of at work? At home? About my mind? My body? My spirit? Last year I finished up the required coursework for my thesis and started working out at a gym. Nothing earth-shattering, but good, steady progress. Being generous here makes the next step easier.

Reflecting on what I would like to be different

At this point I don’t set specific goals. Instead, I just think about what I would like my overall life to look like in the coming year. Would I like to have more toned muscles? Yes. Would I like to broaden my musical tastes? Maybe. Would I like to set aside more time for R & R on the weekends? Definitely. The idea here is to get a general impression of how I want things to be, and to keep it simple.

Making just a few resolutions

More is not always better, especially when it comes to setting goals. Setting too many goals divides my focus and my energy. I’m much better off making just a few resolutions. Again, simplify.

list of ten New Year's resolutions
Making too many resolutions divided my focus and energy

Making suggestions, not commandments

The very best kind of friend to have is one who offers suggestions which are prompted by concern and respect. Such a friend does not boss you around and give you commandments. Instead, a really good friend wants you to live well, take good care of yourself, and be happy. To create helpful resolutions for my life, I asked myself what a good friend would suggest for me.

a list of 3 simple resolutions
The kind of resolutions a good friend might suggest

Letting go of guilt

In my world, which is filled with competing demands on my time and energy, rigid rules don’t work. I need wiggle room. And I don’t need guilt. So I work on letting that go. After all, if I’m not keeping a resolution, maybe the fault is not in me, but in the resolution. Which leads me to my final step.

 

Giving myself permission to change course

If I’m not sticking to a resolution, I ask myself why. Is it unrealistic? Is it not likely to improve my life? Does it bore me? Depending on the answers to these questions, I might need to tweak a resolution, or replace it with a new one, or drop it altogether. And that’s okay. The point is to improve my life, not follow rules blindly.

If you’d like to read more about making attainable New Year’s resolutions, read Logan Chierotti’s 5 Hacks to Help You Stick to Your New Year’s Resolutions.

Did you make any New Year’s resolutions? How are they working?

 

Stress is good for me?

The answer is yes, stress can be good for us. It all depends on how we respond to it. In fact, we can learn to respond in a way that’s actually good for our hearts (and our souls).

First we need to learn to look at our body’s response to stress as helpful. Second, we need to learn to reach out to others instead of keeping our stress all bottled up. In other words, we need to listen to the wisdom of our bodies.

Stress can be helpful

When I’m stressed, my heart races, my breath get shallow and fast, and my palms sweat. In my mind, I look like the person depicted in Edvard Munch’s The Scream.

Edvard Munch's painting of a person on a bridge screaming
Edvard Munch’s The Scream

I always assumed this physical reaction was a bad thing. Turns out I was wrong. This response can actually be heart healthy, depending on how we look at it. If we can regard our body’s physical response to stress as positive, it can actually be good for us.

In addition to the physical symptoms of stress, we also feel a need for support and connection. Following that impulse is key. When we tell someone else how we feel, our body starts to respond differently to the stress.

I learned this in an excellent TED Talk by Kelly McGonigal, a health psychologist. It’s only 15 minutes long, but if you’re pressed for time, scroll down for a summary.

You can watch the 15-minute talk here:

Summary of TED Talk on stress

Ms. McGonigal describes a study done at Harvard in which participants were given tests under stressful situations. Before the test, they were taught that the physical sensations of stress were helpful, that their bodies were preparing them to perform well on the tests.

Because they now viewed the stress response as helpful, participants felt less stress and more confidence. And rather than constricting, their blood vessels relaxed, which is much healthier for the heart. In fact, this cardiovascular profile is similar to that of moments of bravery and joy.

(6:51) “And when you view stress in that way, your body believes you, and your stress response becomes healthier.”

The second way to make stress work for us is to follow our social impulse. The stress hormone oxytocin makes us feel a need for connection. It also protects our hearts. When we talk over our problems and stressors with our friends and family, our body releases more oxytocin, also known as “the cuddle hormone,” which helps the heart heal and recover from stress.

(9:32) “I find this amazing, that your stress response has a built-in mechanism for stress resilience, and that mechanism is human connection.” 

Making stress work for us

A friend of mine who knew I was stressed suggested I watch this talk. I was skeptical, but also desperate. I tried out the first strategy of changing my view of stress. I was working on a presentation for grad school and feeling panicky and overwhelmed. Every time I sat at the computer to work on it my heart raced and I felt jittery. I kept telling myself that this was a good thing, that I could channel this nervous energy into my work. It took some persistence, but finally I started feeling different. Energized, but not stressed out. Focused, but not obsessive. I got the presentation done on time and received positive feedback on it. Now I find it much easier to trust that my body knows what it’s doing.

I employed the second strategy just yesterday, and not for the first time. I was facing a difficult conversation, one I felt was necessary but might permanently alter a relationship. So I called my friend Sue. We’ve know each other since junior high, and I know I can count on her to listen and to respond with compassion and honesty. And sure enough, during our talk I began to feel lighter, more relaxed, less freaked out.

Eastern medicine has long understood the power and importance of the mind-body connection. I’m glad that researchers in the West are finally honoring this connection and exploring it in depth.

I would love to know your reaction to Kelly McGonigal’s TED Talk.

What about you? What are your strategies for dealing with stress?