Dealing with Uncertainty in 2021

January 3rd, 2021

I’m going to challenge the widely held belief that New Year’s is a time for resolutions, by imposing that it is merely a time for new beginnings.

Why New Year’s resolutions often fail

Cambridge Dictionary defines a New Year’s resolution as:

(New Year’s resolution): “a promise that you make to yourself to start doing something good or stop doing something bad on the first day of the year

In other words, a New Year’s resolution indicates that there is an area in our lives that can and should be improved upon by taking either a positive (i.e., doing something good) or negative (i.e., stopping doing something bad) approach.

More narrowly, Google defines a resolution as:

(Resolution): 1. “a firm decision to do or not to do something.” or 2. “the quality of being determined or resolute.”

In other words, resolutions are defined as being finite; bound by solutions and logical circumstances. In my opinion, this is why (all too often) resolutions fizzle out after the first few weeks of the new year. We approach New Year’s with an outcome-oriented mindset; whereby, under ideal conditions — our valiant efforts towards our resolutions will yield success, progress, and improvement. When in reality, life does not operate under such pre-determined “ideal conditions”.

Drop the resolutions and just go with it

Life can be messy and largely unpredictable. For this reason, I am not a big supporter of New Year’s resolutions. Don’t get me wrong, I strongly believe that the organization, accountability, and motivation that associates with making resolutions, is valuable. However, I think that a better approach can be taken that still integrates these soft skills.

Some of the resolution-replacement activities that I like to use to start a New Year include:

  1. Setting goals that are SMART (specific, measurable, actionable, realistic, and timely) but that also account for variability and adaptation when life happens.
  2. Finding a mantra or quote to live by and putting it in a visible place where it will be reinforced on a frequent schedule (i.e., daily, weekly, or monthly).
  3. Identifying the things that you value the most and making decisions that support and align with these values (e.g., mine are curiosity and gratitude).

By engaging in activities such as these, the process becomes more actionable; from “determined” or “resolute” decisions that will temporarily be undertaken, to inflicting “determination” by means of drawing out a rough sketch and allowing life to colour in the picture.

How I learned this lesson the hard way

I think that the concept of planning has been taken to the extreme by the media in recent years, leading to unsuccessful New Year’s resolutions that do not account for life’s uncertainties.

To provide some background as to why I feel this way, I’ll take you back to where I began the New Year in 2020. I was on a vacation with my family in California, maintaining a very structured running schedule — preparing for what was supposed to be an Olympic year. Having achieved a medal at the World University Games in the 1500m track event the year prior, as well as, demonstrating a positive linear progression in performance, I felt that I had a real shot at qualifying for the Canadian Olympic team.

What I didn’t factor in was life.

What was supposed to be a fun family vacation turned stressful fairly quickly. With the strenuous workouts that I had planned in the mornings followed by a full day of family activities in San Diego; I spread myself too thin. My outcome-oriented goals to run specific times in workouts that would indicate preparedness to qualify for the Olympic team (which was set for over 6 months into the future) hindered what was supposed to be a relaxed start to (what I thought would be) a busy year.

Shortly after I got back from vacation, I developed a stress fracture in my left foot. It turned out that I got in my own way of having a successful year in running. The intense motivation that I had to make the Olympic team led me to push too hard too soon, without proper recovery. I had “2020 vision”: a narrow and pre-determined idea of how the year would play out, without considering the uncertainties that life would bring.

Challenge + change = growth

While 2020 certainly did not go as we all had planned, it made me realize something.

In running, when I’ve had a rough practice or race, I hold on to the phrase that you learn more from a loss than a win. I used this same phrase to navigate the challenges of 2020. I realized that I had grown more in the past 365 days than I had over the last couple of years, because of the hardships that the year had brought. It took a bit of courage — but reflecting on it now — it was only by having things go astray that I was able to open myself up to the necessary changes that I made physically and mentally.

How I’m approaching 2021

The headspace that I’m in at the beginning of the 2021 is much different than the year past. The Olympics are set to go forward (once again), but my approach has changed. I’m going against the grain and dedicating myself to the process, like I have been in training over the past few months.

I’m building gradually, on my own terms and in response to the unpredictable nature of life. I’m stepping out of my own way and just going with it. Because I’ve realized that none of us can predict how 2021 will play out and there is no use setting pre-determined expectations as to what will come our way.

It’s only by embracing the uncertainty of the beginning, that anything is possible.

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