Thursday, January 5, 2017

Process Goals & New Year's Resolutions

Hi, hello, if you have posted a blog entry recently, I have not seen it yet because I have been too busy managing the category 5 hurricane of love and togetherness and holiday madhouse magic that is the last weeks of December.

I was looking forward to reporting that we had emerged unscathed but was then laid low by some sort of nasty upper respiratory nonsense that is currently making it kind of hard to make my life go. This week was supposed to be the week of getting back to FINISHING ALL THE WORK and RUNNING ALL THE MILES and LIFTING ALL THE WEIGHTS and COOKING ALL THE MEALS and generally adulting the shit out of my life but it has instead been the week of finishing some of the work and feeding myself however I can, when I even feel like eating, and desperately snatching at any extra hours of sleep I can eek out of the day. Thankfully, when I can manage virtually nothing else, I can almost always lace up my shoes & get out the door so at least the miles are still happening.

("Wait, you're running when you're sick??" Yes, I use the neck rule, and also the less-easily-quantified-but-perhaps-more-legit 'Do I feel like it or not' rule, and they have never steered me wrong. Running almost always makes me feel better as long as I want to do it.)

All this has put me behind in many aspects of life, including writing scintillating blog posts for my millions of adoring readers, which is why you're getting this one now instead of a week ago. So, sorry. Hopefully it's not too late as to be completely useless (or, at least not any more useless than usual).


It is the New Year, which of course means lots of people making resolutions to change and hopefully improve things about their lives. To be honest, the New Year's Resolution has never called to me, mostly because the timing seems a little arbitrary. I'm all about committing to Do The Thing to make one's life more generally awesome; I'm just not the type of person who can wait for a particular day to start. But I do understand, I think, the appeal of all the numbers changing at once & having a kind of temporal blank slate. If that timing works for you, rock on with your bad self.

On the other hand, there is something that's always bothered me about the way people make NYRs and the types of resolutions that are most popular, and thinking more in terms of process goals than outcomes lately has I think clarified for me exactly what it is. And that's that, although resolutions come in a range of shapes and sizes, it seems like many of them revolve around perceived shortcomings, around shame and guilt, around not being good enough in some way or another.

This saddens me. In a way, it reminds me a lot of the Scott Adams quote I shared in the Process Goals post:

    "If your goal is to [accomplish x], you will spend every moment until you reach the goal—if you reach it at all—feeling as if you were short of your goal. In other words, goal-oriented people exist in a state of nearly continuous failure that they hope will be temporary."

Ie, if your New Year's Resolution is to lose 10 pounds, there's often an implicit assumption that your current weight isn't good enough, that you're not skinny enough or small enough or don't look enough like someone else, but once you lose those 10 pounds then you finally will be good/skinny/attractive enough and live happily in your body ever after.

Or if your resolution is to achieve y professional goal or level or what have you, the implication that your current accomplishments or position or whatever isn't good enough, but if you can finally do y, you will finally be happy in your job.

Or if your resolution is to run a sub-xx:xx whatever, the implication that you're not fast enough but once you can run that time, then you will be fast enough and impressive enough and all will finally be well in your running life.

Basically, it feels like the starting condition is "failure" or at best inadequacy, and the resolution is set up such that you remain a failure unless and until you achieve it.

I think this can be damaging because a) this type of goal setting (and, by extension, resolution setting) rarely works, and b) it all kind of leads back to "who and what I am right now is Not Good Enough and doing x will fix that." Like, if you can finally manage The Thing, then you will finally shed the yucky crusty skin of the Old You and unveil a shiny, fancy, New-And-Improved You, the real you that you were always meant to be, and life will finally--FINALLY--reach the levels of awesome you always knew were out there waiting for you.

But here's the thing.

They're not.

The awesome and the peace and the true happiness is not out there waiting for you once you finally Do The Thing.

If I had more time right now, I would google up some references for you, but this is a real thing people have studied--the idea that once you accomplish x, you'll finally be happy--and it just isn't true. Yes, finally achieving something you've been fixated on or striving toward for a while often gives a short-term boost in happiness or life satisfaction, but it almost never lasts, and people tend to return to baseline levels of happiness and satisfaction pretty quickly. So a lot of times, this type of goal setting or resolution ends in

    a) not accomplishing The Thing, thereby remaining in a state of failure, or

    b) finally accomplishing The Thing, feeling happy/satisfied/at peace for a while, and then returning to the same baseline feeling as before. ("Well, losing 10 pounds / finally running that sub-4 marathon / buying a house didn't completely change my life the way I thought it would, BUT I bet if I lose 5 more pounds / run a sub-3:50 marathon / have a kid, THEN I'll be happy/satisfied/at peace.")

