“New year, new you!”

Well, maybe not. Self-improvement is great in theory, but at the start of a new year people often put too much pressure on themselves to change completely. Resolving to change only does you any good if goals are achievable.

I’m not a huge fan of the self-help industry for this reason. It’s simply never-ending: a quick scroll through social media usually leaves users beset by targeted ads encouraging us to be wealthier, healthier, smarter, more competitive, more attractive, better-dressed, more cosmopolitan (or more “country,” depending on what the algorithms decide—I’ve been marketed both lifestyles at the same time). It’s just too much. Nobody can improve every aspect of their life all at once, and nobody can ever improve perfectly. That’s part of being human.

Every now and then, though, I stumble on some gems of truly solid advice and wanted to share two of my favorites with our community. Wellness involves more than physical health.

The Best Self-Help Books I’ve Found (So Far):

  1. Atomic Habits, by James Clear
  2. Designing Your Life, by Bill Burnett and Dave Evans

Both are worth reading if you haven’t encountered them yet, and both have wisdom fitting for this time of year. Designing Your Life focuses less on goals and more on figuring out what you need from life to be fulfilled, but the first chapter sums up a basic principle of goal setting: start where you are. Too often, we berate ourselves for not being as good as we’d like, or we set goals far beyond our capabilities due to impatience. Someone who takes a walk once a week and vows to finish a marathon by April has set the finish line much farther than their current ability.

Impossible goals hurt us. This would-be marathoner may push themselves past reasonable limits and manage to complete a marathon in 4 months, but if they succeed, they’ll almost certainly injure themselves in the process. If they don’t succeed (much more likely), the failed goal will be a nasty gift that keeps on giving self-doubt, lack of motivation, and stress. Ironically, achieving goals becomes much harder without the mental boost of small successes. So, start where you are. Instead of planning the marathon, decide to walk one more day a week for three weeks and then build up over time.

Atomic Habits dedicates an entire book to achieving goals, albeit with a different spin. James Clear wants to help people set goals that will become habits (and then patterns of good behavior), not one-time achievements. Why focus on habits rather than goals? Here’s a quote from page 33:

“The ultimate form of intrinsic motivation is when a habit becomes part of your identity. It’s one thing to say I’m the type of person who wants this. It’s something very different to say I’m the type of person who is this. The more pride you have in a particular aspect of your identity, the more motivated you will be to maintain the habits associated with it.”

Developing habits is what leads to permanent change. As Clear states, there’s a difference between someone offered a cigarette answers “No thanks, I’m trying to quit” and someone who answers “no thanks, I’m not a smoker.” This ties back to starting where you are. Set simple, small, specific, and achievable goals, then see where it leads.

At one point in time I wanted to be healthier. I knew that setting a goal to “lose weight” would fail, specifically because it was vague and high-pressure. Also, my real goal was to be healthier, which involves more than just shedding pounds. Instead, I decided I would “eat smaller portion sizes.” No dieting, no extra exercise, just trying to have less food. This became a habit I was able to keep and after several months of consistent behavior, I’d lost weight anyway–without any of the negative habits and emotions that frequently show up when we focus on changing our bodies. If you want to make resolutions for this new year, start small. Think of specific, repeatable, simple things you can do to make little changes. Consistency is what helps us turn a goal into a new habit, and habits gradually become part of who we are.

I want to end with some motivation from one of my favorite nostalgic movies. Yes, it’s cheesy, and it doesn’t have the smoothest animation, but it’s still sound advice: