The four things I learned from actually keeping my resolution this year

A case for kinder, more compassionate goal-setting.

I’ve been an overly ambitious goal-setter and resolution-follower for a long time. Well before My Sweet Dumb Brain existed — back when I was married, living in Atlanta, and working a demanding corporate job — I had a blog. I wrote a tiny bit about anxiety and navigating tough feelings, but mostly documented home improvement projects, DIY craft endeavors (my first collaboration with My Sweet Dumb Brain editor and dear friend, Becca), and progress on personal goals. 

For years, I’d announce my annual resolutions in a January post, revisit those goals halfway through the year, and, by the end of December, dutifully assess how I did. My approach was rigid and largely devoid of flexibility or compassion. I’d set not only one specific resolution for the year, but 10, and would critically (and publicly!) judge myself if I failed to meet them. 

Reader, never once did I achieve all 10 of my goals. Still, I’d do it again the following year — setting the bar impossibly high, and chastising myself when I couldn’t reach it.

The last year I blogged about my resolutions was 2013. Among other goals, I vowed to read 20 books, travel overseas, drink less, run 161 miles, host more parties, attend my high school reunion, and leave the office for a walk every workday. My final resolution was a vague promise to challenge myself to do something I’ve never done before.

Halfway through the year, I determined that I was behind on most of those resolutions. I was averaging one book a month; suffered some running injuries (and subsequently remembered that I hate running); discovered that my high school reunion coincided with a family vacation, and chose the vacation; and hadn’t kept up my promise of walking every workday. I did have a few successes. My best friend and I booked a trip to Costa Rica in November, my husband and I successfully gave up alcohol for Lent, and I was feeling pretty good — not great, mind you — about the get-togethers I’d hosted so far.

In regards to my last goal, challenging myself to something brand new, I wrote, “I’ve had some new experiences this year, but nothing especially life-altering. So instead of musing on this goal now, I’ll keep it mysterious and see what comes along by year’s end …”

Lo and behold, I achieved that last item with flying colors. In November 2013, my dad died. His death was sudden and unexpected, and indeed a life-altering experience. Around that same time, all of my other resolutions fell apart. My trip to Costa Rica got canceled. I wasn’t reading or running or in the mood to host parties. And by the year’s end, I was drinking more, not less.

Losing my dad when I was 28 was my first major experience with grief. It was exactly the time that I should have been kinder to myself — to practice compassion and find some much-needed grace. But I was still tied to the idea that setting strict goals for myself was a good thing, and I felt like a failure for missing the year’s resolutions so spectacularly.

Looking back, the resolutions I chose for 2013 and all the years prior were what I thought I should do. I cared more about what other people thought about me and less about what I actually wanted. I believed that if I pushed myself hard enough, I would find the joy, success, and acceptance I was looking for.

It never worked.

This year, I set just one resolution for myself: To walk 10,000 steps a day. I gave myself plenty of wiggle room in order to meet that daily goal. Sometimes, I’d get my final steps in by pacing around a hotel room; other days, I’d get there by dancing to music. When I had surgery and couldn’t get 10,000 steps for a week? I gave myself a pass, and tried to appreciate that taking a break from long walks was part of healing. 

In past years, I would have gotten irrationally mad at myself for missing multiple days. I likely would have given up on my goal entirely, considering the attempt a failure. This time, I practiced compassion, and kept going.

Unlike previous years when I struggled to maintain my resolutions, I’ve kept up my 10,000-step-a-day goal — and found joy in the process. Why has this year been more successful (and more importantly, more enjoyable)? Here’s what I discovered along the way:

I chose something I wanted to do, not something I thought I should do. I like walking. A lot. Deciding to walk 10,000 steps a day wasn’t an incredibly ambitious or unexpected goal for me. There was nothing symbolic or exciting about it, and I wasn’t trying to impress anyone with it. Walking fits into my work-from-home lifestyle, and fills my current needs of generating lots of ideas, processing grief, and managing anxiety. I chose this goal for myself simply because it made me feel good.

