How a Broken Elbow Is Helping My Resolutions

Being guided by the deeper values-based journey

As I sit here writing this blog while gently nursing a hairline fracture in my elbow – a memento from a misadventure on a long hike in Death Valley – I’m compelled by life itself to reflect on the nature of New Year’s resolutions and the fabric of self-improvement. At 75, the injury has provided a sharp interruption to my year-long commitment to physical betterment, encapsulating rigorous exercise and conscientious changes in nutrition. My arm in a sling, with strict instructions not to engage in the most minimal weight training, I can feel my upper body strength slide away almost day by day.

It is time for me to practice what I’ve long preached. Tomorrow, my orthopedic physician will determine if my arm requires further rest, but today, I write to you about reconceptualizing New Year’s resolutions for a more self-managed lifestyle.

Traditionally, the turn of the year incites a chorus of SMART goals – those that are Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant, and Time-bound. Yet, my experience and scientific inquiry into self-management suggest that these SMART resolutions glide along the surface of an ocean of change; it is the deep current of personal values that fosters real transformation.

Several years ago, we juxtaposed the SMART methodology with values-focused writing among university students.1 We discovered that SMART goals alone added minimal improvements to academic outcomes, but their integration with a values-based vision led to a significant improvement in students’ grade point averages in the semesters that followed. The message was clear: we need to embed our specific aspirations into a larger tapestry of our chosen life purposes. Meaning was at the core of real change.

Adversity, like the unexpected offering of a Christmas pie when you have just resolved to rein in your dietary excesses, often disrupts our neatly laid plans. In such moments, a resolution anchored solely in the topography of change is extremely vulnerable. A single violation can turn our minds into torment about how we will never get it right and we can never change. But when our goals are an expression of the intrinsic qualities we wish to embody in being and doing – they are resilient parts of a larger, values-based journey.

Before you set your New Year’s resolution, I encourage you to ponder the greater voyage you aspire to embark in this next year. What are the qualities of your being that you wish to cultivate? How does your behavior reflect your deepest values? As you gain clarity about the journey you choose, write these qualities down, commit to them, and let them be the compass for your actions.

As I anticipate my appointment with my physician, I am keen to return to the gym, not merely to regain strength but to continue exploring the possibilities that lie within an “old man” and his values. The journey, after all, is what truly matters.

As you step into 2024, don’t allow your resolutions to be a soon-discarded checklist of actions but let it be a reflection of the profound journey you are on. For it is in the journey that we find growth, resilience, and the true joy of living.

Chase, J. A., Houmanfar, R., Hayes, S. C., Ward, T. A., Vilardaga, J. P., & Follette, V. M. (2013). Values are not just goals: Online ACT-based values training adds to goal-setting in improving undergraduate college student performance. Journal of Contextual Behavioral Science, 2, 79–84 2013.08.002

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