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The Myth of New Year’s

colored lights on building

I always liked the end-of-the-year programming on TV when I was growing up. Running through lists of the best movies and the biggest news stories — and which celebrities didn’t survive — somehow helps us to look at the year as if from outside of it. That way we can get a sense that things are unfolding on a much bigger scale than our normal day- and week-focused thinking suggests.

Although it seems like we’ve experienced this ceremonial turnover of one year to the next countless times, we haven’t. In fact, we each keep an accurate tally of them, and we derive a significant part of our identity from that number. I’m 34, who are you?

As we are sometimes aware, nothing special actually happens when the clock hits midnight. It just goes on to the next moment — we don’t actually zip back to beginning of the calendar, to some point we’ve been before. Time is a long, twisting, one-way trail, not a short, familiar ski run with a chairlift at the bottom.

In any case, our culture likes to think of years as meaningful divisions of time, so as individuals we tend to reflect on how we’re doing in life every December. Many of us will try to become someone completely different, in some respect, from the moment we wake up on January 1st. From couch-pilot to gymgoer. From smoker to non-smoker.

I’m suspicious of New Year’s resolutions, even though I am still sometimes tempted to make them. If they work for you, great, but they don’t work for the vast majority. I’ve explained why I’m not a fan:

The problem with New Years-ing your resolution is that it gives undue weight to the idea of a clean slate. It seems like January 1st really does reset something, and that it’s important to harness that rare chance.

But of course, it’s just another tomorrow. There are no clean slates. Past failures will still visit you in your head, from whatever year. Bad internal dialogues will still occur, and you’ll still have the same preconceptions about yourself and the kinds of outcomes you can expect.

All of this stuff is real, and it doesn’t respect the Gregorian calendar.

Now, I am a big advocate of annual goals, which are not the same thing as resolutions. With a goal, you’re aiming for a specific outcome — lose 20 pounds over the next six months, say — and the end of the year isn’t a bad time to think about goals.

Resolutions usually come from a more emotional than practical place, and often have no real-life destination. Start going to the gym again. Stop watching TV every night. Essentially we’re just grabbing our own lapels and scolding ourselves to stop fucking things up the way we usually do. 

With the resolution mentality, the sentiment isn’t so much, “I’m going to do X,” but more like, “This time I’m going to stop getting it wrong.”

There’s a world of difference here. A goal is a self-contained campaign, with a real-life place to start, and to finally land. A resolution is often like a line we strike in the dirt; we must be able to leave certain infirmities behind before crossing, if the line is going to be of any use.

This is not at all realistic for human beings. We’re never going to stop making messes, and wasting time, and starting things we don’t finish.

That’s not to say we don’t ever get anywhere. Each year is pretty much as new as you want it to be. Every year unfolds with new characters and story arcs you couldn’t possibly have imagined during your reflections that previous December. The world turns even if you don’t want it to.

But don’t be fooled by the myth of New Year’s Transformation, that if you could just get aggressive enough this January, you can make life clean and controlled for the first time.

There’s always a leak in the canoe. Life will always be a story of a bumbling but well-meaning protagonist, dropping balls and missing turnoffs and never quite feeling “there” yet. Get one thing right and soon something else isn’t working. That’s just a fact of life, in a universe where everything is a moving part. But the leak doesn’t need to spoil the trip, unless you believe you can fix it.



Photo by Joe Del Tufo

Pedro December 28, 2014 at 11:44 pm

For me, resolutions do not work very often because I fail to think long term. If I want to make a diet I am good at stopping to eat this and that, but I actually do not think about replacing the habit, how to compensate. I also find that my achievements are normally below my goals, so let’s rise the bar! It is always a good moment to set goals, even in December end.
I wish you the best for 2015 and lots of success

David Cain December 29, 2014 at 8:28 am

It’s becoming more widely accepted now that you can’t really break habits if you have no plan to replace them. “Don’t do X” isn’t going to last long if there’s any question about what to do instead. Best of luck in 2015 Pedro.

