I don't make New Year's resolutions – I choose a word to live by instead

I’ve always been desperate to learn a dead language.

So one year, I made a New Year’s resolution to learn Old English and bought a book to get me started on my journey. 

But after it arrived one January day, I read the first few pages, memorised about 10 words and then added it to a pile of other useless bits I’d bought over the years. I hadn’t factored in the time commitment that comes with learning something new.

It had become a trend. Every year, I’d make unrealistic resolutions and then end up disappointed when I couldn’t stick to them. It’s why I’ve given up setting specific goals and have instead chosen one word to help define my upcoming year. 

My decision was sparked by my friend Charlotte. In December 2019, I’d asked her what her resolutions were and she announced that she had sworn off making them, instead choosing the word ‘go’ as her mantra for the next year. 

She was drawn to the feeling of momentum it inspired within her and it gave her the motivation to take a much longed for trip to Japan.

I was intrigued. 

In previous years, I would have committed to things like an hour of exercise a day, finishing my novel, sorting out my hyperpigmentation, travelling or taking dance classes.

And in the first three weeks of January, I’d be in the gym and on my yoga mat every day – I’d be motivated and consistent. And then the overexertion would lead to a pulled muscle or my body screaming at me. 

My novel is still unfinished. My passport is collecting dust. 

Rather than inspire, these goals served as reminders of my lack of discipline and accomplishment, overshadowing all the other achievements that year may bring. 

I reckoned I had nothing to lose by changing my routine, so I signed up to Charlotte’s way of setting her intentions for the next year. 

This word, I would come to understand, was not to be chosen lightly though. It would be a combination of what I felt I needed most in the year to come and of the energy I wanted to invite into my life. This word would act as a theme for my year to come, an anchor to both ground and inspire me.

Charlotte pointed me in the direction of writer and teacher Susannah Conway, who creates yearly guides to help you find your word.

Exercises such as visualising in your head what your ideal day would look like and asking yourself what you need more of/less of in your life spoke to me. 

In the days leading up to the end of the year, Conway encourages selecting a few words that appeal to you and sitting with each one as you work through some of the journaling and exercises to see which option ends up sticking.

My word for 2021 has been courage

Being an introvert, I enjoyed taking time to journey inwards and interrogate the elements of my life that nourished me.

The first word I decided on was ‘grow’ for 2020. My youngest son had started school full time – leaving me with a bit of time just for me; time to explore what I wanted to do rather than what I needed to do.

I thought of growing my writing projects, dedicating more time to yoga and dancing, perhaps branching out into new genres and styles, maybe even growing herbs in little pots that I would keep in my kitchen.

Instead, the pandemic came.

Though I have lived with anxiety and panic for many years, 2020 saw me experience some of the worst anxiety and panic attacks of my life.

At its worst, I would wake at 4am as though shaken by an unseen force and lie awake, trying to swallow my heartbeat that throbbed in my throat. This was meant to be the year that I grew my life outwards, yet instead, the world was locking down and I was falling apart. I felt like I was doing the opposite of ‘grow’. 

During springtime last year, Charlotte sat with me one day when my anxiety was particularly bad. She watched me fail to eat a slice of toast, my fingers rubbing at the ache in my chest every few minutes.

She listened when I told her I didn’t think I would ever feel like me again, that nothing felt normal – even daylight – it all looked wrong. ‘When you overcome this’, she calmly told me, ‘you are going to be stronger than you’ve ever been’.

That was the first time in months I felt hope for myself because I knew she believed what she said. This was to be my growth year – and I was determined to work on taking care of my mental health.

Had I made my standard resolutions for 2020, then I would be blaming myself for being too fragile to focus on reading a simple sentence, let alone master a new language.

My word reminded me that nothing grows without nourishment, and I realised that this is what I needed to do for myself. With support, I signed up for CBT and slowly, slowly healed.

After getting through a brutal 2020, my word for 2021 has been ‘courage’.

Suffering from an anxiety disorder means that I spend a disproportionate amount of time living in the absence of hope and feeling suspicious of happiness when it comes. And so, reminding myself to have courage has led me to overcome these moments of doubt, providing small wins that have helped me build strength and gain trust in myself. 

Having a word to focus on has given me with a sense of grounding throughout the year. Resolutions, on the other hand, can speak from a place of ‘do more of this because you are not enough’.

A 2021 study, commissioned by GoCompare, found that 23million Brits will be making resolutions for the coming year based around their mental and physical health. This could be sorting out their finances, saving the environment or spending less time on social media.

However, the survey also found that resolutions are kept for only seven weeks on average. These statistics demonstrate that generally speaking, resolutions aren’t all that effective because they don’t have a lasting impact, despite best intentions.

Instead, using the word ‘courage’ for this year has had a positive impact on my life in many ways.

For example, I was invited onto BBC Radio London following one of my articles being published. In the past, I would have turned it down for fear of having a panic attack – but reminding myself of my focus on ‘courage’, I accepted, despite being terrified. I have since been back on air. 

Right now, I am working on finding my word for 2022.

The options so far are ‘nurture’, ‘nourish’, ‘verve’ and ‘manifest’.

After years of setting resolutions to accomplish things that barely got started, I realised that setting a goal without creating the conditions in which to work on them is a waste of time.

I want to manifest space to finish writing my book, which will mean saying no to things.

Resolutions tend to focus on the ‘self’, yet I want to find a way to use my skills to help affect positive change within the causes I believe in.

If this is the time of year when your mind turns towards setting resolutions, why not spend some time reflecting on what you want from 2022 and join me in selecting a word for the year.

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