The Importance of Language When Making New Year’s Resolutions

By Troy Headrick

It’s that time of year again when people think about the new year and how they’d like to make changes in their lives going forward.  We often refer to these proposed life modifications as “new year’s resolutions.”

The other day, while stepping out of the shower, the idea hit me—insights come as flashes of insight and often at the strangest times—that the way we verbalize or frame such goals often makes all the difference in whether they are meaningful and can be operationalized.

I suddenly realized—while I was toweling off—that many of the tricks I teach students in my research methodology courses would be applicable to the making of resolutions for the upcoming year.  Research writing, after all, is about problem solving.  The researcher has an issue that she wants to learn more about.  The person seeking to learn more has a knowledge deficit and that’s the thing that stands in her way—that’s the problem that needs to be solved.  Once the learner develops an adequate knowledge about her subject, she can then present that understanding in the form of a research report.

The first steps in doing research (and in making new year’s resolutions) is to focus one’s thinking and to frame the issue in the way that makes learning possible.  For example, if a research student came to me wanting to know about “recent politics in the US,” I’d say that the subject was too broad and vague.  I’d help the learner refine such a subject until it became something like “the reasons so many Americans find Trump and Trumpism attractive.”  Compare the latter with the former.  The latter is focused enough to be something the researcher can explore and write about.  The former is way too general.  A researcher who starts with such unfocused thinking will soon realize that she has to either more accurately describe her subject or abandon the project altogether.

The new year’s resolution is also about solving a problem.  If a person has the problem of being out of shape, she might resolve to live healthier. 

But notice how “live healthier” is too vague.  What is meant by “live,” and what is meant by “healthier?”  Living involves the intake of food and how one spends one’s time, among other things.  Without some very specific goals, defined very precisely, the person making such a vague resolution won’t know whether she is doing the right things (to the right extent) or not.  Thus, “live healthier,” a resolution that is too vague, can be improved by putting it this way:  “I resolve to live healthier by becoming a vegetarian and exercising, including jogging, riding my bike, and lifting weights, at least four times each week.”  Such a resolution has clearly expressed goals and actions that have a kind of legal clarity.  Without fulfilling the “terms of this contract” in very precisely defined ways, the participant will be in violation of the requirements of the resolution.

The older I get, the more I need to make resolutions for the new year because I find that I’m becoming something of a slacker.  I try not to be too hard on myself, but I know it’s equally bad if I let myself just skate through life without any set goals.  Because I believe in moderation in all things, I have to work hard to find a nice middle ground.  Making precisely worded goals seems like a good approach for me at this time in my life.

Do you have any thoughts on new year’s resolutions or on what I’ve written?  If so, I’d love to read them.


Troy Headrick’s personal blog can be found here.

20 thoughts on “The Importance of Language When Making New Year’s Resolutions

  1. Troy, I have decided that the best way to deal with a new year that promises to be a wild ride is to be flexible. I plan on reducing material possessions and streamlining routines to simplify my life. I have identified priorities that I want to keep in balance…time management, essentially. Moderation is difficult for me, but I will try. Happy New Year!

    1. Happy New Year, Cheryl. I hope people didn’t misunderstand that I was saying “one size fits all” when discussing the making of resolutions. I think your plans sound great. We all have to find our own way, our own set of priorities. I always crave simplicity, so I definitely hear you on that. Good luck going forward and stay in touch. Thanks, as usual, for your contribution.

  2. Specific measurable goals. Absolutely the right way to go about resolutions. I say bin the word resolution altogether. I tend to think that more important than the goal is the process or system – have a specific time and place in mind as you say. Commit to making a step however small each day. Worry less about the end result. Focus on the forming the habit and making it part of your routine. Good advice Troy. Thanks for sharing 🙏

    1. I totally agree that the word “resolution” carries baggage and creates a certain expectation in the minds of those who make such plans or set goals. I also think that “the good life” is more about process than product. Some weeks ago I wrote a piece about dieting and talked about establishing good eating habits. I have now lost about twelve pounds and have reorganized the way I consume food. The magic happens every day when I do the right thing. It’s less about the amount of weight I’ve lost. It’s all about becoming a different person. Thanks for commenting, and I hope 2021 has started off well for you and your loved ones.

      1. Thank you Troy. I recall the post – Twelve pounds is an amazing effort! Wishing you and yours a very bright 2021 too 🙏

      2. Reminds me of the Aristotle quote: We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence then, is not an act, but a habit. Congrats on the weight loss Troy!

  3. Such an insightful article, Troy.

    Specificity gives the mind a concrete target to work on!

    In the consulting world, we use the acronym S-M-A-R-T a lot when helping organizations design their strategic plans.

    Specific-Measurable-Attainable-Realistic-Time bound.

    Happy new year!