Anna bardon December 29, 2014 at 2:19 am

Had a great year thanks. I have just finished the artists way and I now oil paint with two elderly ladies once a week and I have an exhibition planned for next year. Thanks to your article I got into goal setting on 43things(now moved to popclogs when it closed down). It’s helping me live how I want to and not just cruise through the days thinking that one day I will be an artist or one day I will start being the mum I want to be etc….experimenting a lot with bad habit breaking and good habit making. Have a lovely new year…. Anna xx

David Cain December 29, 2014 at 8:33 am

That sounds great. I seem to flip between two different “modes” in life. In one, I’m operating from goals, and in the other one I’m putting them all on hold, essentially, cruising on habit alone. The difference in how they feel is total. Good for you for actually going ahead and putting the paint to the canvas. It’s easy to just have good intentions and leave it at that.

Sandra Pawula December 29, 2014 at 2:34 am

This is so true! Life will always have it’s challenges and it makes sense not to have unrealistic explanations. At the same time, the beauty of being human is the fact that we can grow, change, evolve as better human beings. I understand New Year’s is an arbitrary day, but at the same time, I think rituals can serve us and I’m all for clear goals too.

David Cain December 29, 2014 at 8:37 am

Hi Sandra. Yeah, I’m really just arguing for a more measured and forgiving approach than the “I’m determined to change overnight” approach implied by traditional New Year’s resolutions. It’s not a bad day to start something, but there’s nothing magical about the day, and I think we often choose it because we believe we will need some kind of magic to succeed.

Zoe December 29, 2014 at 2:41 am

I totally agree with you. Last year most of my resolutions fell flat before the end of January… but when I actually started to turn them into goals and to take reasonable baby steps into achieving those goals, 2014 turned into a great year where for the first time, I felt I really changed my life for good in many aspects.
I find that focusing on the first small change rather than the bigger picture helps a lot. Aiming to eat one guilt-free healthy meal a week or to go out running for the first time ever can be a goal in itself, which when realized, can lead to a chain of much greater and better things than you might have imagined in the first place.

Have a great year 2015 full of fun, rewarding goals and special moments, David. Discovering your blog actually played a big part in making 2014 the year it was for me, and often find myself quoting your articles to friends and directing them here. Can’t wait to read what you’ve got in store for us next !

David Cain December 29, 2014 at 8:43 am

Thanks Zoe, you too. One specific advantage goals have over resolutions is that they’re temporary. Doing something everyday for a week seems totally doable, but so often we try to do it for the rest of our lives. It is so empowering to have an accomplishment truly under your belt, but that can never happen with “for the rest of my life” goals.

Darren December 29, 2014 at 5:43 am

My year wasn’t a great one, but it was by no means a bad one. I’ve set myself a few very exciting and very achievable goals for the next 365 days or so though, and I’m looking forward to making the best of them! Hope you had a good year David.

David Cain December 29, 2014 at 8:43 am

I did, thanks Darren. Best of luck in 2015.

Peetu December 29, 2014 at 6:02 am

My year, especially the last months, went great. I started a business in october and now we are sitting at around 7k in profits.

I normally don’t post, but I think you deserve a big thank you, because I would not be where I am today without some of your great articles.

You are part of my journey and I’m really glad I found your blog somehow.


David Cain December 29, 2014 at 8:46 am

Congratulations Peetu. That must feel fantastic.

I’m so glad you find something you can use when you come here. Thank you for reading, and I hope your great run continues for a long time.

George December 29, 2014 at 7:07 am

Pretty good article! Though I think it’s also worth mentioning that so much of our resolutions come from a place where we feel like our flaws and imperfections are more than just idiosyncrasies of our unique nature–we deem them unacceptable, as if they were the refuse that needs to be removed from our lives lest we deteriorate into a steaming pile of who knows what.

And of course, all that self-loathing is really just manifested from comparing ourselves as we are to an idealized version of who we think we should be, whether that image was created by ourselves or by the society around us.

If we’re going to change, let that change be gentle. Our lives, bodies, and minds aren’t like something out of a rapidly-producing factory, with our conscious selves as blacksmiths or moldmakers, but rather I like to think of it more like a large forest of a garden, where we have to be patient to let things grow as we gently nurture those aspects of ourselves. We are our own stewards, and if we’re going to commit to change, we should come at it from a mindset of humility, grace, peace, acceptance, and–perhaps most importantly of all–patience. We must be patient with ourselves and give certain allowances for life to unfold as it will.

