Resolutions or Intentions? Goal-setting in the New Year

The start of every New Year sets into action a universal move toward change. Most adults stick to tradition, marking the beginning of each calendar year as a do-over, an opportunity to put things right. Much like religious and cultural rituals that involve repentance and abstinence, the New Year offers us the chance to wipe the slate clean and begin anew. We mark the occasion with resolutions. Each year, we resolve to live healthier, save more money, exercise daily, get organized, volunteer in the community. There’s always the sense that we can make up for the past year, or for many years past, by seizing an annual opportunity to do better. We pledge, promise and resolve; and then life happens. We procrastinate, forget and regret. Another year goes by, and we repeat the cycle: more resolutions made and not kept. There is no resolution after all!

Like many people, I’ve found myself caught in the resolution cycle. Sadly, my earnest vows to organize my kids’ school memorabilia by year, walk the dog every morning at 5:30am, or cook a week’s worth of dinners every Sunday afternoon all fell by the wayside. Each year, I set similarly unrealistic goals with the best of intentions. Each year, I had confidence in my resolutions and stated them with determination. Each year, my resolutions were forgotten when life happened and reality took over. Yet, come the next New Year’s Day, I geared up to repeat the resolution cycle!

Amazingly, the media devotes a great deal of time to New Year’s resolutions. If you listened to the radio or watched television during the final days of December, resolutions were hot news topics. Amid the broadcast banter, various personalities in the media proclaimed their resolutions for the New Year, while acknowledging their failure to keep last year’s resolutions. Yet, there seemed to be a universal understanding that we should all decide on our resolutions and get ready to embark on the doomed journey. That’s right: let’s promise that we’re going to do something good for ourselves or others, and then forget about it because don’t have to keep our promises after all. We can always make another promise next year! Let’s make sure we get this right, because the kids are watching and they want to know how to make their own resolutions!

A few years ago, a group of friends and I decided to defy the resolution tradition. Besides being fed up with facing our failures every December 31– the cusp of another round of resolution-making—we discussed the fact that, instead of setting attainable and realistic goals, we were setting ourselves up for failure. Most troubling was the fact that we continued to model these behaviors for our children, and we encouraged them to make New Year’s resolutions too. We compared stories and ludicrous promises that we had made to ourselves and others, and we shared our distress over how many of those broken promises involved our children. This year, I resolve to arrange a playdate for my son at least twice a month. This year, we’ll take mother-daughter walks every Saturday morning. This year, we’ll take more family camping and hiking trips. We realized that after a while, all our kids must have heard was “blah, blah, blah…” Not one member of our group managed to keep her resolutions all year. Yet, every one of us continued to model making empty promises and breaking resolutions for our children.

As the saying goes, “There’s one in every group.” In our group, one friend talked about applying the notion of intentions in place of resolutions. She shared that she had learned about intentions in her yoga class. At the beginning of each class, the yoga teacher prompted the students to take a moment and quiet their brains and consider what their intention for that class was. She explained that this type of purposeful thought about how you want to do something, and what it is you want to do, can set the brain and change your perspective. Reciting intentions daily helps to raise awareness and maintain focus on the desired accomplishments. The recitations are key to keeping long term goals in sight.

Frankly this all sounded very New Age and “kumbaya” to me. The daily recitations seemed eerily similar to stating and restating affirmations and a bit too ritualistic for my comfort. However, the idea of intention was intriguing. Purposeful consideration of achievable goals seemed to be a viable replacement for resolutions, one that offered a positive approach instead of a set-up for failure. Most importantly, intentions focus on reachable goals, whereas resolutions function as an invitation to try and try again. Exploring the meaning of “resolve” led me to phrases like, “make up your mind; make a decision; show perseverance and determination.” Interestingly, the meaning of “intend” took things a step further. The definition included descriptive phrases like, “be set to; plan, propose and anticipate; determine mentally upon some action or result.” When I read between the lines, I surmised that resolving to do something involved making a decision; but INTENDING to do something moved the decision-making to mindful consideration of an action plan. Intentions leave no doubt that goals can be achieved. Resolutions? Not so much.

Parents actively model behaviors for their children daily. We teach them social skills and skills that (we hope) will help them grow into self-sufficient and successful adults. We do this consciously and unconsciously—modeling through our own words and actions. Imagine the impact of modeling intention. What outcome could we expect from our children if we modeled purposeful thinking about reachable goals? Reachable goals aren’t broken resolutions that keep us mired in the failures of the past. The reachable goals of intentions are grounded in the present: planned and focused with an eye on action. Intentions don’t take us too far into the future. They take the “now” into account and consider how to move forward.

I’ve been experimenting with intentions for almost two years. I wanted to find a way to focus my two sons on reasonable goal-setting, without imposing my ideas on them. Of course, I still hold fast to the typical parental goals for school-aged children. Try to keep your room clean. Get into the habit of organizing your stuff. Read more. Argue less. The trick has been to consider what intentions really look like in respect to children. Since intentions keep us grounded in the present in order to make an action plan for the future, I had to think of ways to steer my boys away from empty promises and resolutions. I found that it wasn’t so difficult. I simply asked, “What’s your goal?” “What are you intending to do about that?” and “What are you hoping for?” I tailored the questions to specific situations like school, friendships and certain activities. My oldest son and I discussed his intentions for school in early September as he began seventh grade. I asked him about his goals for school. He told me that he wanted to work on his grades and improve his work in classes overall. I asked him what he intended to do to reach that goal. He responded that he needed to organize his binder, take better notes and go to teachers for extra assistance when needed. He seemed determined when he stated that he was hoping to be on the honor roll every quarter of the school year. I confess that I smiled and expressed pride while thinking, “Good luck with that!” However, during the last parent conference, his teachers reported that his self-advocacy skills, his independence, and his general work ethic have increased substantially since last year. He also reached his goal of making honor roll in the first and second quarters.

So it’s possible that this intentions business works. The process is a little more tedious with younger children (at least with my youngest), since they require more guidance and supervision. Yet, even a small child can give purposeful thought to a goal for home, school and play. What’s your goal? I want to have more friends. What are you intending to do about that? I will play with more people and share my toys. What are you hoping for? I hope that when more people get to know me and see that I will share things with them, they’ll be my friends too. Could it work? The only way to find out is to test the waters. Experiment with purposeful thought with intentions. Don’t just make a resolution to change. Determine the goal, and state your intentions; make an action plan and realize your hopes and dreams. The result just might be a truly happy New Year!

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