Resolutions are chance to assess our goals

Have New Year’s resolutions gone the way of the dodo? Writing that sentence with the dodo cliché, I can’t help but insert “to” – as in, to-do, to-do. Which makes me muse: What’s the difference between resolutions and a to-do list?

When I teach about resolutions (yes, people actually do that!), I’m careful to separate dreaming from planning, and planning from doing. They’re separate but necessary stages, and one without the others will give poor results. So I guess that answers my question: Resolutions must be the genesis of the to-do list.

That said, it seems to me that the to-do list can be mined to generate one’s resolutions. For example, if your list is full of items that get transferred from week to week, your resolution might be to learn better time management. Or perhaps the resolution is to learn more about delegating?

For me, resolutions have always been a form of reckoning. They usually represent goals that I am now trying to take seriously. For example, I may always hold the general desire to see my words printed in more newspapers, or to serve more job search clients, but a resolution would elevate those goals to something I’m promising to make happen. “Resolution” after all is related to “resolve,” as in: “I now resolve to ...” and “This is my resolve.”

So where does the reckoning come in? For me, it’s a form of self-talk where I ask myself: "Do you really want this? How badly? Why hasn’t it happened already?”

This self-talk is rooted in my deeply held belief that our actions reveal our intent. Our true intent, that is, not our stated intent. This belief made itself evident once in a surprising and somewhat rude way when a colleague and I were speaking with a participant after a job search class we taught for “older workers.” The 60-something gentleman started a sentence with, “I’ve always wanted to start a business ...” and I bluntly interrupted with a not-so-playful, “Apparently not.”

Ouch. As my colleague said later, “That was a bit harsh.” Yes, it was. I can’t remember much about the rest of the conversation with the gentleman, but it can’t have been too disastrous or I would indeed remember. It’s possible that the comment made more of an impact on me than on him; until then, I hadn’t realized my impatience with the practice of repeating goals like chants, sometimes for decades, without actually committing to them.

Why would this matter? Isn’t there room in life for daydreaming and “someday” scenarios? Actually, I think there is. Those daydreams sometimes evolve into something serious, but more often, they’re just handy pressure valves, helping us cope with the daily grind.

But here’s the difference between a daydream and a near-goal that never quite makes it to the planning stage: One resides in the background, and the other messes up the foreground. That is, daydreams mostly lie dormant until called upon. But those near-goals hover in our conscious minds and insert themselves into other plans.

For the someday business owner, the inner dialogue might be: “A trip to Italy? Better not; I may need that money for the business I’ll start someday.” The would-be world traveler, however, sounds like this: “Buy a home? That will get in the way when I go on my trip someday.”

And neither the pseudo entrepreneur nor the erstwhile traveler will want to get a degree to build the current career -- because that degree either won’t be needed when self-employed, or the process of getting it will prohibit the traveler from leaving town.

Net result of all this uncommitted non-planning? Years pass and there’s nothing to show: no trip, no home purchase, no degree, no business. Even these aren’t the worst outcomes, though. Worst of all, I think, is the dissatisfaction such vague longing is bound to inspire in our daily lives. How can we be happy in the moment with such a large, unmet desire lurking in our daily thoughts?

This year, like every year, I’m going to sit down and write my resolutions for the next 12 months. Then I’m going to review my list from last year and figure out what my success ratio was. And, finally, I’m going to do some reckoning: Why did some items not get done? Is it time to let them go, put them on next year’s plan, or elevate the action to ensure they happen this year?

When I’m done, I’m going to eat some cake, since I’m pretty sure dieting, however necessary, isn’t going to be on this year’s list. Some things you just gotta enjoy.

Amy Lindgren owns Prototype Career Service, a career consulting firm in St. Paul, Minn. She can be reached at or at 626 Armstrong Ave., St. Paul, MN 55102.