    1. Hi, Billy. At work,I have to create SMART goals, so I know where you’re coming from. When I was younger, I almost never liked making resolutions at the beginning of a new year. Now that I’m older, I see that I have a tendency to just “go with the flow.” I suppose there’s nothing terribly wrong with that approach, but time has become more precious to me now that I have less of it, so, to do the sort of things I hope to do, I have to schedule things more than I used to it. As I mentioned in my piece, though, it’s about establishing the right balance between being organized and being spontaneous. There’s lots of truth in the old saying that genious is 99 percent perspiration and 1 percent inspiration. Take care, Billy. I hope 2021 has started of well for you!

  4. “The other day, while stepping out of the shower, the idea hit me—insights come as flashes of insight and often at the strangest times—that the way we verbalize or frame such goals often makes all the difference in whether they are meaningful and can be operationalized.”

    Great to read and to know I am not the only one paying attention to insights (that flesh in our minds when we are not looking for them) and to put those to practical use that will help me or another human being (depends on whose insight it is)!
    Great feature of an insight is the effortless way they come to us and usually they are carrying a seed of a personal truth. A person having a realization, an insight, an understanding can achieve significant results when acting upon it.
    Yes, verbalizing the insight so that the person in question can understand its full potential is necessary and can be a great beginning of…. a new year, a change….?

    1. There is this innate need for humans to ponder, comprehend, and solve problems. Even when we’re not aware of it, that built-in problem-solving “program” we all have is “running in the background” (to use a high-tech metaphor). It’s that tireless need to examine that creates those wonderful ephiphanies. I totally agree that we need to “speak” our insights. Saying them moves them out of the realm of imagination into the realm of the real. Thanks so much for your wonderfully insightful comment. I hope we can continue to use this forum to exchange ideas.

  5. I don’t “do” New year’s resolutions – I find that everyone trying to jump on the same bandwagon tends to leave me feeling like I haven’t accomplished much, and then I get discouraged. What I can, and do, is periodically take some time to evaluate what I want, or want to change in my life, what that might look like, and what rational reasonable steps are going to be required. While that Powerball Jackpot would be handy, it’s not something one can count on!

    So, what does that mean to me? It means that I’m letting go of clothes that I know will fit a friend who IS losing weight, and has a tight budget, instead of hoarding them in the hopes that one day they will fit again. There are a few I’ll keep for sentimental reasons – but the rest? Adios. This also helps with the practicality of the great move, when that happens, to be near Mum. Doesn’t make a lot of sense to take the unused. That’s money down the tubes, and it’s more realistic to plan on that than that magical windfall!

    Taking better care of my body is slightly different. I’m a stress baker, and then eater. I know this about myself, but maybe if I tried some of the other options, like vegan carrot bacon? It can’t hurt to try, right? The BIG one is, finding more peace in my life – and that comes from within. I can’t do a lot about the guys who race around the neighborhood or the sheer overwhelming feelings that COVID brings up. I can, however, write to my elected officials and let them know (without cursing or threatening) how very disappointed I am with their lack of action. It does a lot to relieve my stress, and might even make someone think. Not carrying stress is critical to my own wellbeing.

    May you have a much happier and more peaceful 2021!

    1. Great to hear from you again. I’ve been wondering about you since I haven’t seen you around. Like you, I’ve never been all that interested in making resolutions of the kind I discussed in my blog. I’m finding, though, I end up wasting so much time if I haven’t formulated some type of goals going forward. Of course, it’s all about balance. I don’t want to be a hard-ass and drive myself mercilessly as some workaholics do. On the other hand, if I don’t push myself a bit, I tend not to do anything and then I feel bad that I’m wasting my life. I do have things I want to accomplish, but I won’t fight myself if I have this deep-seated feeling that I simply need to be a couch potato for a while. I guess I’m still ambitious, but I don’t want ambition to consume me. Thanks so much for sharing your story.

  6. Troy, I like the way you think. The beginning of your post also elicited a chuckle before I got into the meat and potatoes of it. Last year I had goals for my writing and music, but they were very broad, “Write a book”, and “Record some music”. They were great starting points, and I made progress towards achieving them but I often felt overwhelmed by what those goals were asking of me. So, throughout the year I refined them until I had more specific goals that feel achievable:

    1. Finish a first pass edit of my first fantasy novel by the end of February.
    2. Finishing recording and mastering a 3-track EP by the end of April, scheduled for release by the end of May.

    So far, I’m working towards these goals one small chunk at a time, and not feeling overwhelmed by them.

    Whether I’ve said it or not, go well in 2021, and keep on keeping on being awesome.

    1. Excellent, Hamish. Your newly formulated, more specific goals are a perfect example of what I was trying to say in my blog. Now, I think, you see a clear and more specific path forward. I truly appreciate your kinds words, and I’m glad you found my writing helpful. May you reach all your goals and be happy and healthy this year. Thanks.

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