It’s that time of year when your social media feeds are filled with people declaring New Year’s resolutions. And with those declarations come all of the advertisements promising to help you lose that weight, save money on that gym membership, and get rich quick.

But here’s the thing: the reason those advertisements don’t run in February is because time and time again, studies have shown that New Year’s resolutions don’t work.

And yet we persist in making them because we want to improve our lives, the lives of our families, and our communities. It’s human nature.
I’m not against change (it’s the nature of the seasons, after all) and I’m definitely not against goal-setting. But I am against inefficiency, especially in winter.

As such, I want my patients and my readers to set goals for the New Year but let’s make sure we’re doing it in the most effective way possible.

It’s that time of year where your social media feeds are filled with people declaring New Year’s resolutions. And with those declarations come all of the advertisements promising to help you lose that weight, save money on that gym membership, and get rich quick. But here’s the thing: the reason those advertisements don’t run in February is because time and time again, studies have shown that New Year’s resolutions don’t work. And yet we persist in making them because we want to improve our lives, the lives of our families, and our communities. It’s human nature. I’m not against change (it’s the nature of the seasons, after all) and I’m definitely not against goal-setting. But I am against inefficiency, especially in winter. As such, I want my patients and my readers to set goals for the New Year but let’s make sure we’re doing it in the most effective way possible. Featured image and cover photo by Nina Uhlíková

The information in this post is for general purposes only and does not constitute medical advice. This post does contain affiliate links, for which I will receive a small commission at no additional cost to you. For more information please see my privacy policy.

Why do people make New Year’s Resolutions anyways?

The New Year is such a clearly defined boundary of time. January 1st is the biggest and most acceptable “Monday.” We can’t wait to move forward with our goals for the beginning of decades or centuries or we’ll never accomplish anything.

We also can’t make big goals on monthly or weekly timetables because we don’t have the time to accomplish them.

But if we have a big goal like “write a book”, “lose X pounds”, “develop X amount of muscle mass”, “declutter 50% of the stuff in my home” then a year feels about right.

The Naughty Tradition

It’s become a tradition to set our goals to start on New Year’s. It gives us from October 30th to December 31st to “be naughty”. And since everyone else is waiting for January 1st to get moving on their goals we have a whole bunch of other people to “be naughty” with.

And then, on January 1st we all move in unison towards our goals. The social impetus to get healthy or wealthy or wise is strongest when everyone else around us is doing it. But when we’re relying on everyone else around us to 1) define our goals and 2) provide motivation for achieving them we run into a huge problem: extrinsic motivation (motivation that comes from outside of us) is the least effective type of motivation.

On top of tradition and the extrinsic motivation of our friends and family, there’s one more reason we still set New Year’s resolutions despite the mountain of evidence they don’t work: social media.

White Bear Lake and St Paul Community Acupuncture and Yoga Class

Influenced Resolutions

I work in the wellness industry and I have for over a decade. My Instagram feed is full of peers, colleagues, and wellness influencers and as someone who actively participates in discussing wellness, I can tell you with 100% certainty that what you see on most Instagram, Facebook, and Pinterest feeds is (most charitably) a carefully crafted white lie.

And we wellness industry professionals aren’t the only participants.

When your friend shares a vulnerable selfie with a red face and streaming sweat mid-February, that’s still a success. Even though the post says, “today was super hard and some days I don’t think I can do this anymore” they still showed up to accomplish their goal and documented it.

What you don’t see is the images of people sitting on their couches, checked out in front of the TV, mindlessly eating Trader Joe’s Sea Salted Saddle Potato Crisps in their new workout clothes.

Social media only shows us success and people will only share the things that they have succeeded with.

This leaves us with two simultaneous and false ideas:

  • achieving our goals is relatively easy and
  • if we aren’t accomplishing them, we just aren’t dedicated enough

Shame leads to a lack of motivation (because now our sources of extrinsic motivation are filling us with negative feelings instead of positive ones) and we give up.

So, what can we do instead?

