How Chronic Illness Has Changed How I Set My New Year’s Resolutions

New Year’s resolutions used to be my jam. I’m a planner, a dreamer, and a self-improvement enthusiast. January first was the day I could crack open a crisp new notebook, take stock of my life, and sketch out a rough draft for the next 12 months.

Since developing chronic fatigue syndrome (CFS) and several other chronic conditions five years ago, however, my relationship to New Year’s Day has changed.

My chronic illness makes my life wildly unpredictable, and therefore doesn’t play well with most New Year’s resolutions. Those old words of encouragement, “You can do anything you put your mind to,” can feel like a betrayal when I’ve tried my hardest, and it only makes my symptoms worse and sets me back.

The consequences of pushing myself too hard can be many times greater than they would be for a person living without chronic illness. Using will power and simply “fighting through it” are often counterproductive.

Despite these frustrating roadblocks, I’ve spent the past few New Years exploring a “middle way” for my resolutions and for any life-changing plans that I make.

Has it been helpful? Yes! Have I turned my life around and cure my chronic illness? No, and that’s OK. I’ve ditched the all-or-nothing attitude so common in resolutions and adopted a more compassionate — and effective — approach. I’ve developed a few habits that give me a small sense of control, accomplishment, and satisfaction in my life: a simple morning routine of making tea, some gentle stretches and exercises, and a daily list making session for my to dos.

So, how do I approach that yearly urge to reinvent myself, now that I’ve come to accept a life with chronic illness?

Here are a few techniques that have helped me make my spoonie friendly New Year’s resolutions, and keep them:

1. I make it easy. Like many people with chronic conditions, I’m already struggling on a regular basis. Why add another big struggle? Instead, I start with something small, specific, and meaningful. Instead of “find paid work,” I might resolve to “spend 10 minutes each morning on career development” and set a specific task for each day. When I notice myself accomplishing something, no matter how tiny, it lifts my mood and makes me feel more confident in my ability to make changes. If I’m making a change that I know I’ll have some aversion to, I pair it with something I enjoy.

2. I give myself some “get out of jail free” cards. If I’m making a resolution that involves doing something every day, I give myself an allotment of days off to allow for contingencies — and there are always contingencies. I keep track of my “pass” days and I’m generous with them, giving myself more than I think I’ll need. Reassessing my progress each week or month helps me make adjustments if needed.

3. I set up a system. I used to simply tell a friend about my New Year’s resolutions, or I wrote them down in a notebook. Guess what? I never stuck to them for very long. Nowadays, my fatigue, brain fog, and other health-related distractions make sticking to a plan even trickier. To combat this, I set up an external system to keep me on track when my brain fails me. Sometimes I set alarms on my phone or write reminders in dry erase markers on my bathroom mirror. Family members and friends also help me in my resolve. I know several other spoonies who use habit apps or are part of an online habit-making group.

I still get feel overwhelmed at times, and I still experience setbacks — they seem to be a natural part of having a chronic illness. When this happens, I try not to focus on what I haven’t been able to do, but instead remember to simply do what I can.

“Start where you are. Use what you have. Do what you can.” – Arthur Ashe

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