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Ah, New Year’s resolutions. A time when millions of people everywhere declare their intent for grandiose lifestyle changes and accomplishments in the coming year. And here we are at the end of January. A time when millions of people face internal struggles in the wake of idle gym memberships, leftover health foods and futile money savings plans.
There’s an adage that says expectations are the root of all heartache. Put differently, expectations shape people’s interpretations and subsequent reactions to things that happen.
Take a sports team for example. When a team that has imposing, perhaps unrealistic championship expectations loses in the playoffs, the season is likely seen as a letdown or an abject failure. Conversely, when a team that has tempered expectations manages to reach and eventually lose in the playoffs, the season is likely seen as an achievement and overwhelming success. The outcome — that is, the thing that actually happened — was identical. But the interpretation or the reaction to that reality is poles apart. The difference lies in expectations.
This isn’t to say that teams or individuals shouldn’t have goals that challenge them. Goals themselves aren’t the issue, but rather how the goals are established and how they are incorporated that matters. In the case of New Year’s resolutions, often the goals are large, slightly obscure aspirations like losing weight, getting healthier or saving money. These types of goals can be intimidating, are difficult to manage or track and can be daunting, at best, to figure out how to actually achieve.
In the end, the vague, yet lofty expectations, set individuals up for almost inevitable failure. No matter how strong the resolve, even the most dedicated people will miss a day in the gym or indulge in the occasional dessert. And when these missteps happen in the face of idealistic expectations, our mental health suffers. Often we are left feeling as if we’ve ruined the grand master plan. We’ve let ourselves and those around us down.
But what if instead of ruminating in our perceived failure, we change our entire understanding of New Year’s resolutions and goals in general?
These giant, grandiose changes were never realistic in the first place — not because they’re impossible in the long run, but because they unintentionally set unrealistic expectations that become the root of our heartache.
Instead, we can shift our focus to setting clear, realistic, attainable goals that help us focus on that which we can control. While getting healthy can be ambiguous, you might be able to realistically commit to exercising for 30 minutes, three days a week. While aiming to lower anxiety is admirable, committing to focusing 10 minutes a day on a mindfulness activity can be a defined, measurable way to make a difference.
Even with a more manageable focus, the reality remains that we are all imperfect humans. So even with the best of intentions, we still won’t meet every step toward every goal in the way we have planned. In those moments, it is important to allow for compassion and understanding rather than self-judgement and condemnation.
And when we do accomplish steps or reach milestones along our journey, they are worth acknowledging and perhaps even celebrating. In doing so, we can build self-confidence and trust that further encourages positive growth over time.
Ultimately, any day throughout the year is a good day to set goals, even if previous ambitions didn’t necessarily pan out. Rather than waiting for next year, I encourage you to consider focusing on taking steps that are challenging but practical in enabling meaningful, lasting, positive change in your life.
Bryan Busch is a licensed mental health counselor in Cedar Rapids. He also works at Folience, the parent company of The Gazette. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.