Once upon a time, I used to make New Year’s Resolutions. With January 1st looming, I would take stock of my life and the changes that I wanted to make. By the time the spring rolled around, however, most of these Resolutions would have been cast aside, completely forgotten or deliberately disregarded.

A few years ago, I realized that while I loved the idea of embracing the promise of a new year, the idea of a Resolution simply wasn’t that compelling to me. Either I would pick something insignificant or something I wanted to fix about myself. While the former was easily forgotten, the idea of needing to fundamentally change myself was like a yoke around my neck. I would be weighed down by this idealized, new version of Sarah and always fell short.

It felt as though my Resolutions, while intended to be positive motivators, had roots in a negative self-image and thus only served to make me feel bad. We often speak of motivators as falling into either the carrot or the stick model. Like so many of us, I’m pretty hard on myself; the last thing I needed was to start a year deliberately selecting a stick to self-flagellate.

A little while ago, I discarded the concept of a New Year’s Resolution and replaced it with something more positive: an annual Challenge. While the Resolution model was about changing behaviors, a challenge was rooted in the idea that change in ourselves is possible by embracing something new. Whether a new goal or the desire to learn something, being uncomfortable and acquiring new skills will inevitably change us. Not by “fixing” ourselves, but by embracing our capacity to constantly grow and develop.

I’ve always felt like Resolutions are a bit harsh. Falling short of a goal with such a weighty title can feel like a personal failure. The judgement is embodied by the name: if you don’t achieve your Resolution by the year’s end, surely you weren’t resolute or determined enough. By contrast, a Challenge acknowledges that the pursuit will be hard. If you fall short, however, it’s not a personal shortcoming. Instead, it recognizes that anything worthy is challenging and hard, and that the reward comes from the pursuit.

Some years my challenges have been small and in some years they have been bigger. Regardless of the size, it’s always been a positive experience. Two years ago, I decided that my New Year Challenge would be to finish my first Ironman; undoubtably this was a life- changing experience, largely because I picked something that excited me, scared me, and forced me to learn new things about myself and my sport. Last year my challenge was a bit less ambitious: it was to learn how to make a credible Breton galette, a savory buckwheat crepe. Both were challenges that had been on my life bucket list. While the time commitment required to train and race an Ironman was quite a bit more than perfecting my galette, it was deeply satisfying to push myself, make mistakes, and learn.

So what are the challenges that I’ve set forth for myself in 2020? I have two this year: to learn some basics of photo and video editing and to write more. Like in my galette challenge, there’s no set end point for either. Without a finish line to cross, it can be harder to stay on task and to be motivated. As the year develops, I’ll probably have to set some goals to reaffirm my commitment. My sister, a renowned fiction writer, recommended that I start with dedicating 10 minutes every day to the practice of writing. Setting aside a similar amount of time for editing seems equally manageable and a real commitment to my goal.

Ultimately, I don’t think that the challenges we chose for ourselves have to be particularly life- changing or time-consuming. What they should do, however, is reaffirm that we are always capable to learning and growing every year, regardless of age or demands on our time. We don’t need to “fix” ourselves, but rather commit ourselves to something for which we have a genuine interest and that makes us a bit uncomfortable.

Whether large or small, I hope that 2020 holds a challenge that’s a very worthy and delicious carrot for you.

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