The Power of a Personal Vision and Why New Year’s Resolutions Don’t Work
It’s that time of year when the airwaves and the ether are filled with good intentions for behavior in the season and in the new year. As the holidays loom, we strive to be our best and make plans for positive change. We promise ourselves more exercise, greater patience with loved ones, fewer cookies, more vegetables…The New Year’s Resolution is our opportunity to make amends.
But the New Year’s Resolution – all this striving – is fraught with ‘ought.’ I ought to eat less; I ought to take better care of my body; essentially, “I ought to be a better person.” We are supposed to become better and to follow through with that supposition. But the judgement and sense of obligation connected to the New Year’s Resolution set us up for failure by creating stress and activating the sympathetic nervous system, the body’s natural fight-or-flight response to threat, be it actual or imagined. Thus, our well-intentioned list of resolutions becomes something human evolution has programmed us to avoid like a saber-toothed tiger.
Like the New Year’s Resolution, goals are also fraught with ought. As Richard Boyatzis explains in his new book Helping People Change, “Goals ask people to declare something to which they aspire and are supposed to achieve. For many people…this creates obligation. The obligation creates and begins to add to [a] negative process in the brain…[see saber-toothed tiger above] The goal then may become something to avoid rather than pursue…When we set a goal, we begin to think of how to work toward it. This invokes the analytical brain…parts of this network invoke our stress response and often impair us cognitively, emotionally, and physically. By focusing on the goal, we tend to see what is directly in front of us and lose sight of other possibilities on the horizon.”
Sound familiar? Have you ever wanted to run away from a goal? You’re not alone.
This is why we focus instead on the Personal Vision. The personal vision is not a goal or a strategy. “Put simply, a personal vision is an expression of an individual’s ideal self and ideal future. It encompasses dreams, values, passions, purpose, sense of calling, and core identity. It represents not just what a person desires to do, but also who she wishes to be.”
Our evidence-based focus on the personal vision inspires positivity and accelerates growth. Discussion and regular re-visitation of the personal vision inspires deeper, more open thinking. Working from the foundation of the personal vision takes the real and self-created barriers of the here-and-now out of the equation. Imaging your ideal self and ideal life several years down the road is scientifically proven to be more inspiring than something like imagining your way through a dry January or strategizing how you’ll get through the holidays without eating gluten.
Instead of impairing us as the stress response does, ‘visioning’ or future-oriented thought activates parts of the brain involved with reasoning and creativity. New studies suggest that “envisioning the future may be a critical prerequisite for many higher-level planning processes.”
Goals (i.e. the here-and-now) are certainly helpful and a very important part of the work we do with students, but they are just the steppingstones to greater fulfillment. Goals, especially learning oriented goals “characterized by a desire to acquire deep knowledge and skill mastery to apply to a variety of current and potential scenarios,” suggest daily steps on the pathway to one’s personal vision. (Read more about our approach here.) They are not the vision themselves; just as the purpose of attending college is not simply to graduate, but to gain the skills and experiences that will inform and direct the rest of one’s life.
 Boyatzis, Richard; Smith, Melvin; Van Oosten, Ellen. Helping People Change: Coaching with Compassion for Lifelong Learning and Growth. Boston, Harvard Business Review Press, 2019. Pg 115
 Boyatzis, op cit.