The Simple Pleasure of Goal Setting
By the time 1 January rolls around I would wager that most of us have drafted a list of dreaded resolutions. In carefully edited grids on social media, neatly drawn out on monogrammed notecards, sprawled across collated vision boards and in pointed reminders from the media we consume. It’s an unavoidable part of our culture. Everyone around you suddenly has the motivation to uphaul their lives and reinvent themselves. Whether it’s starting a new sport, learning a language or ditching your doom scrolling habit, for once anything is possible. Even my dog has been tasked with forfeiting her favourite treats. The start of a new year has become a turning point for us to reflect on our lives and look forward with optimism, a concrete division between old regrets and a new start. But we’ve adopted a comical view of the whole charade that dismisses this. How often is it that a seasonal tradition actively pushes us towards self-improvement? Maybe it’s time to finally appreciate them for the optimistic and hopeful act that they are.
From everything we know about productivity the idea of drastically changing our habits because it’s a random Saturday in winter is laughable. But it’s also kind of fascinating. A collective act of assessing our lives, determining what we want out of them and setting out to get it. Christmas is a time which, when not fixated on the superficial, can leave people feeling isolated, conflicted and stressed. Domestic violence and addiction levels soar and the excitement of the most magical time of the year makes it near impossible to get help. Now I love Christmas, more than most probably. The festivities and time with family really do brighten up an otherwise dreary time of year. Admittedly, though, it’s hardly a time when our mental health and wellbeing Is pushed to the forefront of our minds. People’s problems, whether they be financial, familial or personal become exacerbated to unmanageable levels and masked underneath a façade of Christmas cheer we’re expected to adopt. Good mental health is something you work towards achieving and Christmas deceives us into thinking it can be obtained at the snap of a candy cane.
At the end of the year when we sit down to look at what we want to achieve, it's effectively an act of forced reflection. We examine every detail of our lives and histories and come to verdicts on them. Gratitude and reflection are key steps towards better mental health and only by this appreciation of what we’ve achieved are we able to successfully determine what comes next. It’s a dedicated opportunity to pause the chaos of our lives and learn from our experiences. We recognise successes and failures for what they are and actively set out to improve upon them. An understanding of what simply isn’t working allows us to change and adapt rather than simply continuing with unsuccessful routines and habits.
So yes, this all sounds very glamorous but what about when you’re two weeks into January and decide you “just can’t” anymore and so call it a year? It’s the inevitable flipside. When you try something, you risk failure. But there’s no avoiding that failure is all too prevalent in this instance. Maybe it’s that our ambitions are too far-fetched. We aim for entire transformations rather than slow and steady adjustments and so unrealistically stretch ourselves to the point of frustration. We want results and we want them now. But I think this is a problem with the way we look at goal setting in general. And for many, resolutions are just the first step in figuring out what they want and how they’re going to achieve it. But it also formalises the process of goal setting and seems to absurdly suggest that we need to wait until the start of a new year to take action. It’s almost a drastic case of “I’ll wait till Monday to start”. Surely, we can reinvent ourselves at any point and so avoid the building pressure of this turning point specifically?
But that’s the thing. This prospect of reinvention and starting fresh is and has always been a possibility for us. In theory, there’s nothing stopping us from drafting a list of thought-out goals and ambitions in the middle of the year. But yet there is, isn’t there? The admittedly imperfect tradition of setting new year’s resolutions conditions us to goal set in a way we realistically wouldn’t otherwise. How many of us would honestly be deciding to do something big to transform our lives if it wasn’t for the potential of a new year. It sets a date to goals that may otherwise never leave the realms of “what if?” thinking patterns. And it’s also the first step towards more habitual and successful goal-setting habits. It’s simply a much more exciting and collaborative instance of something which, yes, you can and should do on a much more regular basis. It conditions you and your mindset to look at your life and goals differently and each small success encourages you to make bigger and bolder leaps. It’s essentially a kick-off and a commitment to much longer-lasting changes.
Undeniably, these resolutions have become a massive part of our cultural festivities. It’s something we share in our communities and traditions, and I think there’s significant value to that in and of itself. We tackle things together and do in groups what we wouldn’t dare do alone. There’s a sense of accountability that comes from sharing your goals and it’s the push we get from the people around us that helps us feel good about ourselves and our progress. This level of vulnerability and shared interest is key to navigating healthy and supportive relationships. New year's resolutions are something we do and work towards together and I think that brings out the best in all of us. There’s an atmosphere of collaboration and encouragement we wouldn’t get without setting a time and place for goal setting in our shared national calendars.
Last year, in the midst of a national lockdown, my brother and I resolved to run a 5k. Hurried on by boredom, each other’s encouragement and our questionable playlist choices, we worked our way up and did it. It quickly became a favourite part of my routine and something that brought us together when we were feeling isolated and cheated out of our teenage years. When I’m home, my favourite moments are these runs where, out of breath and drunk off endorphins, we catch up on each other’s lives. We’ve become closer through these moments and he’s someone I consider a close friend and confidante. The moment of happiness and victory when we finally reached that goal is something I still reflect on and feel proud of. In all honesty, we are a far stretch from considering ourselves good or even regular runners and some would say that’s a
failure. But that small commitment had a big impact on my life and the way I look at and pursue what I want.
Okay, so I accept that new year’s resolutions aren’t always the most practical way of starting fresh and not everyone will have these same positive associations. But there’s something I love about waking up on 1 January and feeling like anything is possible. I’ll be honest. I love hearing all about what people are committed to achieving in the new year. I think it’s a beautiful part of human nature and culture. And just maybe one day we’ll adapt to have the same resolve and approach to goals on a random afternoon in October that we do on the brink of a new year.
Illustration: Liza Vasilyeva