Why Resolutions are Not Enough

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Early in the new year many people resist making New Year’s resolutions because of past disappointments or lack of confidence in their own abilities. If we could understand ‘resolutions’ in their larger context, we could use them for their proper purpose as tools to achieve what we most desire.

Elements of Achievement

Goals are a necessary but insufficient part of turning desires into realities. For longer than anyone can remember we’ve been exhorted to set goals: at school, in our work, and in our personal lives. Setting goals is quick, relatively easy, and often fun. In goals, we find a way to make a dream a little more concrete, perhaps with some specific criteria for success and a time frame. Through goal-setting alone, we may feel like we’ve taken a step towards manifesting our dreams.

But how does one use a goal to get a result? That process is longer and more elaborate than just setting goals. Here is how I envision the chain that leads from dreams to realities, including all the major steps along the way. If you have these tools in your personal toolbox, you stand a much better chance of living the life you have imagined for yourself.

Desires and Values

When goals come from the outside, desires and values are often the missing element. Being handed a goal by someone else automatically reduces your chance for success. Better to do some self-examination and find out what drives you and what you truly hunger for before setting a goal or making a resolution. You also have the option of transmuting an externally imposed goal into something more personally relevant. If your boss wants you to raise your sales figures, then you might realize that making nice with the boss or keeping a job is what you would care about, and that’s what drives you.

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Some desires are both persistent and personal. These desires may represent an enduring part of your personality, a core life philosophy, or perhaps just a personal tendency. Whatever the case, desires like this can be termed ‘values’ and values make an outstanding foundation for goals. What makes values unique is they are never-ending. If you have a value to be healthy, financially secure, or spiritually evolved, there’s no end to these aims. A value can be visualized as a map direction, such as “west”. However far west you go, there’s still more room to go farther west. And wherever you are, there is likely a way to make some kind of move to the west.

Goals (a.k.a. Resolutions)

If you understand values as directions, then goals are best imagined as destinations linked to a time frame. If I’m in New York and I have a value of “west”, then I might set a goal to reach Los Angeles in three days from now. For best results, a goal always has a specific destination and a time frame. Together, values and goals make a powerful pair. Values harness the power of emotion and desire, while goals ensure you are making timely progress towards a specific destination.

Plans or Next Actions

If you know your values and have made goals consistent with these values, you have done a good bit of the inner work of achievement, but you may still be physically at the starting line. With a goal in hand, it’s time to start finding the specific actions that will make your dreams real. The trick is that there are many ways to achieve a goal just like there are many ways to get from New York to Los Angeles.

Sometimes a predetermined itinerary is the way to go. You buy all the tickets you need in advance, make a schedule, and hit all your connections. Planning makes sense when “the trains run on time.” Yet every traveller knows that flight delays undo the best plans and life tends to be even less reliable than the major airlines. When you find yourself in uncharted territory, sometimes planning is more hindrance than help. In such cases, rather than planning everything out from start to finish, it may make more sense to simply look for the next action that moves you “west”, towards your goal and then do that. Perhaps you find yourself in Las Vegas, Seattle, or San Diego. None of them are L.A., but you are closer to your goal and you may now have better information on how to get there than when you started in New York.

Review and Reflection

For all the same reasons that ‘next actions’ may be more useful than plans, both plans and next actions may become invalid at any given moment. Flying into Denver made good sense until the snowstorm buried the airport. Making sure your plans and actions still match up with current reality is a never-ending chore, but far better than grinding on with work that no longer fits the circumstances.

People often set goals to help give themselves structure they can “stick” to. Yet they get disappointed when reality shifts and all their plans are no longer valid. A great deal of flexibility resides in the knowledge that for every goal there are usually many plans and actions that will serve the goal. If one plan fails, no need to get discouraged, just select another one, perhaps with more information that last time.

At a deeper level, different goals can meet the same desire to move towards a value. Circumstances sometimes dictate that an entire goal is no longer desirable or even possible. Then one can fall back on the underlying value and select a new goal that makes more sense. Abandoning a goal because circumstances have changed is not being wishy-washy or giving up. Instead it is a way to recognize what is and return to values that reside within us.

Even values may need to be open to revision from time to time. We ourselves change, and values such as excitement and adventure may be more significant in one phase of life than another. Values like security and serenity may be more relevant at another time and place. When goals, plans, and actions all seem irrelevant it may be time to reconsider some of the fundamental ‘why’ questions that define the values we hold most deeply.

Resolutions (or goals) then rest within a stack of concepts positioned between plans or next actions (concrete, context-specific, and rapidly changeable) and values (abstract, personal, and usually slow to change). Only when goals are supported and complemented by values and plans can they reach their full potential to realize our visions.

All clinical material on this site is peer reviewed by one or more clinical psychologists or other qualified mental health professionals. This specific article was originally published by on and was last reviewed or updated by Dr Greg Mulhauser, Managing Editor on .

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