We Asked a Psychologist Why Intentions Are Better Than New Year's Resolutions

As someone who is energized by change, the promise of a new year has always felt incredibly seductive to me—even as I've racked up a lifetime of evidence that our culturally imposed "fresh start" rarely instigates genuine transformation. Though my resolution success rate probably hovers around (a very generous) 5%, the collective mentality to do better is always infectious enough for me to convince myself that this year will be different. Finally, 2017 actually was different, if only because I finally threw out the resolution rule book.

I could pretend that I very thoughtfully decided to set intentions instead, but the truth was I was emotionally drained from an illness (and then passing) in my family and couldn't wrap my head around any kind of goal-setting apart from trying to be a little nicer to myself. So I signed up for a yoga membership. I found solace in journaling. I found that when I reached my favorite vista of my favorite hike, I was able to find an unrivaled kind of catharsis. Basically, I learned what self-care was on an emotionally intimate level. And this finally laid the groundwork for the lasting growth, health, and peace that I had always chased through years of failed resolutions.

To be clear, rejecting resolutions doesn't necessarily mean rejecting the New Year's sentiment altogether. In fact, it can be helpful to utilize this cultural moment to check in with yourself and reassess your own goals. The key is to reject the rigid mindset around resolutions—which not only tends to induce failure but anxiety as well—and try another, more compassionate path instead. We asked a couple of experts exactly how to make that happen.

Why resolutions don't work

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The numbers don't lie: Surveys tell us that 80% of New Year's resolutions fail by February. But why? New York City–based psychologist Heather Silvestri suspects that we're simply asking too much of ourselves, and the inflexible language around resolutions only adds to the pressure.

"New Year's anxiety often doubles down on itself: It bubbles up from the past year, attached to whatever we feel we have not accomplished, and then it darts ahead to the upcoming year, laced with pressure and performativity," she says. "Caught in the crosshairs of this psychologically unpleasant place, we resolve to do better." (Let's just say that anxiety isn't exactly the bedrock of meaningful goal-setting.

"As a psychologist and humble student of human behavior, what I see in a failed resolution isn't a deficit in willpower; rather, it is a flawed motivational system," says Silvestri. "When you resolve to change under duress, and that change is motivated by feeling poorly about yourself, it's hard to feel like an active agent over your life. Feeling bad simply isn't a great motivator for success." And it's probably why we throw in the towel on our quest for six-pack abs by week three.

Why intentions are different

Don't just chalk it up to semantics, because there is a subtle but crucial distinction between a resolution and an intention. "'Intention' feels much more process-oriented," says Jamie Price, the founder of meditation app Stop, Breathe & Think. "'Resolution' often has this sense that something is wrong right now, and it will be better once you arrive at your destination, once something has changed."

"Intentions have so much to recommend them," adds Silvestri. "They issue from and speak to the present moment; they are aspirational without veering into future-telling; they are affirmative and self-affirming."

Consider, for example, one of the more cliché New Year's resolutions: getting in shape. If you decide instead to set an intention to move your body more frequently or fuel it properly, suddenly, your mindset shifts from this proverbial carrot to the choices you make on a daily basis. It forces you to lead the life you want rather than chase it. And that means finding triumph and joy in the journey rather than some imaginary goal line.

"The secret to change doesn't lie in dramatic gestures," iterates Price. "It happens when we are present to the countless opportunities for the mental, emotional, and physical fresh starts that are available to us every day. The smallest moments, in the here and now, can have a profound effect."

Setting yourself up for success

This all said, there are a few things to keep in mind while setting intentions. "The key is staying present and setting intentions from a place of clarity and groundedness," says Silvestri. "In other words, be realistic and convert your inspiration into a practical action plan. The more you set modest intentions for yourself, the easier it will be to operationalize and actualize them."

Remember that intentions are essentially self-imposed guidelines to live by on a daily basis, so you'll want them to be doable lest you set yourself up for more frustration. Instead of intending to hit the gym for an hour five days a week, try vowing to move your body on a daily basis in any way, shape, or form. Instead of promising to write in a journal every day, set an intention to make time for self-reflection by any means. If you make space for the fact that life is unpredictable, it'll be that much easier to shift your intentions into habits.

Silvestri also recommends framing your intentions around feelings as you write them down. "This helps to keep your goals energized because feelings are the driving force behind so much of what we choose to do or not do," she says. "Meditate on what it will feel like to actualize your intention and use that good feeling state to motivate yourself each day." 

Above all else, don't forget to show yourself gratitude for everything you've accomplished already, as well as the work you're putting in to fuel your own growth. "If your relationship to your goals is affirmative and laced with appreciation for what you already have or do, then it’s much easier to maintain momentum and to feel good about any small steps you are taking," says Silvestri. "It's not about whether you succeeded on any given day. Rather, it's about whether you're moving in a healthier, happier direction and whether you're netting a better state of affairs for yourself. Remember, everything you do is a choice and the most important and exciting phenomena are the choices we are about to make, not the ones already made." We'll raise a glass of champagne to that.

Next up: 31 ways to be a little more mindful.