Photo by John Lambeth via Pexels

A Seasonal Approach

It will come as no surprise to my regular readers that I believe the answer lies not only in Chinese Medicine but specifically in seasonal living.

We recently started the Winter Solstice seasonal node which, while we are once again experiencing an upward movement of yang, is still in the depth of winter. We are in a yin time of year. We’re not supposed to be making any big expenditures of energy.

I talked about this last week but some of the WORST things you can do for your overall health and wellness during this time of year are:

  • start a new, strict workout regimen that includes large amounts of cardio, heavy lifting that you are not accustomed to, or daily gym visits (when you previously had none).
  • overworking your mind by starting new creative endeavors that you haven’t budgeted for in your energy
  • eating colder foods and drinking colder beverages like juices, smoothies, cold water, and salads
  • starting new health regimens like cold showers, saunas, detoxes, and the like

That’s 82.91% of New Year’s resolutions right there. (Adding together health and self-improvement) What are these changes doing to your body?

They’re depleting you of qi and blood and taxing your kidney energy (which is the source of your willpower, by the way) So you end up running out of willpower and energy and by the time February rolls around you’re done.

Photo by Nina Uhlíková from Pexels

An ancient understanding

One of the things I love about the seasons is that they provide a beautiful framework for goal setting.

We plant our seeds in the spring, nurture them throughout the year, harvest them in the fall, and then reflect on them in the winter.
But where this differs from the traditional New Year’s resolution tradition is the size of the goal at the beginning of the year: you’re planting a seed, not a fully grown plant.

Starting small helps us find forgiveness for inevitable slip-ups at the beginning of a big change: we didn’t kill the plant, it just didn’t grow as much today.

It also gives your goal a chance to grow into itself rather than a set expectation. When we plant a bean seed, we don’t know how it will grow up a trellis, just that it will, right? Sometimes the most effective and healthiest goals don’t end where we expect them to. Allowing them the room to grow into what they are destined to be allows us to grow into our best possible selves.

The first step is finding your seed.

This past winter has been long, cold, and dark. Hopefully, you haven’t accomplished much. I mean that in all sincerity. After all, winter is the season of hibernation; we’re not supposed to accomplish much. Winter reminds us that rest is important. I say so often that rest is the root of productivity, something that a culture obsessed with action often forgets. But rest is also the root of creativity and motivation. If we spend winter resting appropriately, not only can we recover physically, but we can recover mentally and spiritually as well. In other words, in order to be truly prepared for the dynamic, generative, and upward movement of spring we have to engage with and process the still, slow, and inward movement of winter. And the best way to do that is through journaling.

Find your why

Your seed is your why. Not understanding why you want to achieve a particular goal is the quickest way to lose motivation and the reason comes back to that intrinsic/extrinsic motivation distinction.

Extrinsic versus Intrinsic Motivation

Extrinsic motivation is a motivation that comes from outside of us. It’s deciding to lose weight because we saw heavily touched up photos in a magazine or Instagram and we want to look like that. It’s deciding to try to make more money to achieve a particular lifestyle. It’s wanting to achieve a goal based on what others will say or think.

This is not to say that extrinsic motivation doesn’t work; it’s just that it’s less effective, can backfire, and lead to a decrease in intrinsic motivation.

Intrinsic motivation is a motivation that comes from the core of your being. As opposed to being rooted in fame, money, or adulation, intrinsic motivation is rooted in your why. These are the things we are prompted to achieve because of how they make us feel.

It’s deciding to be healthier because of how it feels in our body rather than how others will perceive us. It’s deciding to reach financial goals because of how we feel about paying off a credit card or achieving a savings milestone without the input of anyone else around us.

More simply put – intrinsic motivation is our ability to move forward towards the goals that make us happy regardless of what others will think.

Intrinsic motivation is our ability to move forward towards the goals that make us happy regardless of what others will think.

Finding the why

Every year, when I choose my word of the year and then the general direction of my goals, the word and the why are almost always the end of a process as well as the beginning.

