It’s A Trap: Rethinking New Year’s Resolutions and Goals

December 21, 2020      By Stacy Cutrono

Ultimate Takeaway
  • New Year's resolutions often fall short because of some outdated beliefs we've all learned about goal setting.
  • Any day — not just January 1st — can be the perfect day to begin a new well-being journey.
  • Failure is part of the journey, so don't change the goal when it happens. Change the plan to reach to your goal instead.

It’s that time of year again — time for the annual ritual of New Year’s resolutions and goals. The first of January is rapidly approaching and many of us will take the opportunity to reset our attitudes and commitments towards health and well-being. We will resolve to learn that new language, master that hobby, get fitter, eat better, sleep more, and finally lose those extra pounds — plus the extra, extra pounds caused by the pandemic (am I right?). It’s a time filled with eternal hope and limitless motivation as we start a fresh year full of possibilities. So, what could go wrong? 

As a health and well-being professional, I inwardly cringe each time I hear someone declare their resolutions and goals for the new year. I know I should only be encouraging and supportive, yet so often I can only imagine the storm on the horizon when those same resolutions crash, inevitably, into the reality of person’s life. It’s an open secret that many resolutions fail — pre-pandemic you only had to compare your visit to a fitness center on January 1st to a visit on March 1st to know I speak the truth. 

There are a lot of reasons for failed resolutions, such as setting unattainable goals or looking for quick fixes, and often the biggest culprit I witness is creating resolutions in isolation. It’s as if all the barriers, challenges and roadblocks that prevented you from reaching your goal will magically disappear on the first of the year if you just will it to be so. We’ve survived so much already in 2020 and displayed a remarkable ability to adapt the way we live, work, and connect with each other. So maybe now is the time to revisit why and how we set resolutions and goals.  

Every Day Can Be January 1st 

The first of January holds no more significance than say April 2nd or November 16th. Every day you work on your well-being is a step in the right direction. If we can free ourselves from the constraint of changing our lives and our habits on one specific day or for one specific month, we may be able to see well-being in a broader perspective and be able to more effectively change our lifestyles to support our health, both physical and mental. Treating each day as January 1st may help you avoid the pitfall of waiting for a Monday or waiting for the first of the month — or the rare unicorn when the 1st of the month falls on a Monday (spoiler alert – this will only happen three times in 2021). This upcoming year, remind yourself that you can start a well-being goal ANY DAY OF THE YEAR, and you can make progress towards your well-being goals at any point in your life. 

Start with the Vision, Not the Goal 

When I coach individuals, the first question I might ask in the session is, “What is your goal?” After learning about Simon Sinek’s golden circle in a UKG professional development seminar, I now also ask individuals, Why is this your goal?” When we dive headfirst into New Year’s resolutions and goals, we are often answering the what of a goal and, for those who practice SMART goal setting, perhaps the how as well. But when was the last time you asked yourself why? The why — why do you want to be fitter, eat healthier, learn a new language? — the why reflects our personal vision of ourselves and our future. It is the inspiration for our journey.

Take the time now to think about why you are on your journey and if the well-being path you’ve chosen is really the journey you want to be on. Perhaps you skip the weight loss goals this upcoming year and focus on financial literacy because this pandemic has highlighted gaps in your savings plan. Or maybe you forgo the diet plan and consider shoring up your self-care rituals to support mental health. Before you think about setting a resolution for 2021, envision what your well-being will feel like, sound like, look like. And with the vision firmly in your mind, then and only then consider how you will act on that vision. 

Treasure the Journey 

As an avid hiker, there is this amazing sense of accomplishment and satisfaction I get when I reach the summit of a mountain. After taking in the vista, one of my favorite things to do is look backward and reflect on the journey to the top. Maybe I passed a waterfall or saw wildlife or ran screaming from a snake! It’s during the journey where I will make most of my memories, whether positive or negative. Your well-being is a journey as well. Like hiking a mountain, your journey will have valleys and peaks, moments of calm and chaos, triumphs and epic fails (like a time in Maine when my group hiked with no food).

When we set resolutions and goals, we often focus so much on the end result — the summit, so to speak — that we lose sight of the experiences we will have along the way. In the excitement to set and then achieve a New Year’s resolution, have you built in time to enjoy the journey? Have you allowed time to relish the friendships you might cultivate in your virtual fitness class or laugh at a dinner you accidentally burned as you learn to cook for the first time? Does your resolution allow you time to enjoy the small successes or get sidetracked on a different path to well-being? Just as there are infinite paths to hike in this world, there are infinite journeys to take to well-being. Before you jump to setting 2021 resolutions and goals, reflect and celebrate on all the highs and lows of the past year and remember that your journey doesn’t start on January 1st — it merely continues.  

Change the Plan, Not the Goal 

At some point, no matter how clear your vision, no matter how solid your inspiration, no matter how detailed your plan, you will fail in your pursuit of your goal. It’s happened to me many times over the years and it will happen to you. Something unexpected will disrupt your plans, change your focus and force you to reprioritize your efforts for the future (hmm, did I just sum up 2020?). 

Here’s the thing, failure shouldn’t be surprising, nor should it be actively avoided. When we fail at something, we can learn and grow from the experience. What went right with your plan? What could you have done better? What new skills did you master? 

If you believe, as I do, that well-being is truly a lifelong journey, then failure just becomes part of that journey and provides us a prime opportunity to reinvent our plan or choose a different path. Everyone’s journey is different. The highs and lows come at different times in different ways. None of us can predict what 2021 will bring. If you make a resolution, give yourself permission to fail at some point and have confidence you will be able to adapt, pivot and modify your plan when the time comes.  

Avoid the Trap of Resolutions 

I will let you in on a little secret: well-being is not a luxury. It’s the essence of all our success in the world — at home, at work and in our communities. If you don’t invest in yourself and your well-being, you will never have the stamina and resilience required to take care of your people when the need is greatest. Let’s start this new year by dodging the trap of creating resolutions. Instead let’s forge a new way to achieve well-being as a sustainable lifestyle built on a foundation of healthy habits.  


Related Posts


Employment Law 2020: Are You Prepared and Protected?

diversity equality and belonging

Diversity, Equality, and Belonging

hr research findings

HR Research Recap: The Most Surprising Findings of 2019

season of giving

‘Tis Always the Season of Giving

1 Comment

  1. Avatar Zenicate on January 17, 2021 at 8:27 am

    I think that so many people get up on the New Year resolutions hype train that they forget what the entire point is. The point isn’t to start over fresh in the New Year; the point is to reaffirm things that you were already doing.

    That difference creates a situation where there is no substance behind those resolutions. Ultimately, like you’ve said here, there is no foundational set of goals being worked towards, so the whole thing ends up being a dog and pony show.

Leave a Comment