I have made, then failed to keep, New Year’s resolutions many times during my adult life. I would start the new year with gusto to improve my health or well-being. After a few months reality would set in, and my motivation would waver. Disappointment dragged me down. I would not put forth the effort needed to sustain the change.
My story is not unusual; many of us make New Year’s resolutions with good intentions and don’t follow through. We do not keep our resolutions for many reasons: We lose interest, our priorities change, we don’t think our efforts are worth it. Resolutions may focus on any area of our lives, but often relate to health or lifestyle.
Several years ago I took a different, broader approach I call “Looking Back, Looking Forward.” It’s made a difference in my life, and it might change the way you think about New Year’s resolutions.
How “Looking Back, Looking Forward” works
At the end of each year I review different areas of my life and rate my level of satisfaction (“looking back”). Then I decide which of these I need to work on improving during the upcoming year (“looking forward”). I do not focus on one specific area, but consider these different areas and which are most important at this time in my life. Some years I may be very satisfied with a specific area of my life, but become less satisfied later during a different year. This suggests life is fluid and not static, as is the change process.
My idea to conduct this annual self-review was stimulated by a co-founder of the Positive Psychology movement, Dr. Marty Seligman. He completes a retrospective (“looking back”) shortly after New Year’s Day in which he rates his overall level of satisfaction on a scale of 1 to 10 (abysmal to perfect) in eight domains. I adopted some of his domains and added some of my own, which I have altered over the years.
You can pick and choose your life domains: Delete those you are not interested in and add your own. This approach should be personal to your current life, and can change each year.
What you want to change — and why
Most New Year’s resolutions focus on exercise, diet, and weight control. My suggested approach is to also take stock of other areas of life, because there is much more to health. A list of the most common resolutions usually does not include issues such as love relationships or positive emotions such as kindness, gratitude, and altruism.
If you examine your past year, identify levels of satisfaction in each domain. You can give yourself a numerical rating (1-10) or describe your level of satisfaction (from very dissatisfied to very satisfied). You can then figure out what steps you can take to reach higher levels of satisfaction in the domain(s) identified and improve your life overall. You can also give yourself an “overall” rating in which you think about how the past year went for you. And, changes can be small or much more significant.
A personal perspective on New Year’s resolutions
I will share some personal examples of how I’ve used “Looking Back, Looking Forward.” Since I’m in the latter third of life, my way of judging satisfaction and my goals for the future may look different from yours. It is never too late to change and I believe we can always improve, no matter what stage of life we are in.
Overall I am satisfied with my life this year, although there are a few areas I need to improve.
- Love and relationships: My focus has shifted to mentoring adults (professionals and family members) and connecting with my grandchildren. Being an important part of their lives has brought me joy that is indescribable. I am very satisfied with this area of my life and especially happy with my love relationships in and outside my family. My goal remains to keep love a high priority and spend quality time with my grandkids, and other family members and loved ones. And, to share my gratitude and appreciation towards others.
- Physical health: I follow a reasonable diet; get regular dental, vision, and physical checkups; comply with medications; and exercise regularly. Since I started walking and/or running nearly every day for the past two years, I’ve maintained my weight loss and keep within a five-pound range. I’m very satisfied with this area of my life. My goal is to continue to sustain my health habits and overall health by following what I have been doing. I’m adding one new activity to the upcoming year: riding a bicycle. I recently purchased a bike and plan to include bike rides along with running and walking for a change of pace, and to enjoy the outdoors more.
- Mental health: I am fairly upbeat and positive, and share my positive feelings such as love and gratitude with others. I do not let negative people or bad experiences drag me down, but try to learn from these. Anger and worry are no longer my companions as these have limited value (although they can be helpful in some situations). I’m very satisfied with this area of my life. My goal is to continue to share positive emotions and limit the impact of negative emotions or negative thinking on my life.
- Spiritual health: I recently pulled myself out of a spiritual funk I experienced this past year. I’m moderately satisfied with this area of my life, but this area clearly needs work. My goal is to improve my spiritual health through regular worship and prayer, and reading spiritual literature, not letting this domain slip to the bottom of my priority list.
- Financial health: I grew up poor and learned over the years to overcome greed, and bad habits in money management (and I mean very bad habits). I’m very satisfied with how I manage money now. My goals are to continue to reduce debt, save for retirement, and follow a more conservative approach to investing. Another goal is to continue to encourage financial literacy among family members, and provide financial support to them or others in need through donations.
- Habits/Lifestyle: I am moderately satisfied with my lifestyle and overall habits. One area I need to work on is to reduce time spent on technology (phone, iPad, computer, email, and internet). Although modern life is technologically oriented, this does not mean we have to be controlled by it. Looking forward, my goals are to increase some technology-free periods, read more books instead of e-publications, and read more fiction instead of work-related content.
- Education, work, career, accomplishments: I am highly satisfied with my work and accomplishments in the final phase of my career. My goals are to continue influencing and mentoring others through my teaching and writings, and to regularly publish articles, chapters and/or books.
We all want to improve ourselves or the quality of our lives, and making time to do this exercise can give you insights on what’s important to you right now. Make your personal reflection relevant to your life. You may wish to evaluate and/or change different areas in your life.
I hope you have a great year!
Suggested reading and resources
Anderson NB & Anderson PE (2003). Emotional Longevity: What Really Determines How Long You Live. NY: Penguin Putnam, Inc.
Eakes SP (2013). Fresh Views on Resilient Living. Pittsburgh, PA: Incredible Messages Press.
Frederickson B (2009). Positivity: Top-Notch Research Revels the 3 to 1 Ration That Will Change Your Life. NY: Three Rivers Press.
Seligman M (2011). Flourish. NY: Simon & Schuster.
Valliant GE (2008). Spiritual Evolution: How We Are Wired for Faith, Hope, and Love. NY: Broadway Books
Fresh Views on Resilient Living – www.hopellc.com/FreshViews/index.html
Happiness – www.authentichappiness.sas.upenn.edu
Kindness – www.randomactsofkindness.org