The Optimized Doctor

New year, old you


This column should arrive just in time. By now, you may have already failed some or all of your New Year’s resolutions. By this time in February, eighty percent of us will abort what we resolved to do this year. If this was you, it could be considered a catastrophic failure because not only is it a new year, it is a new decade. That’s right, the opportunity to fix the 10-year-imperfect you won’t come again until 2030!

New Year's resolutions, crumpled marekuliasz/iStock/Getty Images

I’m among you. I intended to read fiction daily (starting with “The Great Gatsby,” not “Moby Dick” – I thought I would give myself a fighting chance, but alas ...), to workout at least 5 days every week (I tore my left triangular fibrocartilage complex, so there’s that), to write at least 500 words daily (I’m typing this one-handed: I’m lucky to get 500 letters a day). So I’m out.

If you resolved to do something this year, chances are it was to make a better you: a self-improvement goal such as losing weight, saving more money, or exercising more. According to a Marist Poll, these were the most popular resolutions for 2020. At the bottom of the most-likely-resolutions list were things like “worry less” or “be kinder to others.” These are important goals we’d agree, but we don’t deem them resolution-worthy. Why?

And why do we have New Year’s resolutions in the first place? When I looked into this further, I was surprised by some of the history I discovered.

As far back as the Babylonians, once a year, we’ve tried our best to get better. At the feast of Akitu, the Babylonian new year festival (about March on our modern calendar), people resolved to do a better job of paying debts and returning favors – spin had not been invented, and yoga hadn’t caught on in the Middle East yet. This fundamental desire to be a better human seems hardwired, and long before Bullet Journals we seem to have loved “fresh start” days on the calendar. Yet, we’re doomed to fail, over and over, at least for the last 5,000 or so attempts.

We know so much more now. Put your Nike Renue Fusion shoes next to your bed so you get up and run first thing. Set SMART goals. Sign up for automatic retirement contribution and for automatic, plant-based meal delivery from Blue Apron. (I’ve no conflict of interest in these products).

Dr. Jeffrey Benabio, director of Healthcare Transformation and chief of dermatology at Kaiser Permanente San Diego.

Dr. Jeffrey Benabio

Good ideas all, but I’m suggesting a different approach: Resolve to do something else this year.

Rather than try the same things we’ve attempted, how about selecting something from the bottom of the Marist Poll list – such as resolving to be more humble. Admit when you don’t know something or don’t understand what’s being discussed. Recognize and acknowledge when you’ve screwed up. Or resolve to be more selfless. Add on someone else’s patient, an extra call without expecting a favor in return, or do what you can to help a curbside consult, even if there is no reward or even a small risk to you. Repay the debt you owe your friends, family, colleagues, staff, and patients.

These things are a little trickier to track, but you can find a way to keep yourself accountable. Add a box to your weekly planner that says “Be humble and kind” and check it off for the next 42 weeks. Good news, March 1 falls on a Sunday this year – let’s call it the feast of Akitu.

Happy New Year! And good luck!

Dr. Benabio is director of Healthcare Transformation and chief of dermatology at Kaiser Permanente San Diego. The opinions expressed in this column are his own and do not represent those of Kaiser Permanente. Dr. Benabio is @Dermdoc on Twitter. Write to him at

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