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A Permaculture Approach to Setting New Year’s Resolutions

Jan 16, 2023

There is something beautiful about the arbitrary calendar reset that comes with the New Year, and how many of us collectively turn our attention inward, and think about setting new intentions. But, as the New Year unfurls and we’re bombarded with unrelenting messages about self-improvement, can we do this in a way that also honors the seasonal rhythms, and isn’t coming from a place of “lack,” but instead comes from a wellspring of abundance? With the slow return of the sun and the call to be outside as the days lengthen, this time of year gives us an opportunity to reevaluate and invite renewal into our lives.

Graphic Credit: Aubrey Sabba (@aubsab)

I often have a negativity bias, and when I look back on the previous year, I think of all the ways next year needs to “improve.” But this New Year’s Eve, a friend asked me instead: “What did you love about 2022?” and it occurred to me that I honestly don’t know if I’ve ever asked that question! With that perspective, even the challenges and difficulties are reframed into opportunities to learn. This time of year, we are so inundated by the message that something is wrong and the key to fixing it is to buy something. New gym membership? Anti-aging creams? The newest vacuum? Whatever the need, instant gratification is rarely the solution. Rather than rushing to buy something, the skill of observation helps us cultivate awareness and slow down. Perhaps there is less missing from our lives than we think. Taking stock of our blessings through gratitude practice helps me remember that I’m not lacking, and allows me to approach my goals from a place of joy. Calling in rather than running from. A gratitude practice can be as simple as a daily list of three things you’re grateful for. Inviting gratitude expands our sense of abundance and brings joy and peace. 


As permaculture can be applied to so many systems beyond landscape design, I want to look at the permaculture design process as a model for setting New Year’s Resolutions that can draw from our body/mind/heart’s wisdom as we think about the year to come. 


Here are the 5 simple steps, and how those apply to making changes in the New Year.


1. Articulate your goals.

When we “paint done” as Brene Brown says, we’re laying out a clear picture of where we’re headed. It’s impossible to build a roadmap to get somewhere, if you don’t know where that somewhere is. For me, it helps to start with how I want to feel. This year, I want to feel more energy and I want to feel strong, I want to feel connected and present with my family, and I want to feel creative for creativity’s sake. I know the simple actions that help me achieve those feelings: prioritizing self-care, a good night’s sleep, and exercise help me feel energized and strong. Going on hikes, bike rides, camping, cooking, and gardening with my family all help me to feel connected and present. I love sewing, singing, and dancing, not for the sake of achieving something, but for the act itself. This makes me feel creative for creativity’s sake. What are some feelings you hope to cultivate in the New Year? What are the actions you take now that cause you to feel that way? What can you make space for more of? Start with simple, bite-size goals that you will be able to accomplish, and build momentum. 


  1. Analyze and Assess. 

Taking stock of where you are now, gives you a clear starting point on your path. In a landscape, we cultivate the skill of contemplative observation. Before design, we conduct a site visit with the intention of observing what is currently happening. Rather than be quick to resolve, we observe, and then we interact. Taking an honest look at what you’re currently doing instead of the actions you identified in step one will give you a really clear list of what you can let go of, and what you can replace with something that will feed you and bring you closer to how you want to feel. Assessing your current conditions will also give you a clear view of your constraints. For example, maybe in your ideal world you want to work out in the morning, but you do school drop off with your kids, so that just never really happens in reality. Do you have any unreasonable expectations you’ve set for yourself? If so, renegotiate them with yourself, with an honest look at what’s possible. What are you currently doing and what are the constraints when you think about change?


  1. Design.

After you take an honest look at your existing conditions, you can make a reasonable plan that responds to the realities of your life, and makes more space for what you want to see happen. Here’s an example. As I mentioned, I know that prioritizing a good night’s sleep will help me feel more energized. Currently, I often watch a show, or read the news, or look at my phone before I go to sleep and I know that it affects my nervous system, which means I have a harder time falling asleep, which means I go to bed later by the time I calm down, which means I get less sleep, which means I’m more tired when I wake up. So, that screen time is having a big effect on how I want to feel. I can let that go, and instead read before bed and leave my phone in the living room instead of on my bedside table. A simple redesign can have big implications toward our goals. What can you let go of and what can you do in its place?


  1. Implement

Have you ever heard of a “trim tab”? It’s a piece on the rutter of a boat that when adjusted ever-so-slightly, it can drastically change the course of the vessel. In landscapes, we call these leverage points–small things that can change that will have the biggest impact. So, by now you’ve assessed your current situation, been honest about what you do instead, and identified the actions you can take to get you closer to how you want to feel. Now it’s time to figure out what happens first and do it. Start small. Make one simple change and go with that for a few weeks, then layer in another. If you try to do a complete 180 with all of the things all at once, you probably won’t succeed. Instead, figure out Phase 1. Start there, and when you find your groove, layer in the next change. In my example, I’ve started by leaving my phone in the living room at night. I’m getting used to that. Next, maybe I’ll turn the show off 20 minutes earlier, and read for a bit before bed. Making small shifts will bring us a lot closer to the “somewhere” we painted in Step 1, than all the shifts at once that will likely have us right back where we started.  What are your leverage points? 


  1. Evaluate.

Take note of how you feel when you’ve implemented your small leverage points. It’s vital to see the fruits of our efforts. Tune into your mood, your uncluttered spaces, your energy levels, or your heart. How are you feeling now? How is it going with your simple shift? Is there room for another? Evaluation gives us the opportunity to look at what worked and what didn’t, and make micro adjustments with our trim tabs to get us closer to our vision.

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Permaculture 101