How to Achieve Your New Year’s Resolutions by “Going Upstream”

life skills

It’s January 6, 2022!

If you like making New Year’s resolutions, I’d like to suggest the following:

Go upstream.

So many of us make the kind of resolutions that are bound to fall apart (data shows that this happens by mid January, for most) because we’re too far downstream from the actual root cause of the problem we want to resolve.

I know because I was that person for longer than I care to admit.

My natural tendency has always been to be an “opener.” I love new beginnings and am one of those annoying people who jumps out of bed at 5:00am like a Labrador puppy. I’m not terrible at “closing,” either.

But it was my inability to stay with “the middle” part of things that held me back for so long from achieving higher levels of success, creativity, and prosperity.

More on how to become good at the middle part in another blog. But as you can imagine, being a natural lover of beginnings, New Year's resolutions were my Christmas, Hanukkah, and Kwanzaa rolled into one!

January 1 was the time to feel good and set goals. It was the time to feel the hopeful energy that is inherent in fresh decisions and new commitments.

Those of us who have crossed over to the second half of our lives (yes, that’s you if you’re over 40!) know a sad secret. Patterns repeat themselves for as long as we live unless we do something differently. The passing of time not only doesn’t change a historical pattern, it strengthens its imprint on our days and, ultimately, on our lives.

A few decades of bullish January's turning into bearish February’s brought the pattern home to me loud and clear.

Either there was a problem with setting New Year's resolutions or there was a problem with me.

Once my coach helped me get past the common default most of us possess, which is to assume we are the problem, he and I were able to look at my process and question the New Year’s Resolutions System I had created over the years. The very same system that was continuously not producing the results I wanted.

My system was addressing downstream issues. For example, every year I would resolve to invest in my emotional and psychological well being by making time for morning meditation. Similarly, I would resolve to help my body get stronger from the inside out through stretching, weight training, and deliberate recovery. On a deeper level, I would resolve to be a more calm and patient person.

These resolutions felt reasonable and achievable. So why did I find myself missing the mark on all of them year after year?

It was at this time that my coach shared a parable with me that led to my aha moment that changed everything.

It’s not a new story and so many of us have heard some version of it already. But I’m hoping that reading it today will be the occasion when it truly drops in and prompts you to have the insight that will make the year ahead your most creative, prosperous, and healthy one yet!

My coach asked me to imagine that a friend and I are enjoying a picnic when suddenly I hear a scream. A child is drowning. The two of us dive into the river and save the child. No sooner do we swim ashore than the sounds of another drowning child summon us both back. After rescuing that child, we hear the screams of another child and another, all being swept downstream by the river. I am surprised to see my friend leave.

“Where are you going?” I ask. He answers, “I’m going upstream to tackle the guy who’s throwing all these kids in the water.”

In that moment, it dawned on me that I’ve been spending my days and years endlessly and exhaustingly pulling kids out of the water!

No wonder I didn’t have the energy to devote to the “middle part” and bring my goals and resolutions to fruition.

It’s easy to feel useful when we have devoted ourselves to saving drowning children.  

My client, Rana (all names changed), does this all day long by volunteering to be the first responder to everyone else’s challenges and difficulties. She doesn’t even wait for a request, but rather jumps right in and takes on the role of savior and hero, but then wonders why her own life is not moving forward in a meaningful way.

My client David’s greatest goal on an annual basis is to create more intimacy and connection in his relationship with his wife. So year after year he focused on her. This, of course, allowed him to distract and busy himself with doing rather than undertaking the far more difficult, deep, and internal work of becoming the person who invites intimacy and connection simply because of who he is.

Going upstream takes time, patience, and commitment. We’ve been socially habituated to expect rapid results through hacks and shortcuts. It’s easier to throw money at a problem or endlessly consume information about the five ways to reach a goal.

Experts, coaches, articles, and books can be very effective. But only if we are willing to take the time, do the work, and most importantly, summon the courage to go upstream.

For me that journey was all about confronting my long-held beliefs about what constituted my worthiness. Untangling the connection I had made between living a busy life at warp speed and being worthy was the upstream work that needed to be done in order to make my goals and resolutions possible.

I was moving so fast through my hours, days, and, ultimately, my life that no goal had a chance to take root — much less grow and thrive. My commitment to slowing down was the beginning of cultivating the meta-practice that allowed me to not only set new resolutions with confidence, but also transform my entire life for the better.

I hope you make this the year you go upstream and set yourself up for a lifetime of success.

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