Ditch the Resolution

A year ago, I wrote about goals vs. intentions in the new year. There’s often a lot of mixed feelings about a New Year’s “Resolution.” It feels a little bit forced, a little bit fake, and a little bit unrealistic. The reality is that life does not change the the same way that the calendar changes. The start of a new year does not, in practical terms, feel particularly different than the ending of the last year. And yet in spite of this, we feel compelled to mark the occasion by turning over a new leaf, heading in a new direction, or somehow changing the things that previously we had been unable to change.

So if resolutions feel forced, or unrealistic, and yet we still want to set an intention for a new direction, how do we do this?

One idea is to substitute a firm resolution with an APC goal. An APC goal is much more in line with the idea of setting an intention, rather than a resolution. A resolution is relatively easy to fail– if we say we are going to quit smoking, and then do not, we have failed. There may be something useful about the austerity and rigidity of a resolution, but most difficult things, most things worth doing, will involve failure. A resolution is not very accommodating to this reality.

An ABC goal is essentially a concrete way of having several small goals line up with an intention. It provides a daily roadmap for working towards our goal, without the rigidity of feeling like we have let ourselves down when we have an off day.

The A part is the ideal. The excellent scenario. Our A goal is what, if we were always at our peak, we would be able to achieve. This might mean staying at the gym for 90 minutes, running 4 miles in less than 28 minutes, and lifting weights. Great! And something to strive for! But saying that we are going to achieve that workout daily, making that our resolution, seems likely to leave us disappointed. By all means, let’s strive for it– but let’s also recognize that it is a stretch goal.

The B part of the goal is what this looks like on a normal day. Perhaps that means 45 minutes of moderate intensity exercise, including some weights and some cardio. While it would be nice to do more (and that’s the goal!) its also true that life happens. This is something that we feel we could do most days, most of the time, with some effort.

The C part of the goal is the minimum. It’s what we can expect to accomplish on our off days. On the days when its raining, we wake up late, on the days where we are just not feeling it. To continue the idea, our C goal might be to take the dog for a 15 minute walk. Is it as much exercise as we’d like? Nope. Is it where we hope to be? Not at all. But, it is still consistent with the overall intention to be more physically active, and it is a way of staying on track and accountable even when the inevitable setback happens.

The idea is that we are always striving for our A goal, always trying to achieve whatever that is. It means that at the same time we set our A goal, we also acknowledge the difficulty of achieving it, and we have a plan in place for that. Lastly, the C goal gives us something to fall back on, something to keep us on the right path even when we have a bad day.

Psychologically, we get discouraged when we feel we are not living up to the goals and expectations we set for ourselves. That discouragement can cause us to throw in the towel and turn away from the enterprise altogether. On the other hand, setting goals that are too easy does not feel like a challenge, and does really inspire or motivate us to try. This framework allows us to bridge that difficulty.

So, what does this look like in practice? Let’s go through a couple of ideas. Suppose the intention in the new year is to quit smoking. The A goal might be no cigarettes for the day. No tobacco, no nicotine, no nothing (YES!). The B goal might be to chew nicotine gum to help with a craving, rather than to smoke a cigarette (still pretty good, and definitely making a lot of progress). The C goal might be to smoke no more than two cigarettes in a day (not where we hope to be, but still an improvement compared to where things were).

Suppose instead that the intention is to spend more time with family, to let work bleed into home life less. The A goal might be to pick the kids up from school, and not look at work at all for the rest of the day (hurray!). The B goal might be to be home at 5, and not do more than 15 minutes of work at night (progress!). The C goal might be to get home at 6, and wait until the kids have gone to bed to do any additional work (better than it was, but still hope to do better).

So, what do you think about this? What’s an intention you can set for the new year, and an ABC goal you can use to support it? Be specific. Write it down, and share it.


Dr. Justin