Are Resolutions the Same or Different to Goals?

Happy New Year

Happy New Year! Today’s the day for New Year’s Resolutions and there’s no shortage of internet advice on how to make them, what they should be and how to keep them – but does anyone actually make New Year Resolutions these days?

Early last year, at my Toastmaster’s meeting, someone asked, “What is your New Year’s Resolution?” Almost everyone started by saying, “Well I don’t make resolutions as such but my goals for this year are … ” Or, “I don’t make New Year’s resolutions but something I’d like to achieve this year is … ”

I found this interesting. I wondered about the difference between a resolution and a goal. Or between a resolution and ‘something I’d like to achieve’. What is wrong with the word ‘resolution’? I resolved to write a blog post about it. But it went the way of many other resolutions… I had too much to do and it ended up as a short “note to self”, which I found the other day when I was having a bit of a clear out.

Revisiting this topic, a quick Google search unearthed several reasons why people have started to shun the idea of New Year Resolutions ...

  • Because it’s January 1st. We have been eating and drinking too much and so many of our resolutions focus on what we’re going to give up and what we’ll stop doing – rather than what we’re going to take up or start doing.
  • Because January 1st is just one day in the calendar. If you think of your resolution before that, why are you waiting for January 1st to put it into action? If you are thinking of it because it is January 1st, it’s unlikely to be well-thought out.
  • Because January 1st is a relatively quiet day, so our resolutions tend to involve doing things that are over and above our normal workload. We think we can manage them, but when ‘real life’ kicks back in, we can’t.
  • Because we think of resolutions, plural – so we make lists of all the things we’ll accomplish – but “because we have only one supply of willpower, the different New Year’s resolutions all compete with one another. Each time we try to follow one, we reduce our capacity for all the others.” (Baumeister and Tierney, “Willpower”)
  • Because we have a whole year to complete them, so we aim too high and then fall short. Or we leave the achieving of them until too late.
  • Because we didn’t keep last year’s resolutions, so we don’t really believe we can keep them this year.

Reading all these reasons, it seems very sensible indeed to eschew New Year Resolutions – and most of the posts I read had some advice about what to do instead, such as simply being happy you made it through the year, making resolutions at different times of year, making just one or making one a month.

One post in particular – by Howard S. Friedman - captured my attention. In his studies into longevity Friedman has found that “the healthiest individuals didn't have Internet lists of health advice. Rather, they developed committed and hard-working patterns in their lives – lives which involved achievements and close relationships. They were persistent, responsible, and successful. They were dedicated to things and people beyond themselves. Their health came naturally as part of their active, achieving, and dependable lives.”

His advice? “Instead of making New Year's resolutions, look around and see who you are spending time with. A lesson of The Longevity Project – one of the secrets of longevity – is to choose jobs, join social groups, and select hobbies that will naturally lead you to a whole host of healthier patterns and activities.”

I find this idea very attractive – it fits with a systemic view of things – but I was still left with my original question. What is the difference between a resolution and deciding to take up a new hobby? Surely we could just say, “My new year’s resolution is to take up cycling.” – couldn’t we?

Finally, I hit the dictionaries, and realised that, of course, the words we use to describe these things do matter. Like the word ‘solution’, the word ‘resolution’ comes from the Latin resolvere, to loosen or release. Although it has become synonymous with ‘decision’, ‘intention’ and ‘objective’, its roots give away the reason why ‘resolution’ has fallen out of favour: it encourages us to think about the problems we can solve, rather than the things we really want in our lives – those that will “naturally lead to a whole host of healthier patterns and activities”.

If you’re familiar Penny Tompkins and James Lawley’s P. R. O. (Problem, Remedy, Outcome) Model you will recognise that, semantically, a resolution is in the same ballpark as a remedy – something we want to not have, or we want to have less of. So it’s not just the fact that we’ve been eating and drinking too much that means we tend to make resolutions that involve giving things up. The nature of the word itself lead us down this path, too.

If your own resolution fits this pattern (i.e. you are talking about what you’ll give up rather than what you’ll take up), the P.R.O. Model also offers a clean question to help you to consider what you want by giving up chocolate or stopping drinking: And when [proposed resolution], then what happens?

Try it:

  • And when you give up chocolate, then what happens?
  • And when you stop drinking, then what happens?
  • And when [your resolution here], then what happens?

It’s likely that your answer to this question will start to bring into being a vision of what you do want, rather than what you don’t. (Check it out – are you now talking about something you want rather than giving up or stopping something? If not, ask “Then what happens” again.)

Now you can use some of the other clean questions to further develop your ideas:

  • Is there anything else about … ?
  • What kind of … is that?
  • Where is … ?
  • Does … have a size or a shape?
  • That’s … like what?
  • What happens just before …?
  • Where could … come from?

By taking some time to expanding on your desired outcome like this, you can take into account more information and find out what really resonates for you. You may discover other ways to achieve what you want or you may even realise that you want something else entirely. Of course, you may decide that giving up chocolate or stopping drinking is exactly what you need to do, but an exploration of what you’ll achieve by doing so is likely to make it more compelling and so increase the likelihood you’ll succeed.

We’d love to know about your take on New Year’s Resolutions. What has worked for you? What hasn’t? And if you try some clean self-facilitation around New Year's Resolutions, let us know how that goes, too. :)

Tags: clean questions, penny tompkins, james lawley, then what happens, the pro model, new year's resolutions, remedies

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About the author

Marian Way

Company Director & Trainer, Portchester, Fareham
A highly skilled facilitator and trainer, Marian, who founded Clean Learning in 2001, has developed and delivered training across the world. She is the author of Clean Approaches for Coaches, co-author, with James Lawley, of Insights in Space and co-author, with Caitlin Walker, of So you want to be... #DramaFree. Marian is an expert Clean facilitator, an adept modeller, a programme writer and an inspirational trainer. She has a natural ability to model existing structures, find the connections between them and design new ways for people to learn. Marian was a leading innovator within the Weight Watchers organisation, which included developing the “points” strategy, a local idea that went on to become a global innovation. She is a director of both Clean Learning and Training Attention CIC, world leaders in clean applications for corporate, educational and community development. She designs our programmes and workbooks, leads workshops and teaches on all our courses. She's trained people in Great Britain, Russia, Sweden, Germany, Australia, Japan and the USA. Marian is also a recognised Clean Assessor.

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