What disabled people know about making better New Year’s resolutions

Instead of constantly pushing themselves, some disabled people embrace a more relaxed approach to goal-setting

A blue figure hugs itself gently and looks up at a small, yellow butterfly floating above. In the background, a soft sun glows.
(Hayley Wall for The Washington Post)
6 min

Living with a disability can teach you to approach New Year’s resolutions with a healthier and gentler mindset.

Just ask Claire Richmond, 38, who has a rare liver condition that can cause severe fatigue, migraines, pain and vomiting. In her younger days, Richmond made ambitious resolutions — a low-carb diet to lose weight and a plan to run a marathon — that landed her in the hospital.

“I was getting sick because I was pushing myself and pushing myself,” said Richmond, who lives in Des Moines. “It wasn’t kind to my body. It wasn’t complimentary to my well-being at all.”

Eventually, Richmond came to a realization: improving herself didn’t need to involve punishing herself. She’s one of many disabled people who say their experience of coming to terms with their disability fundamentally shifted the way they approached goal-setting.

The Post spoke with several disabled people about their approach to New Year’s resolutions, and how their disability gave them new insights into setting more realistic and successful goals. Here’s what they had to say.


Focus on how you want to feel

Richmond said that she now approaches New Year’s resolutions by thinking about how she wants to feel in the new year, rather than specific things she wants to do. That might mean wanting to laugh more often, or wanting to feel more connected to her family. From there, she focuses on the actions she can take to create those feelings — such as watching a funny movie, or staying home with her family more often.


Don’t set goals that drain you

Dawn Gibson, 46, founder of Spoonie Chat, an informal community group for people with chronic conditions, said she used to ignore the chronic pain and fatigue she felt from her spinal arthritis, partly because it seems normal in society to feel tired, even for those who don’t have a chronic condition.

But, as she learned to manage her disability, she shifted her thinking: instead of viewing time and energy as something to be depleted or spent, she started thinking about it as something to be cherished.

“We don’t have to be worn out all the time,” she said.

She suggests making New Year's Resolutions that feel empowering or replenishing.


Avoid resolutions with number goals

Emily Ladau, an author and disability rights activist, uses the acronym FUN — which stands for flexible, uplifting and numberless — to guide her resolutions.

She chose “numberless” because many resolutions focus on measured goals like losing 20 pounds or exercising five days a week. Ladau has a syndrome that affects her bone growth and used to make similar resolutions like “go to the gym every day,” but realized that having overly rigid goals was setting her up for failure.

“I can’t predict what my body is going to feel like on any given day,” she said. “I thought I could just force it to perform, to somehow outsmart my body and take total control. But it’s not about controlling my body, it’s about listening to my body.”

Now she makes resolutions like “move in a way that feels good,” and doesn’t tie her sense of self worth or personal growth to any sort of measurement.


Recognize your limits

Your goals should reflect what you are physically capable of doing, said Sam Bosworth, 31, who lives in Northern England.

Bosworth has a progressive disability that makes it hard for him to walk or use his hands, yet he once made a New Year’s resolution to “get ripped” — even though going to the gym would cause him to feel exhausted and in pain for a week.

Eventually his pain and fatigue worsened, and he had to drop out of college, which he said was an eye-opening moment.

“Eventually it got to the point where my body was like, you cannot keep doing this,” he said. “Recognizing your limits can actually be really healthy and liberating.”

If you want to set an activity-based goal, Bosworth recommends taking some time to reflect on what your daily or weekly schedule already looks like. Be honest with yourself about whether you truly have the time and energy to devote yourself to the goal, while still giving your body time to rest or relax.


Make a resolution to do less

It can be easy to think that New Year’s resolutions are valid if they only involve productivity, said Travis Chi Wing Lau, an assistant professor of English at Kenyon College who has chronic pain related to scoliosis.

For a long time, Lau measured his success by his work. In college, he worked multiple jobs on top of his classes and frequently pulled all nighters because he felt pressure to keep pace with everyone around him. But, trying to “tough it out” exacerbated his scoliosis-related chronic pain and put his health at risk.

That’s when he began to realize that making a resolution to do less can be just as valid as making a resolution to do more. Lau noted that the etymology of the word “resolution” comes from the Latin root “resolvere,” meaning to loosen or to release.

Rather than having fixed expectations for how he wants the year to go, Lau embraces the fact that things won’t always go as planned.

“It’s not about doubling down, it’s about letting go,” he said. “What would it mean to take the spirit of that Latin word into your New Year's resolutions?”


View failure as an opportunity to reset

While it can be helpful to establish a routine to help reach your goals, it’s important to recognize that you will probably get off track, said Renée Yoxon, 35, of Montreal, who has chronic pain.

Yoxon is a coach who teaches voice alteration techniques to trans and nonbinary people, which can take years to master. When a client struggles, Yoxon simply encourages them to reset when they are ready. “If you know it’s part of the practice, it’s not failure; it’s expected,” Yoxon said.


Know that you can always quit

Your resolution is not set in stone, said Ingrid Tischer, a coach at FireSeed Facilitation who works with disabled people, caregivers, and others.

Tischer, who has muscular dystrophy and uses a wheelchair, said that a resolution is a personal goal, which means you should be doing it for yourself and your own happiness. For that same reason, it’s also perfectly okay to quit your resolution, she said.

“If you’re doing yoga and you discover that there’s something about the process that’s not sparking joy anymore, then quit,” she said. “Why not? Why shouldn’t you?”

Sign up for the Well+Being newsletter, your source of expert advice and simple tips to help you live well every day

Read more from Well+Being

Well+Being shares news and advice for living well every day. Sign up for our newsletter to get tips directly in your inbox.

Eating like a centenarian can help you live a longer life.

Waking up frequently at night can harm your health. Here are three ways to improve sleep.

The frequency and color of poop can vary. Most of the time, they shouldn’t cause alarm.

You should avoid kava and 9 other risky dietary supplements.

Try these 6 ways to slow memory decline and lower dementia risk