I gave myself flexibility and grace. Funny enough, I think knowing that it would be fine if I didn’t meet my goal one day is what helped me to actually meet my goal most days. Instead of being overly rigid — I must get 5,000 steps by noon! — I wound up finding creative ways to hit my target, and didn’t feel panicked or rushed in the process.

I took the promise seriously. Not only did I mark my progress with a daily goal tracker, I also shared my resolution with the people close to me. Before long, my goal of 10,000 steps a day was a known fact about me — like someone who’s a vegetarian, for example. Friends knew that I had a goal to meet, so they’d understand if I suggested meeting at a restaurant within walking distance, or proposed taking a lap around the park instead of another drink. 

I treated my goal as a gift, not a punishment. Sure, there were some long days where I’d grumble about the steps I still needed to get in, but overall, my daily walks were a joy! I made a point to note all the benefits from walking, like how much I was saving on gas, how much healthier I felt, and how ideas evolved as I trekked around St. Pete. I’d also give myself things to look forward to during walks, such as listening to podcasts, catching up with loved ones on the phone, and finding new places to explore. 

I’m not sure yet what I’ll set out to do in 2020. There’s a good chance I’ll keep up my 10,000-step-a-day promise. I might challenge myself to get back into yoga, or adopt a new writing routine. I could also decide to skip goals altogether in 2020, or set resolutions during a different time of year. Whatever I do, it will be on my terms. I’m glad I finally figured that part out.



Goodbye 2019, hello 2020

But really, where did this year go?! This is my last newsletter issue of 2019. I’m taking a two-week break and returning to your inboxes on Tuesday, January 7. 

Yes, Tuesday! Starting next year, we’re splitting My Sweet Dumb Brain into two issues a week: On Tuesdays, I’ll send an essay (everything up to “xoxo, KHG”) out to all readers. On Thursdays, paying subscribers will get a second email — with related resources, links for the week, “Good job, brain,” and an exercise inspired by that week’s essay. I’ll also include any follow-up thoughts, updates, or feedback from readers.

If you’re not yet a paying reader and want to get both emails next year — and I hope you do! — upgrade your subscription now.

Good job, brain

I'm reading:In the Dream House,” by Carmen Maria Machado. Wow. This is the most inventive memoir I’ve ever read. Machado creates the sensation of flashing back through memories, trying to connect and understand it all. It’s haunting and beautiful.

I’m inspired by: The various ways I’ve seen people support each other online lately — with advice, monetary support, and kind words. The internet can often be terrible, but when it’s not, it sure is lovely.

I'm aiming to: Rest my brain over the next two weeks.

Additional resources

For your sweet dumb brain

One of the podcasts I fell in love with this year is Forever35. My favorite part of the podcast is when hosts Kate Spencer and Doree Shafrir talk about their intentions for the week ahead, and recap their intentions from the previous episode. The conversations usually go something like this:

Doree: Did you stay on top of [last week’s intention]?

Kate: Yes! Well ... sort of. I started off doing [the thing I said I would do], and then wound up doing [something slightly different].

Doree: Oh, that’s great, though! It sounds like you learned a lot about yourself in the process.

Kate: I guess you’re right, Doree! I did!

The weekly intentions recaps tend to go on a bit longer, and usually involve much more jokes, but you get the gist. Kate and Doree have a system of built-in accountability, but with plenty of understanding, flexibility, and encouragement. Some weeks, they fully meet their intentions. And sometimes, for whatever reason, they don’t even get close to achieving what they set out to do — and that’s ok, too!

I love the idea of sharing intentions with a friend and giving yourself lots of grace in the process. Instead of following strict resolutions this year, why not consider setting intentions for 2020? 

This newsletter is written by Katie Hawkins-Gaar. It’s edited by Rebecca Coates, who’s the Kate to my Doree.