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Have your New Year’s resolutions already failed? This year, try taking things week by week

Several years ago, after some major losses and personal setbacks, I gave up entirely on making New Year’s resolutions.

I had spent most of my 20s setting ambitious goals each January. I was also, inadvertently, setting myself up for failure: By the time each December rolled around, I would take stock of my plans for the past 12 months and discover that most had fallen short. Regardless, at the dawn of the following year, I’d muster up fresh optimism and do it all again.

That is, until I experienced some significant hardships. By my early 30s, I was grieving the loss of my father and my husband, who died within a few years of each other. I was adjusting to life as a young widow and learning what it meant to start all over. I was older, wiser and more attuned to a difficult truth: that there are few things in life we can control.

So, I stopped making resolutions. Considering that most New Year’s resolutions fail by mid-March, this felt like a clever thing to do. If my goals were likely to fail, and if life could be so cruel, why even bother?

To my surprise, I soon missed the benefits of setting goals. The start of a new year is a prime opportunity for self-improvement — for letting go of the past and embracing new, healthier habits. It makes sense, then, that as the fog of my grief began to clear, I felt the familiar pull to set resolutions and start anew.

But having only one shot at doing this each year — and knowing that most resolutions inevitably fail — felt unfair. I was tired of setting myself up for disappointment year after year.

That’s why, for the past few years, I’ve approached resolutions differently. I’ve found a way to set goals that are realistic, compassionate and flexible. And I’m on a quest to share this approach with as many folks as possible.

So, here’s my pitch: Instead of setting a series of resolutions for the year, or even a monthlong goal (I’m looking at you, #DryJanuary), try taking things week by week.

Writer Katie Hawkins-Gaar keeps a shared document with a friend in which they set an intention for the week ahead and reflect on the previous seven days. - Katie Hawkins-Gaar/My Sweet Dumb Brain
Writer Katie Hawkins-Gaar keeps a shared document with a friend in which they set an intention for the week ahead and reflect on the previous seven days. - Katie Hawkins-Gaar/My Sweet Dumb Brain

Since January 2022, my friend Becca and I have kept a shared document in which we set an intention for the week ahead and reflect on the previous seven days. Instead of naming big, ambitious, long-term goals, we opt for smaller, more manageable intentions each week. And we love doing it! We’re now on our third go at setting weekly intentions throughout the year.

After giving this approach a test-drive in 2022, Becca and I decided to share it with a wider audience. I write a newsletter — My Sweet Dumb Brain, which is about navigating the ups and downs of life with compassion — that Becca edits. In 2023, we created a weekly intentions guide that paying newsletter subscribers could use throughout the year.

And in 2024, after getting overwhelmingly positive feedback from those readers, we’ve decided to share that guide with anyone who wants it at no charge.

Make a copy of this document to set your own weekly intentions.

Using the guide is easy: Each Sunday, we set a new goal for the week ahead and reflect on how the previous week went. We also have a prompt to reflect on one good moment from the past week, thanks to a suggestion from a reader. We’ve created different versions of the document so that you can set intentions solo or share them with a friend.

More often than not, the intentions we make each week are small. In 2023, I vowed to do things such as go for daily walks, get to bed early, and abstain from alcohol. If I made a promise to do these things every day, all year long, I’d undoubtedly fall short. But aiming for small habits one week at a time keeps those goals achievable.

Setting weekly intentions has also helped me complete dull but important tasks I may otherwise put off. In the past, I’ve vowed — and achieved — to buy a pill organizer, tackle a particularly daunting mountain of laundry and schedule my annual physical.

I’ll be the first to admit that these aren’t exciting tasks, but I can confidently say that setting weekly intentions has helped me to create a foundation for a healthy, grounded, gratitude-filled life. When I look back at the past two years, I remember the big moments such as vacations to new places and milestones in my daughter’s young life. Thanks to my intentions documents, I remember the little things, too: the hike that left me feeling creatively inspired, the delicious dinner my friend made, the smile on my kiddo’s face when I surprised her at the playground. These are the moments that make up a life well lived.

Aiming for small habits one week at a time with an intentions guide keeps those goals achievable, Hawkins-Gaar says. - Katie Hawkins-Gaar/My Sweet Dumb Brain
Aiming for small habits one week at a time with an intentions guide keeps those goals achievable, Hawkins-Gaar says. - Katie Hawkins-Gaar/My Sweet Dumb Brain

I’ll also admit that our intentions don’t always work out. Some weeks, either Becca or I fail to meet the goal we set. Other weeks, we forget to name an intention. But that’s the brilliance of setting weekly goals! Instead of waiting for next January, each week offers a fresh new start.

Research tells us that most New Year’s resolutions fail. But the approach of setting smaller, ever-changing subgoals is a science-backed way to ultimately reach your largest goals. A changing source of motivation — something that a fresh week and fresh goal offers — can keep you on track in ways that one big, intimidating, unmovable goal can’t.

Life is unpredictable. In the past few years, we have all lived through one crisis after another: a pandemic, extreme heat waves and drought, rapid inflation and raging wars — not to mention our own personal losses and changes. Sometimes, my intention for a particularly challenging week will be something akin to, “Survive the next few days, and do something kind for myself in the process.” Considering how harsh life can be, I believe that compassion — for ourselves and others — is always a worthy goal.

By now, it’s late January. Your New Year’s resolutions may have already fallen short, you may have experienced an unforeseen setback, or your motivation may have started to flag. That’s OK! The good news is that next week is just around the corner. There’s a new opportunity to begin again.

I know I have little control over what 2024 will hold. I also know that I will survive this year — and, gasp, maybe even thrive this year — by approaching it bit by bit. I want to make 2024 my best year yet, one week at a time. I hope you do, too.

Katie Hawkins-Gaar is a freelance writer and journalism consultant. She writes a weekly newsletter called “My Sweet Dumb Brain” and serves on the advisory board for the Rosalynn Carter Fellowships for Mental Health Journalism. 

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