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Scrap the Resolutions and Set New Year's Intentions Instead

Amid COVID-19 and a turbulent year, it's time for a revolution in resolutions

Close-up of unrecognizable woman writing in journal at kitchen table

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En español | Ten years ago, Colleen E. Millett stopped making New Year's resolutions. Instead of setting herself up for a disappointing January filled with broken promises, Millett decided to set intentions instead.

"I found that resolutions were something that never pan out and never come to fruition,” says the 53-year-old resident of Spring Hill, Florida.

As one of the most challenging years in history draws to a close, it may be time for a revolution in resolutions. Intention-setting is less about a specific goal and more about a shift in mindset to help achieve that goal.

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"An intention is something you want to manifest in your life or some guiding principle that you want to live by,” says Diana Raab, a psychologist and author. While resolutions are hard and fast goals that are either achieved or broken, intentions are broader ideas. Raab describes them “as the beginning of a dream or desire” for something that you want for yourself.

Seek out a journey, not an end point

Changing the conversation from an end point to a journey means there is a greater likelihood of being successful, without the risk of failure. Instead of setting a goal that is likely to be broken, a growing wave of folks are turning over a new leaf in a different way.

"I learned years ago that resolutions rarely last past Valentine's Day,” says Sandra Scheinbaum, 70, of Scottsdale, Arizona. “On the other hand, setting intentions works because they're associated with your hopes and dreams for the future.” For example, this year Scheinbaum intends to do everything in her power to stay healthy.

Tips for setting intentions:

1. Choose a broad, less specific goal for an intention than you would for a resolution: For example, improving health, lowering stress or becoming more mindful or present.

2. Get specific about ways to achieve that intention. For example, using less technology, spending more time in nature or meditating.

3. Plan how to incorporate those efforts into your regular routines.

4. Use a journal to make note of your intentions and your successes as the year continues.

Resolutions are often focused on smaller goals like trying to maintain good posture, exercising more or cutting down on sugar, according to Raab. But an intention has a broader focus and “often has to do with relationships, careers, self-improvement or a larger call to action, such as travel.”

To ensure successful intention-setting, Raab believes it is important to “commit to your intention,” making it “a part of your everyday thinking.”

Want something a little more concrete to help you follow through? Peter Gollwitzer, a professor of psychology at New York University who specializes in goal-setting, says that people who engage in planning how to achieve a set goal are about three times more likely to succeed than people who leave it at mere goal-setting.

"Specifying the how of reaching your goals makes people more likely to get started on time, stay on track in the face of distractions, and persist until the goal is attained,” Gollwitzer wrote in an email. “And this is true for all kinds of goals, more abstract ones such as New Year's resolutions (I want to become more physically active!) or more concrete ones (I want to go running at least once a week!)."

Avoid resolutions that get broken annually

Once you have selected an intention, write it down to keep it in the forefront of your mind and help you manifest it in your everyday life, says Raab, who has written about intention-setting for Psychology Today.

That's what Beth Graham did. “Just this week, I sat down and decided how to approach the New Year and wrote in my journal, ‘Feel life. Live with intention,'” she says. The 57-year-old public relations specialist from St. Augustine, Florida, is choosing to shake things up for 2021 after breaking her resolutions “every single year."

This year her intention is “to feel life,” which for her includes changing the way she uses technology to be more present in everyday tasks, shaking up her morning routine to feel more productive, and even putting on makeup each day.

"Intentions are a bit more spiritual and they're a bit less tangible—they're changes made at a much deeper core within your soul,” she explains.

Janice Holly Booth, 61, of Charlotte, North Carolina, also has a new plan for herself this year. “I've decided to set an intention to try and become a little bit better at everything I do, whether that's golf, painting, yard work or listening,” she says.

Instead of rushing through her tasks, Booth is planning to be “present, mindful and focused” during each activity, a mindset that she believes will bring improvement in everything from her golf swing to her gardening.

An intention doesn't have to be an overarching goal, though. Millett, for example, chooses a specific word to focus on each year. In 2019 she selected the word “joy” and worked to imbue it into her everyday life. “My 2020 word was wonder,” she says. “And I have certainly had a lot to wonder about this year!"

For her part, as Millett looks forward to 2021, this year she has selected to focus her intentions on the word “flow.” She says, “After a year of massive change and uncertainty, I feel ready to let the energy of life flow freely through me, knowing full well how to allow joy and wonder at the same time.”

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