Making Plans in Uncertain Times: A Framework for Setting 2021 Resolutions

One of my favorite December traditions is sitting down in front of the twinkling Christmas tree with my journal and a cup of tea to reflect on the past 12 months and to prepare for the year ahead. While remembering the high- and low-lights of the year-coming-to-a-close fills me with perspective and gratitude (yes, even in 2020!), making plans for the upcoming year energizes and excites me.

But when I wrote “2021” across the top of a fresh sheet of paper a few weeks ago, I experienced a sinking feeling in my stomach. How on earth am I supposed to make resolutions and goals for a year that holds so much uncertainty, I wondered.

While I used to be a five-year-plan kind of person, COVID-19 has turned me into a five-day-planner. For the sake of my mental health, I’ve stopped thinking more than a few weeks ahead at a time…which sort of makes crafting year-long plans seem impossible.

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Or does it? As I pondered my blank 2021 journal page, I remembered an opinion piece that I read several years ago in which the author makes a distinction between what he calls “resume virtues” and “eulogy virtues.”

Resume virtues are the skills you bring to the marketplace, which can include everything from experiences to accomplishments to skills and hobbies. Eulogy virtues, on the other hand, are the aspects of a person that will be talked about at their funeral — such as their capacity for goodness, their honesty, the kindness they showed to others, and their generosity.

While there certainly is some overlap between resume and eulogy virtues, the former can generally be thought of as having to do with one’s outward achievements, whereas the latter have to do with one’s inner life and moral character.

With 2021 containing many unknowns, I feel deflated by the thought of making any sort of outward goals or resolutions, ones that rely on circumstances beyond my control. But that gives me all the more space and attention to devote to my inner life, so 2021, for me, will be a year of strengthening my eulogy virtues. To prepare for this year, I’m reflecting on two big questions.

First, I am asking myself how I want to be remembered. While there are many values and characteristics that I hope that my children, nieces, nephews, friends, and students will associate with my memory, I’m identifying the top few traits that matter most to me by brainstorming a long list of qualities or aspects of life that I value and then prayerfully reflecting on the list to see which ones stand out the most. Right now, I’m leaning towards focusing my year on kindness, presence, joyfulness and family.

Next, I’m asking what concrete things I can do to cultivate these values in my life. I’ve decided that I’m going to spend one quarter of the year on each focus area, and during the quarter, I will read at least one book about the topic (for instance, my mother-in-law recommended “Joyful,” and I’d like to re-read my favorite parenting book “Nurture the Wow”) and will make a habit tracker to monitor my progress on the growth of the value.

For example, for “family,” I will track daily habits like “spend 30 minutes of one-on-one time with each family member” and “have a family hug,” and I’ll track weekly habits including “reach out to one cousin, aunt or uncle” and “have a date night with my husband.”

It’s no secret that 2020 was an exceptionally challenging year, and the mental and emotional exhaustion that it caused left me tempted to scrap 2021 resolutions. But I know myself, and I know that goals energize me and help me focus my time and energy on the things that I value most. My plans for this next year make me excited to turn the calendar page, even if they look different than they usually do.

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