Q: I ruminate each year about making New Year’s resolutions that I can actually accomplish. Most years, I end up feeling like a failure because I don’t follow my goals for very long, or my goals keep changing. I always think there is so much I need to achieve, or do better, especially with my work and with my family, that I get overwhelmed. It’s then another year of doing much of the same, maybe even worse, and getting further behind, frustrated and depressed with the inevitable outcome. I’d love to hear your views of making New Year’s resolutions and your perspective on what makes it so hard for most of us to be successful with the ones we make, to do better each year. Your perspective on doing better with parenting, of course, would  also be really helpful. 

A: I completely understand your frustration and appreciate how challenging it is to sustain goals for each new year. I certainly have struggled with that same problem, finally realizing that my “normal cycle” for shaping resolutions, or the changes I want/need to make, is the start of each school year rather than January 1st. The many years of starting school at the end of summer, both my own academic trajectory and that of my children’s school schedule, always provided a natural rhythm for new beginnings. On our return from summer vacation each year, I would create a list (often far too long) of new intentions to practice as the new school year resumed. Then it finally came to me some years ago that I really needed to shorten my list, keeping my intentions realistic. I decided to focus on two major projects I wanted to accomplish for that year — professionally and/or personally — as well as two easier changes I wanted to implement, such as going to bed earlier on work nights or being more patient with family and friends, and so on.

The problem with New Year’s resolutions is there’s such hype surrounding the expectations that somehow we are meant to transform our lives in the next year, which simply sets us up to be disappointed, overwhelmed, frustrated. Failing at that is indeed easy, predictable, because the underlying message is that we have been performing badly, or we have not been good enough through the previous year, and we now must embrace this opportunity to make amends, to correct our defects, to achieve all that we didn’t, and to become much better on many fronts. We are programmed to set the bar high, expecting that anything less than complete success means failure. We’re indeed doomed with this black-and-white perspective!

As we approach 2019, my recommendation is to try something different, to shake things up a bit. First focus on everything you have done well in the previous year (2018), being generous and forgiving of yourself, viewing your accomplishments through a positive filter. These can be very small, yet significant, growth points, worthy of your validation. Then decide on just one parenting approach with which you wish to do better, framing it as a new skill to learn, rather than replacing something bad you’ve been doing. Or you might need/want to focus on your partnership/marriage. Create a quiet, calm space in which to reflect on this, turning the lens on an aspect of your parenting and/or your relationship dynamics that you feel could improve. Then write it down as an intention, keeping it visible for a daily reminder. You can also do the same with one personal change you might want to make — creating another visual reminder, placing it where you can see it each morning, reinforcing your goal. Be sure to make it realistic, achievable.

When we set a goal that is overwhelming — an example: setting an intention of losing 50 pounds — what we tend to ignore are the steps that need to be taken, the lifestyle changes that must occur, the support required to be successful, to reach that, or any other, lofty goal. New Year’s resolutions produce magical thinking: “This is the year I’ll train for that marathon” or “This is the year I’ll get to my high school graduation weight again,” or “This is the year I’ll be the parent I’ve always wanted to be,” or “This year I’m going to make enough money to travel around the world,” or “This year I’m going to reduce my screen time by 75 percent!” These are all admirable intentions, and yet if the underlying emotional root of what/why those goals have never before been achieved, that is what, as you said, “makes it so hard for most of us to be successful.” We must first attend to our respective roadblocks, those barriers that keep us stuck. Perhaps there is some emotional blockage preventing us from realizing our marvelous goals!

Finally, it’s important to stay in touch with our expectations, both for ourselves, for our partners, and most importantly, for our children. When we plan major transformations in our lifestyle or relationship dynamics, we unintentionally set ourselves or our children up for failure, ensuring we will be overwhelmed, angry, disappointed, and even bitter. Breathe into some healthy, sensible, pragmatic goals, keeping in mind our connection to ourselves and those we love is what is most valuable. Parenting is always a work in progress, thus you might consider taking a workshop or reading a book, carving out time to work on being the parent you’ve always wanted to be.

Wishing one and all a new year of positive intention, connection, peace, good health, and making time to “smell the roses”!

Please send me your questions.