After all, seasons are a cycle, right?

Updated principle movement diagram from Updated graphic based on the original from "Syncretism in Eastern and Western Medicine," Jessica Gustafson, L.Ac. 2014
Updated graphic based on the original from “Syncretism in Eastern and Western Medicine,” Jessica Gustafson, L.Ac. 2014

Fall is the season of harvest where we take all of the things that we grew throughout the year and separate the wheat from the chaff. It’s the season of discernment. Basically we look at what worked and what didn’t.

Even though it is not currently fall, harvest journaling is a great place to start with finding your why. Think about the year and journal about it. These prompts can be a helpful place to start:

Once you know what worked for you, sit on it for a little bit. Let your subconscious chew it over. Journal about it before you go to bed and when you wake up to see if you get any delicious insights.

Meditate on it.

Daydream about it.

This is the time of year to do that; the Huang Di Nei Jing specifically says that winter is the time of year to:

“Let the mind enter a state as if hidden, {as if shut in}
as if you had secret intentions;
as if you already had made gains. “

Huang Di Nei Jing, Su Wen, Chapter 2

Once you get that feeling of “yeah, this worked for me and I can totally build on that. This is what I want to do. This is the direction I want to go” ask yourself why.

Write down your whys.

Then ask yourself, “Would I want to accomplish this if I couldn’t tell or show anyone the results for a full year?” If the answer is yes, you’re there.

The first official quarter of Reverie Acupuncture is wrapping up which means it’s time for a post round up! While I’m writing up posts for the next few weeks, I thought it would be good to revisit the five most popular posts of the year so far. These are ranked in order of the blogs that people found the most useful and came back for time and time again. If you missed any of them, here is your chance to catch up and also your chance to review if you liked them. Cover image and featured photo by David Alberto Carmona Coto from Pexels
Photo by David Alberto Carmona Coto from Pexel

Plant your seed

You have your seed and now it’s time to plant it.

“Planting” is committing to your goal. You’re giving it a framework to grow on. The framework is the trellis.

This can look like putting time-based objectives in a calendar, buying a planner, or finding an accountability group.

But remember the seed is small, delicate, and needs to be nurtured. It’s not the full plant and doesn’t need the same sort of care and attention that a fully grown plant will need.

It needs a bit of water, some fertilizer, and patience.

A seed is making a small, reasonably achievable goal based on your why.

Some examples of seed goals are:

  • if eating healthier is your goal, can you eat a serving of vegetables with two meals a day?
  • if being more financially in tune is your goal, can you log into your bank account every day and review your spending?
  • if being more active is your goal, can you spend some time stretching every day?

They aren’t complete overhauls of your diet, your workout routine, or your life. They are changing small things one or two weeks at a time that can have huge impacts on your life overall.

How’s your posture right now? Do you remember your drive in to work today? What did your lunch taste like? How many of those questions are things you didn’t even think about until you read the words? We spend so much of our time in mindless routine, thinking the same thoughts and preforming the same actions and we don’t even realize it. Mindful eating is a way to change that. By becoming fully present in such a mundane activity, we can habituate ourselves differently. Food is more than nourishment. It had a look, a feel, a taste, a smell, and a sound. And by engaging all of your senses in the consumption of your food you can change your world just by training yourself to truly perceive it. Featured image and cover photo by Daria Shevtsova from Pexels
Photo by Daria Shevtsova from Pexels

Nurture your seed with small steps

After a week or two of trying your new habit and seeing how it feels, it’s time to add to it, one little bit at a time.

These incremental steps are key because they are a way to match the way yang is rising in the world around us. If we move too fast, we can outpace the yang of the world, and then we’re tapping into our own qiblood, and willpower.

So, let’s say you’ve done a great job adding vegetables to your meals. A solid 75% had some greens, some root veggies, and you’ve even eaten an occasional salad. Great! You want to take it a step further. You look at what you’ve eaten and you decide you want to eat fewer pre-packaged meals.