David Cain December 29, 2014 at 8:52 am

Yes, well put. I think a lot of us tend to pursue self-improvement as a way of stamping out our flaws, rather than practicing virtues, so resolutions become a kind of intolerance towards ourselves. When we do successfully change, it seems to be from growing something slowly, rather than pruning something quickly.

Cara January 1, 2015 at 9:24 am

I actually copied and pasted this comment into a word document, printed it out and stuck it on my wall right above my computer screen. Resolutions become a kind of intolerance towards ourselves. Stamping out our flaws. Having this re-framed in such a way is encouraging me to go back and re-write my goals for 2015. I’ve always known words are powerful, but I don’t think I realized how unhelpful the language was that I’ve been using to, in essence, punish myself for my flaws.

Jo Bennett December 29, 2014 at 2:25 pm

Nurturing our garden with patience. A lovely image, George, thanks!

Karen J December 31, 2014 at 2:32 am

What an inspiring take on this, George! Thank you for sharing it!
Bright Blessings and Happy 2015 to you!

BrownVagabonder December 29, 2014 at 7:07 am

I used to make resolutions all the time when I was younger and they were the same old resolutions as everyone else. Get fit, get out more, and so on.
One day, I spoke to my friends about their resolutions and I realized everyone had the same three resolutions that they were focusing on. I realized that I would always be part of the pack and never get ahead in life, if I was doing the same things as everyone else. I wrote down goals in the five areas of my life and every year I accomplish at least 80% of those goals, which I’m really proud of. Thanks for the post!

David Cain December 29, 2014 at 8:54 am

Wow, 80% is great. I set goals every year and the last few years I’ve been getting about three out of five, which seems like I didn’t meet the bar, but really I’m thrilled. It is real progress.

Georgina December 29, 2014 at 7:12 am

Have a wonderful 2015! Keep writing. It helps me

David Cain December 29, 2014 at 8:54 am

Thanks Georgina, you too :)

Sprezzaturian December 29, 2014 at 7:46 am

“Make 2015 a year to remember”

I always make the same resolution and I always keep it: I set out for every new year, to make sure I do something new/scary/superfun/spectacular or put myself in situations where memorable things are likely to or at least can happen.

Strong memories of new or scary events slows down the retrospective perception of time and erases the feeling that the years pass by faster and faster.

In effect, it makes you younger and live longer.

David Cain December 29, 2014 at 8:58 am

There is something healthy about having unfamiliar experiences. Modern life can be stable enough that we can go years doing pretty much the same things over and over. But when we do something new, the brain has to wake up and start learning again. New (and especially scary) experiences make us more conscious. I think it does make younger, in a sense. Much of what we think of as “getting old” is probably just being so used to certain activities that life becomes less vivid and more automatic.

Duska Woods December 29, 2014 at 9:18 am

Happy New Year David! I want say more as words cannot express how much I value your insights on life, human nature and your personal truth. You are a true seeker…Best to you, Duška

David Cain December 30, 2014 at 8:31 am

Happy New Year Duška. You’ve been a supporter for such a long time now. I’m always glad to hear from you!

Brad Maybury December 29, 2014 at 9:35 am

My year was awesome – the best yet. I attribute my experience to a steady practice of mindfulness which began only in January of this year. I agree with the intent of everything you expressed, although I can also see that we begin each moment with a clean slate when judgement is absent. My intention for the new year is to continue with my practices for deepening the experience of presence. The goals supporting that will evolve – For now they include a simple sitting meditation for 1/2 hour each day, and sporadic practice throughout the day as I notice my attention wandering from the present. I just discovered your site, bought your guide, and have read many of your articles. Very well done! I’m already spreading the word to people I know. Thank you, and have great success in 2015! Brad

David Cain December 30, 2014 at 8:42 am

So glad you’ve discovered mindfulness. It really does change how everything else looks, doesn’t it? Have a great 2015.

