It can be a sensitive topic to approach among friends, family, or colleagues: The New Year’s resolution. If a New Year’s goal has not been achieved when the old calendars hit the recycling bin, the resolution question becomes the elephant in the room: Well, what are you resolving to change this year? If you did not achieve all you wanted to do last year, the New Year’s resolution often comes with plenty of baggage. Bring to mind anyone you know who proudly reveals they actually achieved or are still pursuing the New Years’ goal they set for themselves earlier in the year. It is likely you might not recall anyone who has so confidently succeeded in achieving their original goal. If you know anyone who has been “resolution successful,” it is likely you would remember that as they probably would gladly let you, and everyone else, know their success.
So, what brings us to the desire to go through the New Year’s resolution ritual every year since the Romans (really, that’s when it started!)? We like to have a fresh start, a time to clear the deck, or an opportunity for a do-over. Starting anew is powerfully motivating, especially if the last year was particularly challenging. The idea of improvement and getting unstuck and moving toward change is highly compelling. The vision or concept of change can often make so much sense and provide remarkable clarity: If I could just do THAT, then my world would be so different.
And yet, moving from the vision to the execution is typically a place where we often stumble. We can falter because changing ourselves is work, and work means doing things that can take energy and might not be immediately gratifying. So many sterling New Year’s resolutions go by the wayside as the execution is just too difficult. We can also fail to meet our goals when our enthusiasm for change and starting anew results in ideas that are simply too large and complicated to easily execute, as our enthusiasm can overshadow our ability to be practical.
The bridge is missing between the wonderful idea and the actual behavior that would make the dream real. It is understandable that this is where the challenge lies because if change were so easy, it would have happened already. By avoiding resolutions, many of us avoid the pain—and the potential growth—attached to the risk of trying to improve ourselves.
But what if the New Year resolution wasn’t so much about doing or executing a plan? What if the resolution was about being curious and open? With this type of resolution, the process of exploration would be the goal instead of pushing toward an outcome that might not be easily or clearly achieved. Systems-change experts often promote the idea of “good process leads to good outcome,” so maybe it would be helpful to explore process in the context of wanting to start anew in a new year.
The curious and open process approach might lead us to wonder why a certain behavior could or should be changed in the first place. For instance, maybe my resolution is to buy fewer objects that I don’t really need so I can save money and cut down on clutter. In this process-oriented resolution approach, the goal would not necessarily be to immediately set up a spending plan if I was not at all confident or really interested in changing my behavior. Instead, it would be asking the questions that need to be explored: What do I get out of shopping? What kind of joy do I receive owning these objects? How would my life be different if I reduced clutter and saved money?
What we are doing in the process of being curious is building our motivation to change. Such exploration is building momentum through potentially generating what is called “change talk” in the motivational interviewing (MI) community (Miller & Rollnick, 2023). Being curious and talking to yourself about change often serves as a bridge between a potential change idea and the actual change outcome. It’s as if the typical resolution often has minimal energy behind it, which makes the change hard to sustain when things get tough—like when a craving comes up. With the self-talk that has occurred as the result of thoughtful and curious inquiry, you can build motivational energy that helps fuel the change process—or you might learn that maybe we don’t really care enough about this change goal to make it happen, and that our time is better spent exploring other options.
It very well would be a different world in the new year if we collectively decided to give ourselves a break from doing the resolution and engaged instead in being open, relaxed, and curious. Imagine this place where we did not have to feel the anxiety of what we might fear is failure and shame while we open ourselves up to learning and growth. So, maybe this year, consider jotting down “being curious” as your New Year’s goal—and explore the possibilities.
Miller, W. R., & Rollnick, S. (2023). Motivational interviewing: Helping people change and grow. Guilford Publications.
Kristin L. Dempsey, EdD, LMFT, LPCC, is a psychotherapist, counselor educator, and trainer. For thirty years, she has supported individuals with exploring their own relationships to substances. She is a member of the Motivational Interviewing Network of Trainers (MINT), and has been privileged to provide motivational interviewing (MI) training to thousands of people in behavioral health, primary care, public health, school, corrections, and human services organizations.