I remember walking into a Michael’s to buy paint back in October. To my horror, the craft store had engaged in a slimy and desperate corporate strategy I unaffectionately refer to as “pulling a CVS.” In the dead middle of October, only weeks away from Halloween, Michael’s was playing Christmas music.
Aside from the fact that I live in New Orleans and had entered this snowy travesty from an 85-degree parking lot, and neglecting the visual disconnect created by the plastic cobwebs in neighboring windows; something about this reeked far more than the store’s premature Christmas sales push.
Certainly you’ve noticed this, but 2020 hasn’t been normal. It wasn’t the store’s holiday music or obtrusive, out-of-touch advertising that felt so dirty. It was that shortly after getting a tiny semblance of a social life back, on a week where nearly five thousand people in the US died from the virus — on a day which was 80 DEGREES — I was being forced into a faceless company’s phony normalcy and Yuletide delusion.
Regardless of where you live, you’ve likely spent about a third of your year quarantined and most of the remainder living a shaved down version of life as you knew it. Perhaps you remember setting a resolution around this time last year. If you aimed at something that required a lot of free time, your situation may have lined up to achieve it. Those of us whose goals were centered on our careers, or in gyms, or in our finances were probably less lucky.
Even if the stars aligned and your resolution was pandemic-compliant, it’s statistically unlikely that it would come to fruition, even in a good year. According to a Scranton study from 1988 (a year where there wasn’t a lockdown), only about 19% of respondents achieved their New Year’s Resolutions within two years.
Let’s return to my beef with Michael’s. Several months later on this fine December 26th, the second day of Christmas and of incubation for our next spike of cases and restrictions, internet articles everywhere from magazines to click-baiting content farms to gym blogs are beginning their yearly littering of New Year’s Resolution pitches, and while they’re certainly not as ham-fisted or untimely as Michael’s uncanny Christmas cheer, I can’t help but feel a little patronized by the sense of normalcy that businesses try to project during the worst of the pandemic.
Traditional resolutions are too often overly-ambitious, vague, and built upon our learned instinct to purchase all the workout equipment and craft goods that these articles are going to pitch us before next Friday. As we enter year two of viral chaos, let’s remove the additional stress of late-January shame from 2021 and find a practice that’s kinder to ourselves.
Why New Year’s Resolutions Fail
The struggles of pandemic life taught us a lot about both our coping mechanisms and the way we run our society. Over the course of the year, I’ve seen a tapering of optimistic discourse about “hustling,” the code name we give to the belief that we should surrender all of our free time, external aspirations, and even sleep for financial independence and stability, in favor of content that’s more critical of our work culture. Given the opportunity to step back and look at the way we bleed ourselves dry, many have developed a new outlook on productivity; we’re beginning to realize that the expectations we used to place on how much labor and how much achievement was acceptable set us up for existential crisis the moment we failed any of the tasks on an ever-expanding agenda. Multiply this crisis by virus-induced angst, isolation, the collapse of many of the systems where we poured our energy, and we’ve lost the space, the time, and the motivation to do difficult things for our own sake.
A recent Q&A panel with Ohio State based psychologist Dr. Sophie Lazarus features a discussion about how all of this pressure and obligation can compound in ways that affect us negatively.
“It’s probably more useful to look at what’s going on in our lives — and especially given everything that has been asked of us and all of the adaptation we’ve been doing in 2020 — if it’s really a good time to make a change […] What we don’t want to do is set a really large sweeping kind of goal and resolution and not meet it and feel more stressed and discouraged.”
After a year of canceled plans and pushbacks, of seeing loved ones sick and some of my favorite businesses vanish, I’m extremely unexcited to be pressured by Planet Fitness and finance magazines to place more obligation on me in “fun” listicles.
The option to sit this one out is as reasonable as it is relaxing. In December alone, you’ve likely spent time playing guessing games with the postal service, had to have stressful conversations about family and safety with those you love, and carried the burden of the year behind you all the while. With the vaccine expected to be available to everyone who wants one at the end of July, it’s perfectly okay to focus solely on your survival and sanity and set your resolutions when the world catches its breath and becomes more normal. I plan on spending much of January reflecting on the things to be gained from the hardship of 2020. Perhaps taking the time for self-discovery and personal growth is more important than any draining, lofty ambition.
If you really want to do some goal-setting that’s centered around achievement, psychologists including Lazarus say to start small. Rather than going to the gym with the goal of a shredded body, start with a weekly bike ride and up the intensity every once in a while. We can set goals that may not look as exciting on paper but are harder to become discouraged from, easier to experience gratification and progress with, and are more enjoyable to journey through.
Personally, my plan for the first day of 2021 isn’t too different from previous years. I’m gonna wake up hungover, drink a lot of water, and then I’m gonna push off whatever I was gonna do to the second of the month. It’s what most people were doing before. In 2021, that’s more than enough.