Leigh December 29, 2014 at 10:05 am

I had a really good year. Not always happy. I lost quite a few friends this year. I also spent the first half of the year pregnant (which I don’t enjoy) and then the last half with a new baby, which I do love.

I also launched and (almost) filled a women’s writing retreat in Costa Rica. And thank you for your help in sharing our free webinar series.

I’m totally on board with the idea that a finite resolution doesn’t work. And yes, we can technically make these resolutions any day of the year if we chose, because as you say, every day is a new chance for a clean slate. Not to mention, it’s not the only New Year in the world.

There is something quite wonderful about choosing a time for renewal with an enormous group of people, most of whom we don’t know, many of whom we only know through the internet. :)

Have a really fabulous last few days of 2014, and when you look back in a year from now, may it be filled with all kinds of beautiful things, challenges and satisfaction.

David Cain December 30, 2014 at 8:45 am

Thanks Leigh, you too. And that’s true: we’ll be looking back on 2015 soon. Wishing you many good things to look back on.

Seo December 29, 2014 at 10:10 am

2014 was a year of bungles, but I found value in this year. I only achieved two small goals out of everything I set for myself, but I learned a lot and I feel good about it. I feel like a more compassionate and understanding person, and I think I’ve made notable progress with some of my long-standing problems. I’m excited for another year of life (and more Raptitude posts)!

David Cain December 30, 2014 at 8:46 am

There will definitely be more Raptitude posts. And probably bungles too, but as you imply, they can be good for you.

Kathy December 29, 2014 at 10:36 am

2014 was another year of loss and struggle. In my 55 years, I’ve finally landed in a place where I can accept life as one struggle after another; one mistake followed by another; disappointments and frustrations. As you say, one leak after another. Life is about dealing with the leaks, not avoiding them. This is how character develops. Mistakes, disappointments and frustrations are unavoidable. How we choose to react and recover is our own responsibility.

David Cain December 30, 2014 at 8:50 am

Right. I wonder what age I will be when I finally internalize the fact that disappointments and frustrations aren’t entirely undesirable. They do look to be all bad when they first appear, but they also enable good experiences in ways we can’t see. I’d like to keep sight of that the whole way along.

SimpleHappy December 29, 2014 at 10:46 am

Hello David. I’ve recently discover your blog and am so enjoyng your posts! Thank you. I had a great year and I’m looking foward for 2015. As for new year resolutions as a magic treat for our life, it never worked for me. As I am taking stock of 2014 and thinking of 2015 I’m embracing the idea that our lives are a continuum act, life is organic is how my refletions lead me thinking on this.

David Cain December 30, 2014 at 8:55 am

Hi SH. I think the “continuum” idea is really helpful. I know I tend to evaluate life in bits — this went right, that went wrong — but these divisions aren’t really there and give us the wrong idea about life. Everything affects everything else, and we never know what’s good and bad except when we view it as separate from the whole network, which it never will be.

Melissa Wilson December 29, 2014 at 2:26 pm

I agree with your perspective here, David. I don’t bother with resolutions anymore. Now I focus on goals, but I also don’t wait for one day of the entire year to set them. I think it’s just because we have a calendar that we naturally see January first as something special compared to all the other days. But when we see it that way, we put extra pressure on ourselves to make something of it, and when we don’t succeed we get discouraged. We have to realize that every day is a new day and a good day to start something new; to begin a new habit. Things definitely take time to develop and for us to see changes. I think the worst thing we do is get to a point in the year where we feel like if we haven’t had a good year then it’s time to throw in the towel and wait for the next year before things can change and get better.

David Cain December 30, 2014 at 8:58 am

Yeah, I think the January 1st preference works against us. Because it seems like it offers us our best chances, if we don’t get it right, then we feel like we’re even less likely to get it right on a different day. But we’re probably more likely, because we know a little more about what it will take. I wonder how many people fail in their resolution and decide it’s not worth trying again until the following January.

