01/07/2013 12:32 pm ET Updated Mar 09, 2013

The Ethics of New Year's Resolutions

This is the time of year when we make lists of all of the things we want to change in our lives. Some of the most popular ones are:

  • Losing weight
  • Attending religious services more often
  • Reading more (and better) books
  • Quitting smoking
  • Drinking less
  • Getting rid of clutter

Let's face it: We don't accomplish most of our resolutions because most of the goals we set for ourselves are too ambitious. When we fail to achieve our objectives, we end up feeling bad about ourselves, and we return with a vengeance to the very behaviors we have vowed to stop.

In many of my forthcoming essays here at The Huffington Post, I'll be exploring a variety of ethical responsibilities we have to others, including our coworkers, bosses, those who work for us, and our family and friends. Much of my analysis will be based on what I call the five principles of ethical intelligence -- ethical principles that apply in all of our professional and personal relationships. These principles are:

  1. Do No Harm
  2. Make Things Better
  3. Respect Others
  4. Be Fair
  5. Care

What often gets overlooked in discussions about ethics is the duty we have to ourselves. After all, the five principles above concern how we treat everyone. If it is wrong to talk to a colleague disrespectfully, it is also wrong to talk to ourselves this way. Just as we should not harm others, we should refrain from harming ourselves.

This is where the folly of New Year's resolutions comes in. By setting the bar too high, we are setting ourselves up for disappointment, and this isn't being fair to ourselves. This is not to suggest that we shouldn't strive to improve our conduct and character, but rather that we ought to set goals we're likely to accomplish.

Accentuate the Positive

You're more likely to achieve your New Year's resolutions simply by being kinder to yourself. Once you commit to treating yourself the way you'd like others to treat you, all of the other goals become a lot easier to reach.

If losing weight is your goal, why not let yourself off the hook and stop the negative self-talk about your size? You may find it becomes a lot easier to lose the weight and keep it off.

I speak from experience. A while ago, I joined a popular weight-loss program, and I've been amazed to see the pounds come off, even though I indulge occasionally in what are sometimes labeled "forbidden foods." The trick, I've learned, is not to deprive myself of something I want to eat, but rather to recognize that the tasty slice of chocolate cake I want for dessert comes with a price: I'll have to jog a little bit longer the next day, or do without something else I may desire.

In other words, it's not through self-denial that I'm able to accomplish the goal of weight loss, but rather by treating myself with kindness. I'm finding that the more weight I lose, the better I feel about myself, and the more I'm able to accomplish the other things I want to do.

In 2013, why don't we vow to go a little bit easier on ourselves? We may be pleasantly surprised by what happens as a result.

A version of this article was originally published on Bloomberg Businessweek Online.

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