“Settle last year’s debt.” “Return borrowed farm equipment.” “Produce a more bountiful harvest.” If those resolutions sound recognizable, if somewhat dated, that’s because they were first made by the Babylonians.

New Year’s resolutions are actually an ancient tradition, originating some 4,000 years ago, when the Babylonians used them to earn the gods’ favour in time for harvest season, says Evan Thompson, founder and business coach at Evan Thompson and Associates in Toronto.

But unlike the Babylonians’ pact with their deities, modern-day resolutions are inwardly focused. They’re typically directed toward self-improvement — losing weight, spending less or acquiring new skills.

“The Babylonians had the right idea,” Thompson says. “They weren’t concerned about their fitness or their emotional state. They made resolutions to placate the gods. [Resolutions] were built around practical things.”

Thompson is skeptical of the effectiveness of modern New Year’s resolutions because many people set unsustainable, impractical goals. We may initially go to great lengths to upend our lives in an attempt to meet those objectives.

Below are some tips to help you set more achievable resolutions:

> Take gradual steps
Setting resolutions is not about overhauling your entire life to fit an elusive ideal version of yourself, Thompson says. Resolutions should be “about living life to reach your goals, year-round.”

Instead of setting strict targets as your personal objectives, take small, practical steps toward achieving them.

For example, if this is the year you’ve resolved to get serious about learning a new skill, Thompson says, don’t pour large sums of money into the project to prove how committed you are. People who take this approach may think they’ve already done a significant amount of work by investing the money. Then, they often feel pressured to master that skill and become frustrated when they can’t.

Instead, consider taking a few lessons first to see if the activity actually interests you and if you will be able to make the time commitment.

> Reframe your thinking
When making resolutions, we tend to approach the exercise from a negative perspective, focusing on flaws and inadequacies. That approach can produce stress as you attempt to cure bad habits within a short time frame.

Many people wind up abandoning their goals entirely because it’s too difficult to sustain that commitment or, worse, they regress, Thompson says.

For example, someone who wants to lose weight might work in overdrive to cut 20 or 30 pounds by locking themselves into a gym membership or adopting an extreme weight-loss diet. But if you commit to integrating healthier habits throughout the year, Thompson says, you’ll notice a lasting difference over time.

“You’ll remove the need to make resolutions,” Thompson adds, “because you’ll live your life with a rhythm and pattern that is consistent over a 12-month period.”

> Focus on others
Instead of structuring your goals solely on transforming yourself into a better person, you might reflect on the small acts you can take to contribute to your community. You could resolve to be more generous with your time or spend less money on yourself.

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