Jo Bennett December 29, 2014 at 5:30 pm

Good stuff, David.
Time is “a long twisting one way trail..” I like that! Yes, midnight on the first is just another tomorrow.
Hmm…I feel a mini essay coming on..;-)

I prefer tangible objectives as well, yet I advocate for an emotional connection first. Not, as you say, in response to past ‘failures’ (I let myself down by eating too much fast food) but to observe intrinsic vs extrinsic motivators. Why do I want to change? (I want to lose weight to be more comfortable in clothes vs I will fit a public perception). Does the desire to make change resonate with personal values? (Food habits ultimately impact my engagement with a satisfying life)

This then leads to a general philosophy (my intention this year is to honour my health.) I hold a goal up to this mantra for comparison, to determine if it will really serve me. (building an eating plan into my freelance schedule regarding restaurants vs packing my own food is conducive to the intention)

Now to designing specific actions, I try to incorporate the concept of adding something, not subtracting. I call it the ‘I get to(s)”, not the “I got to(s)”. Lol! I get to try out my new slow cooker with a different recipe each week. (something I investigated as a way for me to experiment with grains and vegetables/eat more at home) and this will naturally assist with becoming healthier. “Let in the light and the darkness will go away” kind of thing.

Regarding the timeliness of the year end, for me there is a natural turn over feeling at the solstice. Even though it is the first day of winter, the promise of increased daylight provides a sense of growth for me. As a freelancer, my work naturally slows down in mid December so this current extended break just happens to be a perfect time for me to step out of action and restfully ponder my intentions again. My situation is actually set up to evolve quarterly so I revisit in April, June and August.

On a personal level, My Love is the most available and present during the end of the year so we enjoy sitting down and creating a joint vision for our life. Our intention is not just to float through like roommates passing in the hall – besides being a champion in each other’s corner, we design goals together, to nurture the third family member ‘us’. Haha!

David Cain December 30, 2014 at 9:02 am

I am slowly learning this — that the type of motivation is probably more important than what it is you’re actually trying to pull off. I know that framing things in terms of what I will gain (as opposed to what I want to get away from) is pretty much decisive as far as whether I will succeed. But I am extremely well-conditioned to thinking only of the negatives, and I often forget to think of the positive side. It’s a terrible habit, but that means there’s a ton of potential for improvement.

Elizabeth December 30, 2014 at 2:06 am

Wishing you another interesting, fulfilling year, David.

It’s long past that I made resolutions – I use this time of the year to reflect on the year gone to see how I’ve grown towards my general goals and try to imagine how I hope to feel this time next year – this helps define a direction. As I’ve got older I realise how important it is to remember that each day is precious in moving forward, experiencing new things, just ‘living’ one’s life joyously and meaningfully.

I agree with Zoe that discovering your blog has positively changed my view on many things – thanks to you, I’ve actively learnt to be more ‘mindful’ and aware, also when visiting with friends or anyone, to try to make that occasion memorable for them or at least as enjoyable as possible. That has really helped me not to start enumerating all my problems and gripes, but to be appreciative, happy and caring.

I love to grow and learn new things and I have been very fortunate this year to be sent on some amazing training courses: Quality Management Systems (part of my job), UX training, Innovation training, High-performance Coaching – what a cool company I work for! My job has been very challenging this year – a new role to grow into, so often I felt like giving up but I think ‘struggle’ is part of life. I persevered, and now looking back, I can see the progress and feel a sense of satisfaction and accomplishment.

It did dawn on me how incredibly privileged I am to be able to care for my autistic (adult) son and have seen how he has responded to my change of mindset. How much I’ve learnt about myself through him!

May 2015 be a year of awareness and accomplishments for all.

David Cain December 30, 2014 at 9:06 am

Thanks Elizabeth. I feels great to hear this blog has led to lasting changes. Sounds like you’re on a great trajectory for 2015.

tallgirl1204 December 30, 2014 at 3:17 pm

I made some resolutions last year, and by one measure (i.e., 100% success) I failed miserably. By another (incremental improvement) I had a very successful year. For example, I resolved to do 100 crunches and 3 minutes of planks 5 times a week, but what I actually did was to do crunches/planks each time I did a cardio workout– 1-2 times a week. I also stumbled into a core class that I enjoy and do usually twice a week now. My back is much stronger because I consciously sought out opportunities to improve its health.

Solstice/New Year’s is a great time to look forward and back, and to think of the person I would like to be in a year. It is true that making goals is better than resolutions (“I will compliment my partner twice each day” vs. “I will be nice to my partner.”)– but this is an excellent time of year to take stock and course-correct.

