The idea of setting a New Year’s resolution for 2021 strikes me as… exhausting. After a year that thoroughly upended so many people’s lives, most “typical” resolutions — to exercise more often, to get organized, to travel more, to budget better, to quit Juuling — seem somehow inappropriate. We’re all just trying to survive. Please don’t talk to me about my personal goals.
In the aftermath of the past 12 months, setting such goals feels futile. If 2020 taught us anything, it’s that planning ahead is for suckers. If we were among the luckier ones, the disruption of 2020 looked like canceled trips, postponed weddings, and lost days spent in interminable lockdown. For others, that disruption took the shape of life-threatening illness, financial insecurity, racial violence, and death. With life’s uncertainty thrown into sharp relief, why would I spend a second planning for a “better me” in 2021?
And yet… I have to square my contempt at the thought of making resolutions with the fact that I fulfilled more self-improvement goals in the past nine months than I had in the previous nine years. The most common resolutions people set for 2020 were to exercise more, save money, eat healthier. Check, check, check: With more pandemic-mandated time on my hands and fewer places, or reasons, to shed my disposable income, I did it all. I completed a 30-day yoga challenge. I grew my savings account. I started cooking 95% of my meals at home. I replaced at least some of my coffee intake with tea. I spent more phone-down quality time with my family. I quit my secret-until-this-moment Juul habit (yes, I am a wellness editor with an on-off vaping habit. Sorry, mom). I set a personal record for the number of pushups I could do. I meditated more days than not. I read a ton.
The punchline is, none of these self-improvement goals changed my life in the way I’d imagined they would.
When my savings account hit a certain amount, I felt more secure — for three days. Then I was stressing about the next financial milestone I thought I desperately needed to meet. I enjoy cooking at home, but it doesn’t make me feel any more adult or accomplished than I did when I was ordering in. After my 30-day yoga challenge (and adding the “om” emoji into my Instagram bio), I never took to the mat again.
These experiences made me wonder why we set self-help goals in the first place. With the world in turmoil, does any external change really have the power to make us feel “better” or even different? Or are resolutions just another example of the old adage: Wherever you go, there you are?
When I posed that question to Ruth Shim, MD, a professor in the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at the University of California, Davis, she paused for a long time. “That’s a hard question,” she finally said. “I guess it depends on what the goal is and what your values are. Generally, behavioral change is much more challenging and complicated than setting a resolution and trying to keep it. True behavioral change is what people see therapists and go to rehab for. I don’t know if setting a goal for transforming yourself is effective.”
I’m not the first person to question the point of self-improvement goals. The journalist Marianne Power wrote a whole book about it: Help Me!, which tracked her year spent following the advice of self-help books. “I thought that if I tried hard enough to fix all my flaws, I would then be happy. Life would be sunshine and roses. I would be living a kind of Instagram life. I now feel stupid that I believed in that, but I did,” Power told me via email.
The book is worth reading, but the gist of Power’s message is: Self-help journeys can teach us a ton, but if your actual goal is to become perfect, none of the advice you take is going to work. “No matter how many marathons we run or self-help books we read, we will always be flawed, beautiful humans who get embarrassed and scared and ashamed and unsure,” Power said.
I didn’t consciously realize that I hoped finally kicking my embarrassing Juul habit would make me not just healthier but more perfect. But when I try to reckon with the fact that being 10ish months off the nic stick feels kind of like a letdown, I have to admit: Some part of me clearly thought that quitting would let me feel unashamed, confident, even a little superior — the opposite of how I felt when I was sneakily vaping. And it didn’t. Instead, my insecurities found another hook to hang on. Now I feel embarrassed by my obscene sweet tooth, my oftentimes-short temper, my preference for “chick lit” over the classics.
Those little manifestations of self-doubt might have turned into goals for another year — eat only dark chocolate for dessert, join a book club — had it not been for 2020. Over the past year, we’ve grappled with a global pandemic, an uprising against racial injustice and increasingly violent examples of police brutality, a tumultuous election that demonstrated just how deeply divided this country appears to be. 2020 has threatened the lives of Black people, trans people, low-income people, and many other vulnerable groups, who are facing COVID-related illness and death, violent racism and discrimination, job loss and the resulting housing insecurity, among other issues. When set against this backdrop, how could I possibly convince myself that cutting back on candy matters?
“We were forced to slow down and take new stock of everything in our lives,” Dr. Shim says. “A lot of people have struggled to make sense of things that seemed to make sense before. People are focused on what they need to be whole and to survive in the most difficult of times.”
