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A New Year without resolutions? Reflections on non-striving in an achievement-oriented world.

Updated: Jan 17, 2019

We’re more than a week into 2019. You may be working to establish new habits for yourself or family, monitoring adherence to new resolutions that you have thoughtfully outlined and started to put into practice. As a goal-oriented, type-A person this practice has always had appeal to me. However, this year, while I embarked upon this task (and found myself explaining to our young children the rationale behind my new motivation to visit Starbucks© less frequently) the origins of this tradition piqued my curiosity.

The idea of setting resolutions for the new year has long been a part of our culture, with origins in religious practices dating back thousands of years. The Babylonians made promises to their gods at the start of each year to settle debts and return borrowed objects. Romans traditions included making promises to the god Janus (for whom January is named) with the start of a new year. In Medieval times, knights marked the end of the Christmas season by re-affirming their commitment to their code of conduct with the “peacock vow.” (Charles Dickens provides some colorful commentary on this, if you’re curious!) Today, both Christian and Judaic practices include reflection about the prior year and plans and prayers for the year ahead that coincide with changing of the calendar. In many Christian traditions watchnight services are held on New Years’ Eve. Coinciding with Rosh Hashanah (the Jewish New Year), and stretching across the High Holidays which culminate in Yom Kippur, followers of the Jewish faith spend time reflecting on wrongdoings and seeking forgiveness.

Such annual reflections on self-improvement can offer what are sometimes much needed opportunities to re-connect with personal goals, with the added advantages of being timed with a broader shift in the spirit of motivation in those around you (hello new gym partners and sales at the container store!). However, imposed self-improvement can also turn into a trap. This self-reflection can shift us into an unhelpful critical mindset where we focus on the ways that our current lives, and selves are lacking. It also creates opportunities to set ourselves up for goals that if unachieved may leave us feeling worse… the double-edged sword of the western-mind set.

While the human capacity to seek self-improvement is truly a glorious thing, in my own life, and in my practice as a psychologist it has become clear to me that too narrow a focus on goal-directed pursuits can leave us depleted, discouraged, and disengaged. In the ongoing quest for more balanced living, the practice of non-striving (one of the 7 pillars of mindfulness practice outlined by Jon Kabat-Zinn) can offer much some needed balance and restoration. In meditation the practice of non-striving removes any agenda or goal of trying to experience a special state like calm or focus, but instead shifts the practitioner into pure observation and listening. By not turning away we open ourselves toward more clarity and self-compassion. Listen to Jon Kabat Zinn describe it himself.

In daily life, the practice of non-striving can take the form of noticing the push (or pull) of the goals we set for ourselves, and how we spend our time and emotional energy. Do you look at the architecture of your day and try to fill in every block of time with a task that could be accomplished? Do you ruminate about what you could have done better? Judgement and perfectionism can be insidious adversaries as we navigate our world. To experiment with non-striving start small. When you notice those voices are taking over your thoughts and decision making, take a breath. Sit still a little longer, find a way to do a little less, give yourself permission not to feed their hunger. (Instead, maybe you need a latte?) Allow yourself to just be where you are. And remember, it’s non-striving, you don’t have to do it perfectly : )

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