I find that the solstice is a good time to look back and look forward. Chan

Free to Pursue December 30, 2014 at 4:01 pm

Hi David. This year has been a huge growth year for me. I’ve tried a number of new things, sought out many new experiences and made important new, meaningful personal connections. I’m pretty happy about what I’ve managed to do with the year overall…not that there weren’t bumps and hiccups along the way.

I view a year’s end as an opportunity for a little extra, & deeper, introspection. It’s a time when I look back at what I managed to accomplish in the year that’s ending and what I’m intending to accomplish in the New Year. Not resolutions (I find the idea of resolutions inherently negative), but objectives/goals that I’ve already set over time, they just happen to be taking place or ending in the following calendar year.

Taking stock of where I’ve come from and where I’m going is powerful for me. I appreciate the time I invest in this yearly review and find it’s a chance for me to evaluate how effectively I’m going about accomplishing what I want to achieve and tweak my approach as needed based on this assessment.

All the best to you in the New Year.

Nick Hilden December 31, 2014 at 4:25 pm

Funny–I was literally just about to start in on writing a new post about our culture’s misconception pertaining to what the new year “is” if it “is” anything at all–basically an arbitrary point in our big twirl around the sun.

I agree with your point on goals vs resolutions (http://lifedonewrite.com/2013/12/24/makes-good-new-years-resolution-make-stick/): “One reason why so many of our attempts at self improvement fail lies in the human propensity for biting off more than we can chew—we want the world and we want it now.

That’s not how real life works. Real life works step by step, not all at once. You are not going to make a New Year’s resolution to get into shape, then look like “Insert beautiful celebrity name here” by the end of January. Real change takes time, and it takes sticking it out. In our fast-paced consumer culture, if we mistakenly imagine that if we don’t get instant results then it must not be worth doing—back to the old habits.”

May 2015 treat you well.

JB December 31, 2014 at 5:26 pm

Wonderful post, and the one I chose to share along with my own New Year’s message, below.

As you celebrate the flip of the calendar, remember that your body completely replaces itself with a complete new set of cells every 7-10 years. The real “calendar” is flipping all the time.
You are not who you once were, nor are you any different. Enjoy the celebration tonight, and welcome that “new” you tomorrow – and then every day after that. The possibilities are endless!

Jean "Pebbles" Goodrich January 1, 2015 at 1:23 am

I was always making resolutions that I didn’t keep and that were defunct by March end. 2014 has been my year of rediscovering myself as I am now, having reached 60 and being a chronically ill person. Using skills many places including Raptitude, I have dumped a lot of outmoded stuff and re-designed my life round my more mature skill sets, Breaking my urge to be part of a fast paced life that had out grown me, being more comfortable in my newly found quiet reflective space has been a tremendous revelation to me, I am much happier in my own skin now I’m not continually competing and dancing to the world’s tune. Thank you for your blog posts which have been a focus for reason and relevance for me during my transformation.

Findia Group January 5, 2015 at 1:23 am

Thanks for sharing!

Leonor January 5, 2015 at 3:29 am

I’m not a big fan of new year resolutions either, but normally at this time of the year I think about what I’d like to experience during the following year. In this case, I’d like to expand my passion for travelling to my everyday life, so I’ll try at least one international dish every week. I’ve created a blog, adishfromeverycountry, to document my progress and collect recipes. Happy 2015 and thanks for your amazing blog David!

MelD January 9, 2015 at 8:08 am

As we all sat trying to stay awake for midnight (my grandson fell asleep at 30 seconds to 12 and my granddaughter at 5 to 12…), I decided we will introduce a new tradition next year. My BIL was in Australia on holiday and celebrated 10 hours ahead of us. Somewhere in the world it is New Year between midday on 31st Dec and midday on the 1st. Let’s celebrate at any time in those 24 hours – maybe just midday here in central Europe, when everyone is present and we can have fun together. Duh.
Resolutions? Nope, not any more. Ideas of what I’d like to do or build on or introduce in the coming year, planning, yes, but resolutions no thankyou.

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