Instead of completely cutting out pre-packaged meals, you commit to finding one recipe to try on Pinterest every week. This gives you one homemade meal and some leftovers. Best part? Since you’re already used to thinking in terms of “additional veggies” you can emphasize veggie-heavy meals.

Or, let’s say that you’ve gotten really good at stretching before bed every day but you’re feeling the need to be more active. You commit to finding one YouTube video for yoga, qi gong, or tai chi a week and add them to a playlist so you don’t lose them.

You decide to do these videos at least twice a week. At the end of the two weeks, you’ve found two videos that you can enjoy and work with over the next two weeks and you’re occasionally adding more to your playlist for variety.

The ROI of Small Goals

Do you know what the failure rate for traditional New Year’s resolutions is?

80%.

And that’s by February 1st.

80% of people have already given up on their big goals before February 1st because honestly – it’s too much at once. Big goals are scary and they’re hard.

But when you take that big goal and break it into smaller chunks it’s manageable.

And when you know your why and root those small goals in your own personal feelings of reward and success, you set yourself up for success because you feel good and accomplished. You see your results on a weekly or bi-weekly basis.

Photo by Tobi from Pexels

The big picture

Living your life two weeks at a time seems a little small when we’re a culture of big pictures. But here’s the thing: so long as you’re making progress in those two week chunks, does it matter? Because if you’re looking at where you want to put your feet on the path and make sure that the next steps you plan to take will move you forward, you’ll still move forward.

I have been seeing this reel trend floating around on Instagram where you are supposed to share a photo of you in January and a photo of you now. And my favorites?

My favorites are the ones with no physical changes. And they say things like, “I had a resolution to reach this goal weight but instead I healed my relationship with my body and my relationship with food. I’m happier and I feel better.”

Their goals became more about them rather than how others perceived them.

And that’s the real beauty of seasonal goals: the vine still moved up the trellis and they got a full harvest, but it didn’t grow the way they planned at the beginning of the year. These goal-setters regularly checked in with how they felt and made decisions based on what they found. What they ended up with was:

  • healthier diets
  • a more in-tune relationship with food
  • a better relationship with their body
  • more self-confidence
  • and a better mindset overall

Isn’t that result 100% better than “I lost 50 pounds”?

These results will last them the rest of their lives. These are the changes that stick.

If you’re interested in applying the metaphor of seasonal living to your life, definitely check out Seasonal Alchemy: The Principle Movements of the Seasons in the World and You. You can pick up your copy for free by clicking the link below.

Resources and Links

New Year’s Resolution Statistics

What is extrinsic motivation?

Intrinsic Motivation: How to Pick Healthy Motivation Techniques

Most People Fail to Achieve Their New Year’s Resolution. For Success, Choose a Word of the Year Instead

Featured image and cover photo by Nina Uhlíková

Disclaimer: I am an acupuncturist in the state of Minnesota, and the information falls within my scope of practice in my state. However, unless I have directed you here as your homework I am probably not your acupuncturist. The information in this post is for general purposes only and does not constitute medical advice. As always, check with your own acupuncturist or primary care provider before making any lifestyle changes. This post does not create a patient-practitioner relationship and I am not liable for any losses or damages resulting or relating to the content in this post.

Image of Jessica holding a wooden cervical dilation visual aid. Jessica Gustafson is a licensed acupuncturist in St Paul, MN specializing in women’s health and fertility. She loves working with patients through the Health Foundations Birth Center on Grand Avenue in St Paul and doing home visits in the Twin Cities area. Check out the services page for more information! ​ ​Follow Reverie Acupuncture on Facebook, Pinterest and Instagram for updates! Please follow and like Reverie Acupuncture!

Jessica Gustafson is a licensed acupuncturist in St Paul, MN specializing in women’s health and fertility. She loves working with patients through the Health Foundations Birth Center on Grand Avenue in St Paul and doing home visits in the Twin Cities area. Check out the services page for more information!

​Follow Reverie Acupuncture on FacebookPinterest and Instagram for updates! Please follow and like Reverie Acupuncture!