New Years resolutions are overrated. Every year, we Americans resolve to do many things, like lose weight, get that job promotion, quit smoking or save more money. We constantly look towards the future and the new things that we want to do, forgetting to reflect on what worked for us (and what didn’t) in our past.
Come to think of it, I have never made a New Years resolution in my life. I have always heard of it done, many bloggers post volumes on what they resolve to do better the next year, but these lists nearly always start with how many resolutions they failed to achieve the past year.
This whole process seems relatively pointless to me because the idea of New Years goal-setting is much too robotic. Like taking out the garbage can every week, Americans robotically come up with a gratuitous list of goals, it seemed, just for the hell of it and without any deep-seeded intention of accomplishing them. Achieve them, don’t achieve them, whatever.
Surely there is a better way to do this!
Though New Years resolutions are wonderful in concept, to me, it was always a fruitless effort that seemed to end in failure and disappointment more than success. The reason is because resolutions that have no basis in personal history are almost always doomed to fail. More or less, you wind up with a list of wants.
The new year should be about more than a list of wants. The new year is a time to confront self improvement, to take control of your life and do things better than you did them last year. This time, make the new year about leveling up your mastery of life and squeezing out maximum happiness from every breath.
It is tough for me to establish realistic and achievable goals for the future if I don’t make an effort to examine what worked well for me in the past. In theory, my wants should fall in line with my needs, and my needs are a direct result of what is working in my life and what isn’t. It is for this reason that I do not make New Years resolutions.
Instead, I make New Years reflections.
Reflections are wonderful…just pure bliss. It’s not that I do not like setting goals, because I do. But, my goals are much longer term than just a year in advance. My ultimate life goal is to retire by 40. Short of that, I am not a goal setter. I roll with the punches, think happy thoughts and continue down my merry way in life setting myself up for a lifetime of financial independence with my wife.
Too much planning and goal-setting would drive me insane.
Arbitrary resolutions have no place in my life, and I like it that way. Goals come and go, but history stays with you forever.
What do I do? Each new year I reflect back on the previous year to determine what parts of my life worked and what parts I could have done better. Did that new job really work out as well as I planned? If not, why not? What were my expectations going into that new job and what did I do (or didn’t do) to turn those expectations into reality?
Or that new “clinically-tested” diet I tried, did it actually work? All those strange ingredients I used, or high prices I paid for new types of macro ingredients that the diet called for. Did it work? Did I lose weight, or did I spend more time trying to get the diet right to really enjoy that new way of eating?
What could I have done better?
A big part of this process is identifying the things that could have gone better.
What about all that shit I bought in 2014? All the stuff…how much of that stuff do I still use? Did I really need that cool Homer Simpson cup holder, or that $400 exhaust system to make my ’89 Honda Civic sound like a perpetual Mickey Mouse fart? Or spending that extra $200 for upgraded curtains. Are those expensive curtains bringing any additional happiness into my life? In other words, how much of the money that I spent was worth it?
In the new year, all of these considerations seep into the back of your brain and, hopefully, will begin to influence your decisions over the next 365 days. The next time that you are tempted to plop down an extra $300 for a nicer set of silverware, you might remember those upgraded curtains and realize what little affect those upgrades have on your life.
What turned out right?
Reflection isn’t just about the things that went wrong. I not only think about what went wrong, but also the decisions that I made that turned out fucking great. Maybe that new route I began taking to the office back in March is consistently shaving 5 miles off of my commute, each way. That decision kicked ass. I gotta keep doing that.
Or, maybe my dogs are voraciously plowing through every bowl of that cheap Costco brand dog food that is saving me $30 a month over the other expensive name brand crap. Awesome…dogs are happy and money is being saved. Chalk another one up in the win category.
Think about any big decisions made over the course of the year that turned out the way you wanted and consider why those decisions worked so well.
I quit my stressful job as a Director of Information Technology and took a work-from-home job that allows me a lot more flexibility in my workday and is damn near completely stress free. No more commute. No more weekend work. And hell, I even get paid more.
Yeah, this decision rocked. I spend more time at home with my dogs. I get much more satisfaction out of my work and I no longer feel stressed out during the day. Perfect decision.
What made me truly happy?
I also think about what made me all giddy over the course of the year.
Happiness comes to me in so many forms and flavors, but when I think about what made me truly happy over the year, I think about what brought a smile to my face.
For example, I don’t smile each time I use my cell phone, but I do smile every time I pet my dogs. You will always find a grin on my face when I walk into the gym, but almost never when I am in a mall, grocery store or filling up with gas.
Like most, I enjoy doing things that make me happy and minimizing the things that don’t. Clearly, I cannot avoid the grocery store, so my wife and I plan larger Costco shopping trips every couple of weeks to minimize the number of trips we take. So, I endure about an hour of misery every couple weeks, then I get to go back to enjoying life outside of the store. This has worked well for us over the course of 2014, and merely writing about this technique is making me smirk.
Almost always, happiness is a very simple concept. Maybe that new monthly date night with your husband or wife, while adding another $20 each month to your budget, is bringing the two of you closer and helping to improve your rocky relationship. Is $20 a month worth a better relationship? That might be money well spent.
Be brutally honest with yourself about what made you happy last year, and what you thought would make you happy. Keep doing those things that make you smile and find a way to change or minimize those things that don’t.
I will be honest: Reflecting on my life every year has had profoundly positive consequences. My future is a direct result of changes I made to my past behavior, and I am squarely on the path to financial independence and a lifetime of true happiness.
Steve is a 38-year-old early retiree who writes about the intersection of happiness and financial independence. Steve is a regular contributor to MarketWatch, CNBC, and The Ladders. He lives full-time in his 30′ Airstream Classic and travels the country with his wife Courtney and two rescued dogs.