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Listener Questions About New Year's Resolutions


We've asked you to tell us how you're approaching New Year's resolutions for a completely unpredictable year, and so now we have a couple experts to talk through your questions with us. Gretchen Rubin writes books about happiness and habits. Her latest is "Outer Order, Inner Calm," and she hosts the podcast "Happier With Gretchen Rubin." Good to have you here.

GRETCHEN RUBIN: I'm so happy to be talking to you.

SHAPIRO: And R. Eric Thomas dispenses opinions, wisdom and wit as a senior staff writer at And he is the author of the memoir "Here For It." He's also one of my favorite people to follow on Twitter. So good to have you here.

R ERIC THOMAS: Oh, it's so good to talk to you. Thanks for having me.

SHAPIRO: Before we dig in, can you just give us, like, your guiding philosophy on New Year's resolutions in general?

RUBIN: Well, I would say, first of all, only make them if it's fun for you because I think a lot of people feel like they should make New Year's resolutions, even though they've tried and failed in the past or the whole idea turns them off. And I think beyond that, it's good to make them very concrete and manageable, not ideas like enjoy the moment, but, you know, something where you really know whether you did or didn't do it in a particular day.

SHAPIRO: Nice. Eric, what's your approach to them?

THOMAS: I have the complete opposite approach.


RUBIN: Perfect.

THOMAS: So we're going to be in a feud. Yeah. I've liked - you know, I never know what's going to wait for me in the future. What I do in the future is sort of none of my business. It is - I find it rude of myself to, like, think that I could have any control over it. So I, like, I always make resolutions like I'm going to go to Mars, and if I make it, then I've really done something incredible. And if I don't make it, I can say, well, the past me was a moron, and he didn't know what he was talking about. But I do think it's nice to, like, take big swings.

SHAPIRO: Take a big swing. I think there's something to be said for both of those philosophies. Let's hear from some listeners, starting with Dylan Mandalink (ph) in Seattle, Wash. She'd planned to start a graduate program this year - that's on hold. And she had set a goal to better manage her anxiety.

DYLAN MANDALINK: When I did originally make that goal for the new year of 2020, it wasn't as much of a struggle as it is now, but it was something that I definitely wanted to improve in my life.

SHAPIRO: Totally understandable that it is more of a struggle now than she expected. And this is still a priority for her going forward, but she realizes she needs clearer benchmarks. And as she looks to 2021, she's wondering how to even start.

MANDALINK: You know, I've just been thinking about, is it even worth making a resolution when things seem so uncertain still?

SHAPIRO: Gretchen, what do you think?

RUBIN: Well, she has the impulse to make resolutions. So unlike Eric, she wants to make a resolution.


RUBIN: And the thing is she can't control the virus. She can't control the future. But there are certain things in her life that she could have more control over. And often action is the antidote to anxiety. And so doing something like I'm going to set a bed time or I'm going to make time to read every day or I'm going to go for a 20-minute walk every day, whatever she thinks would help her stay calm and feel energetic might make her feel like she is exerting a little bit of control in her life in a time when she feels, you know, overwhelmed by uncertainty.

SHAPIRO: OK, so set manageable goals. Eric, what do you think?

THOMAS: Every resolution is made in the face of uncertainty. It's really prominent right now because there are a lot of things that we just don't know. But, you know, like, for instance, I think about what I'm going to do this year, where I'm going to go, if I'm able to go anywhere. And I don't have any control over when I'll be able to move freely about the country. But I do have control over my imagination. And I can say, if these benchmarks get hit by external forces, then I will do X, Y and Z.

And so I think for her, it might also be useful to say every day is a blank canvas that is being painted on by many more forces than just me, but these are the little marks that I'm going to try to make. And if I don't get to make them because of things beyond my control, I've still at least made some progress for myself.

SHAPIRO: Nice, like find satisfaction in the dreaming.

THOMAS: Right. Right.

SHAPIRO: Our next question comes from Tony Cummings (ph) in Austin, Texas, who had a 2020 goal to travel and meet more people, which obviously did not happen.


SHAPIRO: So his goal for 2021 feels a little more attainable. He wants to write more as a daily practice. And his question is about accountability.

TONY CUMMINGS: I feel like it's hard to keep yourself accountable, like, without having unrealistic expectations for yourself sometimes, you know, drawing the line between like, OK, the situation has changed, now I need to reevaluate versus like, you know, I really need to stay the course and just try harder, like, that kind of thing, right?

SHAPIRO: You're both writers, so I imagine you can probably relate to this on a very specific level. Eric, how do you wrestle with this in your own writing life?

THOMAS: I separate sometimes the imperative, like I need to get X amount of words on the page to hit this deadline. I separate that from the drive, which is that I want to write, and I love to write. A couple of years ago, I started writing a newsletter, and I sent it out every Sunday. That was a small source of joy that also turned into an accountability tool. Whether I was not feeling it, whether I was sitting on a Provincetown ferry, just waiting to go on vacation, I needed to get that newsletter out.

SHAPIRO: And you don't find that the discipline sucks the joy out of it when you're ready to go on vacation and you have to write the newsletter and there's other things you'd rather be doing?

THOMAS: Sometimes it's a slog, I have to say. But because it's something that I - I remind myself, I do it for me first. So it's not like, oh, I've got this essay due or whatever, it's, oh, I get to write and I love to do that. And so figuring out a way to always locate the task in the joy is really, really useful.

SHAPIRO: All right. Next, let's hear from Sarah Malcolm (ph), who is a high school theater and English teacher in Lyon County, Kan. And she had some fitness goals that were going well through the summer, but then fall semester came and her fitness plan kind of fell by the wayside. So when it comes to goals for 2021, Sarah says she wants to find more balance in her life.

SARAH MALCOLM: You hear a lot about, oh, superhero teachers. I don't want to be a superhero teacher. I want to be a really good teacher who's also a good wife and mom and all those other things, too.

SHAPIRO: I love that. So her question is, how do we make New Year's resolutions that bring more balance into our lives rather than just giving us more to do?

RUBIN: Well, I think maybe what Sarah needs is resolutions that let her goof off or take time. If she's trying to get balance and she's working so hard, she might need to take time for fun. You might have to schedule that like a dentist appointment and really carve out time for it because otherwise you just are always filling your time with things from your to-do list.

SHAPIRO: All right. So let's end with how you're each approaching resolutions for this new year. Eric, what's yours?

THOMAS: Mine is to be as present in the world as I can, both in my actions and in my, you know, donations. And then when I'm able to, to see people in person and to go to places that I wanted to go to really embrace the fact that I'm alive and that I'm grateful for being alive.

SHAPIRO: And Gretchen?

RUBIN: Well, mine is related to Eric's. My one-word theme for the year - because I always pick a one-word theme - my one-word theme for 2021 is open. I want to be open to the world, to different people's perspectives. I'm working on a book, so I want to be open to people's criticisms and comments. I want to stay open. And I've also resolved to read 2021 - I love to read. It's my cubicle and my my sandbox. And I'm going to do an extra 21 minutes of reading every day in 2021 for fun.

SHAPIRO: Gretchen Rubin, author of Outer "Order, Inner Calm," and R. Eric Thomas, author of "Here For It," thank you so much for your insights. And happy New Year to you both.

RUBIN: Happy New Year to you.

THOMAS: Thank you. Happy New Year. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.