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Don't Make a "New" New Year's Resolution

You can make meaningful changes without a resolution—or even a new year.

Key points

  • Setting goals may be effective for some, but, for others, it can undermine their efforts or cause harm.
  • Focusing too much on a single goal can lead people to engage in unethical or extreme behaviors.
  • We tend to believe that self-criticism is what keeps us in line, rather than self-compassion.

While we can make resolutions to start fresh any day of the year, December is the time when most people double down on their goal-setting in pursuit of New Year’s resolutions that they hope will work (this time).

Andrea Piacquadio/Pexels
Source: Andrea Piacquadio/Pexels

And while setting goals may be effective for some people, for others, it can undermine their efforts—and even cause harm. Research shows that the impact of goal-setting can result in people focusing too much attention on the wrong things, inhibiting their learning, engaging in unethical behaviors, or participating in extreme behaviors to achieve those goals.

I’m no exception. When I used to make New Year’s resolutions, I noticed this same pattern emerging. For example, my regular annual goals were to “exercise at least five days a week” and “cut out X from my diet” (whatever fad “X” was that year). These resolutions came from my belief that without clear and concrete goals, I wouldn’t accomplish anything meaningful or measurable. What I did accomplish from decades of setting and failing to achieve that goal was an eating disorder, a pervasive feeling of failure, and a deep sense of shame.

Why do we do this?

Kristen Neff, associate professor of educational psychology at the University of Texas at Austin, concurs. “I found in my research that the biggest reason people aren't more self-compassionate is that they are afraid they’ll become self-indulgent. They believe self-criticism is what keeps them in line. Most people have gotten it wrong because our culture says being hard on yourself is the way to be.”

What can you do instead?

This isn’t to say you shouldn’t set goals for yourself for the New Year. Setting specific, challenging goals can increase motivation and boost performance. But if you’d like an alternative approach to this annual practice, here are three to consider:

1. Revisit and refresh the meaning behind old goals.

Three years ago, I committed to not scheduling work on Fridays. I had been feeling overwhelmed by professional commitments, and I knew that I needed a regularly scheduled break for my mental well-being.

Today, I no longer feel like I’m risk for burnout. What I am at risk for, however, is retiring one day and having very few hobbies or interests outside of work to fill my time. (I have been warned that watching true-crime shows on Netflix and buying unnecessary throw pillows may not be a fulfilling retirement plan for someone like me.)

Therefore, I am revisiting the purpose of my Fridays off. While I do want to maintain a no-work day for my current mental well-being, I can also use some of that time to try new endeavors for my future contentment. I am currently looking into swimming lessons, a ceramics class, and learning to decorate cakes like the contestants on "The Great British Baking Show."

It's my old resolution with a refreshed sense of meaning and purpose.

What about you?

Maybe last year, you resolved to spend more time with your family on the weekends because you were feeling distant after your long work week. That meant you spent your weekends driving your kids to their practices and lessons. Maybe this year, you can focus on finding one weekend activity that the whole family enjoys doing together.

2. Tackle one-and-done “tolerations” rather than long-term goals.

Most people I know (including me) have frustrations and irritations that most of put up that can drain our energy. These tolerations can be big or small, and we’ve often convinced ourselves that we don’t have the time, energy, skills, resources, or confidence to get them handled once and for all.

Admittedly, some of what we’re tolerating may take a while to get resolved, such as working for a micromanager, being in debt, or taking care of an aging parent. Yet, many tolerations can be fixed relatively quickly and easily, freeing up your mind and energy for more important projects, issues, and, yes, longer-term goals.

What about you?

Here are some tolerations to consider tackling:

  1. Dropping off the bag of clothing to donate that’s been in your trunk for months
  2. Scheduling your dentist appointment
  3. Updating your LinkedIn profile
  4. RSVPing for an event
  5. Unsubscribing from emails you no longer want to receive
  6. Replacing a burnt-out lightbulb
  7. Buying a more comfortable desk chair
  8. Cleaning out your fridge
  9. Canceling a streaming service you never use
  10. Getting your clothing tailored so that it fits you perfectly

While traditional resolutions require you to start something and continue to do it over time, tackling your tolerations can give you a quick win to start the New Year—or, frankly, any time.

3. Help someone else achieve their goals.

When I shared with my friend Ellen that I wanted to get better at swimming, I wasn’t surprised that she offered to help me. After all, she had been a competitive swimmer when she was younger, and, like most human beings, she is wired to help other people.

You may decide that you don’t want to set a new New Year’s resolution yourself, but that doesn’t mean you have to miss out on this cultural norm altogether. By offering to help someone achieve their goal, you can experience a “helper’s high”—like a runner’s high—in which we release feel-good endorphins. It’s also a good long-term investment in our relationships. When we help someone out, they are more likely to help us out in return.

For this to work well, you need to be willing to flex your helping muscles by offering the kind of help the other person needs. For example, I was grateful that Ellen was willing to help me learn to swim, but I knew that I didn’t want her to give me lessons. Why? Because I am ornery when cold and wet, and I feared that could negatively impact our friendship. But I will take her up on her offer to check in with me to see how it’s going, offer tips and techniques, and then be my swim buddy next summer.

In our book, Go to Help: 31 Strategies to Offer, Ask for, and Accept Help, my co-author Sophie Riegel and I suggest several ways you can offer to help someone else achieve their resolution.

What about you?

Try offering one or more ways of helping a friend, family member, or colleague:

  • Listen without judgment.
  • Help them make a concrete action plan.
  • Connect them to resources (knowledge, people, money, supplies, etc.).
  • Teach them how to do something you know how to do.
  • Be an accountability partner.
  • Encourage and cheerlead them.
  • Anticipate barriers to success.
  • Challenge them to set a higher bar.
  • Remind them to pause and rest.
  • Celebrate their wins.

You don’t have to wait until the New Year to make a resolution. And you also don’t have to make a new resolution because it’s a new year. You can choose to have less stress and more success anytime by updating the meaning behind old goals, picking a quick win to cross off your list, and by helping someone achieve something that matters to them.


Rakshitha Arni Ravishankar and Kelsey Alpaio. 5 Ways to Set More Achievable Goals. Harvard Business Review. August 30, 2022.

Dorie Clark. How to Make Progress on Your Long-Term Career Goals. Harvard Business Review. March 25, 2022.

Deborah Grayson Riegel. Are You Taking Full Advantage of Your Network? Harvard Business Review. November 28, 2022.

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