Don’t make a New Year’s resolution—make a life thesis

Do the work that makes you happy.
Do the work that makes you happy.
Image: Reuters/Thomas Peter
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Have you ever noticed how goals are kind of a scam? You can set them, you can even reach them—but then you find that you’re never done. As soon as you reach your goal, the target moves. 

Some people enjoy this pursuit, which is perhaps why they relish the challenge of setting New Year’s resolutions: weight loss goals to achieve, marathons to run, side hustles to start, gardens to grow, and savings accounts to fill. We revere goals—and the work it takes to achieve them—with near religious zeal in modern society. It’s why we brag about how many hours we work and look at people like Elon Musk as a paragon of success (when in reality his 120-hour work week sounds pretty miserable). It’s also why we’re obsessed with waking up early and we try to make our hobbies lucrative or competitive instead of enjoyable.

While ambition is a perfectly reasonable quality, all these outcome-oriented tendencies translate to one simple thing: More things to do. And each day you don’t do them is a day that you’re failing. This, in my experience, feels bad. That’s why, a few years ago, I gave up on New Year’s resolutions. And in 2018, I went even further and tried to give up on goals altogether.

Instead, I set out a life thesis, a guiding credo that governs the decisions and choices I make.

My own life thesis is informed by years of being a maniacal overachiever. At some point in my mid-twenties, I burned out, and with the help of therapy (and quite frankly, a lot of crying), I realized that there was a better way to make decisions: not based on an outward appearance of perfection, but rather on what feels good to me.

So that became my thesis, my guiding principle in moments where I need to make a decision, big or small: Do what feels good. Though it sounds simple, it’s actually quite sophisticated, and at times even challenging to put into practice. Sometimes what feels good is at odds with what’s easy, like when you committed to a social engagement that now fills you with abject dread (you have to call and cancel); or when you are overwhelmed at work (you have to stop reflexively agreeing to every new task that comes your way, and admit you’re only human). 

It also requires that I regularly check in with myself to determine whether what I thought felt good five hours, weeks, or years ago feels good to me right now. It’s an active and dynamic process, a conversation between body and mind—not simply your dictatorial mind telling your weary, pliant body what to do. When I succeed in sticking to my thesis, the prize is a wonderful one: I feel good. 

Your thesis does not have to be mine, obviously, but if you’re a recovering over-achiever, I recommend it. In crafting your own thesis, here’s a tip: When setting it, try to banish thoughts of goals and outcomes, and focus instead on process and feeling. Forget for a moment where you want to be. Instead ask yourself, how do you want to feel getting there? 

If you want to feel better about your body or weight, for example, instead of saying, “I will lose 25 pounds,” try this thesis: “I treat my body with the kindness it deserves.” If you want to write a book, don’t box yourself in and set yourself up for failure by resolving, “I must write 10,000 words each week.” Instead remind yourself of the thesis that made you want to do such a thing in the first place: “I want to spend time doing the work that brings me joy.”

My colleague Cassie Werber told me after one year’s failed resolution left her feeling like a failure, she set a simple thesis: “Be confident.” When work opportunities or personal conflicts arose in her life, she used her thesis to remind herself how she wanted to respond—with confidence. 

If skipping the goal-setting of a 2019 resolution makes you feel a bit panicky, give yourself a break. And know that your life, your physique, your ambitions do not have to collapse.

As it turns out, when you take away expectations and shame and pressure, humans tend to be rather intelligent about choosing what’s good for them. Chances are, if you craft a thesis that truly honors what you want your life to look like, your daily habits and actions will align to create that life, too. It’ll feel less like a moving target, and more like finding your center of gravity.