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How to rethink your New Year’s resolutions for 2021

As the new year arrives, full of promise and possibilities, it asks the perennial question: what resolutions are you making? Looking to the origins of the word resolution, writer and poet MAGGIE SMITH is resolving not to try to be or do more this year, but instead to lighten and release the load she carries into 2021 – from physical clutter to unhelpful ideologies

Like practically everyone else on earth, I have been ready for 2020 to end since the second week of March. This year has tested my endurance, perseverance and patience more than any other year I’ve lived. It’s been a year of both constant change and profound stasis. Like running on a treadmill – time was passing, but the scenery did not change. This was a year at home: living here, working here, helping my kids attend school on Zoom here. Even my book tour happened in my home office; one night I was in virtual New York, and the next I was in virtual Chicago.

I like staying in, generally speaking, but I am so ready to be out in the world again. I’m ready for the new year and all the possibilities it will bring. I’m looking toward the future with great hope, but I’m not making any of the typical New Year’s resolutions. Actually, I never do.

On one hand, resolutions are positive – it’s good to aspire, to set goals, to strive for better. On the other hand, I can’t help but picture myself standing at the bottom of a ladder, looking up at the rungs I need to climb: eat better, exercise more, work to meet X career goal, work to meet Y personal goal.

I’m not opposed to the idea of self-improvement; it’s a natural impulse, I think, to want more for ourselves. But I don’t like the idea of starting off the year at a deficit. As if, on day one of the new year, we’re already behind. I don’t like the idea of beginning with a spirit of “I need to level up.”

This is where language can save us, though, and give us another option. (I’m a poet, first and foremost, and a self-proclaimed “word nerd,” so of course I was curious about the origin of resolution.) We can trace the word back to the Latin resolvere, meaning “loosen” or “release”. Now this is a metaphor, an image, that I can embrace. It suggests I am enough on day one of the new year. I don’t need to do or be more; perhaps I actually need less.

So, I’m taking some time now to reflect on what’s weighed me down this year. I’m asking myself: what can I set down in 2020 instead of carrying it into 2021? What can I loosen or release?

Task number one: I have some literal decluttering to do. I’m still living in the house my ex-husband and I bought together, the house our kids have always called home and drawn in pictures: periwinkle crayon for the siding, brown for the front door, and black pluses in the windows to show the panes of glass. Remaining in this house is enough of a reminder of my old life – the ‘before times’ – in itself; I don’t need to see any of the old, left-behind possessions in my basement. I don’t need to sleep in the same bed we once shared, or sit on the same couch, or drink my coffee from the same mugs.

I’ve begun to replace things we owned together, and in the spirit of loosening and releasing, I’ll continue doing this in 2021. Letting go of the stuff from my married life makes room – literal room – for the life I’m making for myself now. Does my new yellow sectional bring me pleasure? My new just-my-firmness mattress? My colorful Robert Rauschenberg coffee mugs? Yes, yes, yes.

Like physical clutter, old ways of thinking can also take up space and get in our way. There are some thought patterns I want to pack up and get rid of in the new year, too. First on my list: any guilt I might feel for being ‘too ambitious’ (the audacity!) or dreaming big. How many women have unknowingly internalized patriarchal ideas about work and motherhood? (This is where I meekly raise my hand.) It’s important to me, in the new year, to actively push back against those ideas and try to create the life I want – a big, deep, wide, rich life – without apology. I can be a loving, devoted, attentive mother and I can write, publish, travel and teach. It’s not either/or – it’s and.

There’s instant gratification in cleaning out a basement or buying new furniture, but changing your thinking takes time. Even feeling the newness takes time; the first day of any year feels exactly like the last day of the previous one.

What I want for myself in the new year is to be lighter, less encumbered. To loosen my grip on the past and release what no longer serves me. It will take time, but we have to start somewhere. I’m starting here.

Maggie Smith is the author of four books – most recently, Keep Moving: Notes on Loss, Creativity and Change; and Good Bones

Maggie Smith is not associated with NET-A-PORTER and does not endorse it or the products shown