Guess what.

Whatever the discomfort or feeling of not being enough is, it is not going away through Achieving Things. No, not even healthy, good, positive, productive things. There is no shiny, fancy, New-And-Improved You out there just waiting to be unveiled by Achieving The Thing. There's just you, with all your goodness and badness and human-ness, and s/he is JUST. FINE. AS. IS.

The awesome and the peace and the happiness? You can have it. But it's not going to come from finally Doing The Thing. No; you can have it just as you already are. Really.

Now, don't get me wrong. I'm not saying people should never have goals or dreams or stuff they want to accomplish or that having those things is somehow categorically bad. And I'm not saying it's necessarily bad to think, "You know, x area has always been a challenge for me & I think I'd like to work on that a bit." And I'm definitely not suggesting we all settle or be fine with mediocrity or never strive to improve and achieve amazing things. (After all, that's kind of one of the greatest thrills of being human.)

Just, maybe think really hard about why you want to accomplish a thing and what you hope to get out of it, and be really honest with yourself about whether it's coming from a place of "You know, I'd like to improve at x / Hey, x would be super cool!" vs. a place of "x thing about me is wrong/lacking/broken/not good enough/needs fixing and I won't really feel okay with myself until things are different." There's a difference between wanting something, and feeling like you need it in order to be okay with yourself.

(I know about this. I did this to myself, about running and so many other things, over and over again, for a long time. In some ways, it's an ongoing battle.)

So, what if for New Year's Resolutions we maybe stopped with thinking about how we're not good enough and all the ways we need fixing and improving and all the stuff we maybe feel ashamed and guilty about and instead said, "I and my life are not perfect but still actually pretty great already, what would make my life even BIGGER and RICHER and FULLER?"

Perhaps taking a fun class and learning something new? Not because "I am lonely and isolated and socially broken and that needs fixing" but because it will add richness and depth to your life?

Perhaps trying a new fruit or vegetable every week or month or whatever, not because "I am an unhealthy bad eater and that is shameful and needs fixing" but because trying new things and discovering new things to like and enjoy is good times?

Perhaps convincing a friend to join you once a week or whatever for a fun physical activity, not because "I am not active/skinny/fit enough and that needs fixing," but because it's nice to hang out with a friend you maybe wouldn't see otherwise and because it feels good to move your body in the world?

Or maybe, "Yes, jerkbrain, I hear all the stuff about me that you think is bad and shameful and not good enough, but maybe we ignore all that this year and try to make life more awesome in one of these other ways that is completely not related to that stuff at all"?

Of course, sometimes people do make New Year's Resolutions to address serious health concerns like addiction, substance abuse, managing chronic health conditions, etc. because those are things that DO legitimately need fixing, ideally sooner rather than later, because the consequences of not fixing them can be so disastrous. And come to it, I think in those situations you have to do whatever works for you. But I also know that there is quite a long history in the world of 1) outcome-based goals (say, quitting smoking) not really working unless there is some serious planning and ongoing support in place, and 2) shame and guilt rarely being productive emotions. So sometimes when I hear of people making NYRs like "quit smoking" or "actually follow x diet my doctor has put me on for a diagnosed condition," I can't help wondering if a New Year's Resolution is really the right caliber tool for that particular job. {shrug}


You're probably not perfect but prooobbbably still pretty great.

You don't need 'fixing.'

You won't magically be happy/satisfied/at peace with yourself when you finally do the Big Thing you for some reason feel you need to do.

Go forth in 2017 and do something that makes your awesome life/self that much more awesome.



  1. I so agree that the "one big thing" won't solve your life problems. The facility at which I work changed their insurance a few years ago to cover at 100% all weight loss procedures. Immediately, many dozens of employees underwent gastric bypass. Most lost significant weight, but I can't even begin to tell you about all the conversations I've had with those women: So many have explained to me (in confusion) that they lost the weight, but they're still shy. Or unhappy in their marriage. Or tired in the morning. Or frustrated at work. Or single. Or don't have a lot of friends. One little change isn't the be-all, end-all!

  2. YES. BINGO. ALL OF THIS. (So: why Try to Do the Thing? Same reason I do anything else that's challenging - to see what I can do and how I can do it.) I did a Big Thing for me this year - a sub-2 half - and my general feeling about it was 'Oh hey, look at a cool thing my body managed to do!', followed by a return to regularly scheduled programming. :)

    Also, I htink a useful philosophy regarding resolutions is to make positive ones ('I will read more books in 2017') rather than negative ones ('I will eat less X') - nature abhors a vacuum.