Congratulations: You’ve made it to 2022. Perhaps you’ve already listed 300 New Year’s resolutions, covering the hyper-doable (wash your sheets once a week), the niche (perfect your treble jig so your hot Irish step-dance coach will love you), and the ambitious (this is the year you write your novel). Perhaps you’ve also felt a deep shame for failing resolutions past. Time’s run out, and now I have to begin again, you might say to yourself. Here comes another year of saying I’ll do things that, in all likelihood, I won’t.
This year, the cycle feels intolerable to me. My experience of the pandemic has been one of great luck and privilege—but like many people, I’m worn out anyway. My 2021 resolutions went unattended while I worked from the couch, donning sweatpants and blue-light glasses, and wondering why, two years into this, I still don’t feel normal. How 2022 will unfold is so uncertain that choosing new goals feels like setting forth in a snowstorm, squinting into a great blurry expanse. So I’ve resolved to not make any resolutions this year. And I don’t think you should either.
Believe me, I’ve tried every trick in the book. Psychologists, businesspeople, and motivational coaches offer endless, sometimes conflicting, advice: Set bite-size goals that you can realistically accomplish; set difficult goals that stimulate you with a challenge; make your goals easy to measure; seek meaningful well-being rather than shallow self-improvement; avoid temptation; visualize success; congratulate yourself for progress; don’t give up if you’re lagging.
Yet according to research, New Year’s resolutions just aren’t likely to work. Lisa Ordóñez, the dean of UC San Diego’s management school, told me that most goals get abandoned about a month into the year. (For the past few years, the fitness-app company Strava has shared the day in January its users were most likely to give up on their exercise targets—what it cruelly deems “Quitter’s Day.”) In a 2018 YouGov poll, only 6 percent of people who made a resolution were able to fully meet it.
You might figure that declaring resolutions doesn’t hurt, even if you don’t complete them. But that’s not necessarily true. The very act of goal setting can undermine results if it feels like homework: One study that directed people to practice flossing, yoga, or origami making found that focusing on the desired result actually predicted lower achievement. If goals are too narrow or too challenging or too many are attempted at once, they can obscure the bigger picture or lead people to focus disproportionately on short-term gains. Getting goals just right is hard.
Thus Ordóñez’s paper “Goals Gone Wild” advises businesses to think of goal setting as “a prescription-strength medication that requires careful dosing, consideration of harmful side effects, and close supervision.” And she told me that she thinks similar principles can apply to New Year’s resolutions: Spending too much energy on them can distract you from other tasks, and from your relationships; feeling like you’re failing to meet them can lead you to give them up entirely.
Of course, some people—unlike me—actually fulfill their resolutions. But they’re not always happier. (Ha ha!) Psychologists call this “hedonic adaptation”: You may feel buzzed about your achievement, but not for long. Pretty soon you’ll be thinking about another insufficiency to target. You may keep striving without ever really pausing to feel proud of your success—or to reassess whether you were chasing the right ends to begin with.
See, the problem isn’t just with how we define or pursue our goals; it’s with the very idea of prioritizing tangible outcomes. Assessing our personal progress in terms of resolutions leads us to aspire to things that we can cross off a list, and that shapes our behavior in turn. “We often measure things that are easy to measure,” Ordóñez told me. “Not what we really want to do.”
Instead, perhaps this year we can reflect on why those outcomes matter to us in the first place. Jill Stoddard, the director of a therapy practice in San Diego, illustrated how to do so with an example from her own life. She had wanted to lose weight for years, constantly setting and breaking new fitness goals. But when she questioned why she agonized over a number on a scale, she realized that she really cared that her children didn’t see her as a sedentary person. She’s since reached a place where she feels healthier, more active, and proud of the mother her kids look up to. Stoddard didn’t start and finish any one tidy goal, but she’s guided by a considered understanding of what she loves and prioritizes.
I don’t know what 2022 will look like. But I’ve started putting together a list of small good things from the year that ended: I got to visit home and bake tomato bread pudding with my family; my roommates and I decorated our new apartment, each adding a piece of ourselves to the whole; I grew even closer to my best friends, shivering through long conversations in triple-layered socks when we still couldn’t meet inside; the weather got warmer; I got vaccinated; I read some beautiful poetry. These aren’t accomplishments—they’re more like gratitudes, or bright points, or road signs for my future self to follow. They remind me that my life can be beautifully inconsequential, and the things that make me most human are not particularly unique or impressive.
When I die, there will be no ledger recording how frequently I exercised or wrote in my journal or got promoted. There will be people who loved me. I hope to have been a dedicated daughter and sister, a patient co-worker, a kind stranger; I hope I helped tell stories that maybe changed a few people’s minds. In 2022, I’ll continue to follow these lodestars, without knowing my destination. Nearly two years into a pandemic, maybe that’s all right.