If you’d asked Marisa Renee Lee in 2019 what her goals for 2020 were, the 37-year-old co-founder of Supportal and the author of the upcoming book Grief Is Love would have said becoming a mom. After a long fertility journey, she was expecting. But she lost the pregnancy, which instantly changed all of her 2020 plans. Instead, she spent the year healing from health complications related to the loss — all while the global pandemic kept her away from loved ones. Then in October, Lee’s 35-year-old cousin contracted COVID-19 and died. “I shut down for about a week,” Lee tells me. “For my aunt, that’s the third child she’s lost in total in her lifetime. Not only did she lose my mom [who died 12 years ago] and her mom, but now she's also lost three of her kids. For me, those stories of people like her who have been through so much puts everything in perspective.”
Lee was already helping people grapple with grief pre-pandemic, and she says that in many ways, the events of this year only reinforced for her the importance of this calling. But it also made it impossible for her to carry out her work in her typical ways: She couldn’t travel, attend events, or see people socially. After this experience, Lee says she believes it’s more urgent than ever to find ways to make healing more accessible to everyone. “There is something about dealing with a difficult thing that makes you more sensitive to others who are dealing with difficult things,” she says. She believes that’s one reason why the news of George Floyd’s killing ignited such a huge reaction. “Everyone was in a place where they could see the pain Black people experience regularly. I don’t know how much we would have paid attention to George Floyd; or whether I personally would have spoken out as much as I have about these issues, some other year,” she says.
When I ask Lee about her goals for 2021, she’s silent for a beat, then laughs and tells me to ask her again next week. “It’s such a fucking weird time,” she says.
Personal goals aren’t necessarily pointless — but it’s worth interrogating those we most commonly associate with resolutions, which tend to be about attaining some kind of elusive, always-out-of-reach perfection: sleep more, work harder, eat differently. These goals drive us to beat ourselves up when we fall short and too often create a disappointing sense of “what next?” when we achieve them. This past year, however, had a way of shifting our perspective in order to allow us to tap into our core values again — finding excitement in life, feeling close to our loved ones, feeling grounded in ourselves, being of service to our communities, Dr. Shim points out. We’ve had dozens of opportunities to ask ourselves: What matters most to me in life? When we’re faced with that question, the way we think about what in our lives needs adjusting and what counts as self-betterment fundamentally changes.
Carly Watters, a 33-year-old literary agent who lives in Ontario, told me her resolution for 2020 had been to deliver a healthy baby, take a short maternity leave, then focus on growing her business. The first part went as planned, except her healthy baby was born the same week COVID-19 was declared a pandemic. “I had to adjust every expectation I had for 2020,” she said. With daycares closed, she and her husband were both forced to parent two kids while working full-time. She also grappled with stress-induced postpartum depression. “I've gone through being angry and being sad and being overwhelmed,” Watters says, but then adds: “The shining light has really been getting this extra time as a family of four that we never would have had otherwise.”
Judith Martinez, the 28-year-old CEO of InHerShoes, a women’s community, says she went into 2020 looking for clarity, especially around the idea of where she’d find “home” in the coming year. “If you looked at my journal and my vision board, home looked like moving to Seattle with one of my best friends in June of 2020,” Martinez said. “When COVID hit in March not only did that vision of Seattle completely disappear, but I found myself in my childhood bedroom, surrounded by the same four walls I grew up in.”
Her plans changed, and so did her understanding of the world. “Everything was on pause and life literally turned upside down for so many of us. There were times when it felt silly and even selfish to think about my own goals and resolutions. Between the national awakening for racial justice, a historic election year, and a global pandemic — I felt like a lot of my clarity actually came from seeing things in a new light. This year had me realize why they were my goals or resolutions to begin with.”
The internal reorganization ultimately forced her to let go of that idea of home she was so sure was waiting for her in Seattle. She grieved that dream, for a while. Then, “My view of the city was quickly replaced by grandma’s herb garden,” she says.
Personally, I only vaguely remember what my goals for 2020 were. To learn a lot at my then-new job. To exercise more, probably. I know I didn’t make a conscious resolution to spend more time with my family, to educate myself more deeply on the issues that matter to me so I can make truly informed choices, to create a home base that feels comfortable, uncluttered, and restorative. But those are all things that have taken on a new level of importance to me over the past year, because all the terrifying, unsettling, uncomfortable stuff that happened clarified what really matters to me like never before. I’ve been afraid for my family’s health, for society’s health, for my own mental health. Only when these things were threatened did I understand how undeniably important they were to me. And then, I changed my life in ways that allowed me to connect with and support those core values, without ever consciously setting a goal to do so.
Dr. Shim says she’d advocate for one 2021 resolution, which can be applied to any area of your life: “I’m trying to do better.” The word “trying” is key — it encompasses the dozens of false starts and setbacks that most people encounter on the path to self-betterment. We’re running a race with no finish line; the goal is simply to move forward and, if you can, find a little enjoyment in each mile.
Or we can let go of the idea of resolutions altogether, and trust that we’ll be intuitively driven to make the changes that are right for us when it’s time to do so — whether that happens to fall on January 1 or not.