How is your New Year progressing? There’s such a pressure to start the New Year with a sense of resolve and new initiatives it can be easy to then feel like a failure when these resolves come to nothing.
I like the model from Buddhism where rather than seeing ourself as a fixed entity that somehow needs to be redirected in the way we would turn around a ship, we are instead something constantly taking birth out of the interception of diverse inner identities, motivations and causal factors both within our mind and from our external environment.
Seeing ourselves as a fixed and solid identity gives rise to the thought that we are either successful or a failure. Instead we can see ourselves as a process that is constantly taking shape in the moment, much like the image in a kaleidoscope is constantly shifting and reforming.
Research found that by February of each New Year 80% of people will have dropped their resolutions. Among the 19% who were still maintaining them two years after making their resolution there had been an average of 14 lapses from the intention – but also 14 returns to it! Whereas in those who did not maintain their resolution there was a greater tendency towards self-blame at the first lapse and then a dejected sense of their being no point in trying again.
This reminds me of Seamus Heaney’s saying: “ever tried, ever failed, no matter…try again fail again, fail better”
Those who were successful in maintaining their resolutions over 2 years all used some form of stimulus control. For someone wanting to stop smoking this might mean having a photo of someone you care about who will be impacted by your death. Or a photo of how you wish to be as a result of your resolution. Or if you wish to eat less then a photo on the fridge that reminds you of why you wish to keep your resolve.
Avoid stimulating places and situations
We tend to return to a habit when we are in a familiar place, so if we know that sitting in a certain chair is associated with smoking or doing a certain activity would often be followed by having a smoke then you can see if it is possible to change the chairs you sit in or have this stimulus control in place for the times where you know you will be drawn into the old pattern.
This also applies to anyone wanting to drink less. Familiar environments will stimulate the neural activity of our habitual behaviour in that place. This is why even after successfully shifting an old pattern it is so important to tell friends you will still be meeting to socialise in cafes rather than think “it’s been month without a drink I’m sure I’m fine to go into a bar now”. Until this learnt pattern associated with the familiar place is fully dissolved there will always be a risk that going into a familiar place will lead to that old pattern reasserting itself.
People who were successful in keeping their resolutions also rewarded themselves at specific points. In the study it was found to be at the 6 months and 2 year mark. The reward might be using the money saved to pay towards a treat. Or promising yourself a specific experience that will be unlocked at this milestone.
Find A Friend To Support you
The other support for success was doing things with others and creating a Ulysses contract with a friend who also wants to achieve the same goal as you. In a Ulysses Contract you agree a regular time where you meet to share the activity – such as gym training, or to check in and say if you have met your commitments for the week…..just as Uysses tied himself to the mast of his boat and filled the sailors ears with wax so he could hear the Sirens sing but not be untied despite his entreaty to the sailors to release him to dive into the sea and swim to the Sirens island, where he would have died on the rocks. Instead they came though safe and he was the only man to have ever heard the Sirens and survived.
We are very motivated by our place in the tribe, and loosing face by having to say we have not maintained our agreement with our friend is often more powerful than making a promise to ourself which we find easier to rationalise around and deviate from.
Renew Your Sense Of Purpose If It Has Lapsed
As we reach the point where most people drop their resolutions, look at what it is you wish to cultivate in the year ahead, what aspect of yourself from last year do you value and wish to strengthen, or what habit do you see that does not lead you into happiness but instead causes you pain and dissatisfaction…and resolve to keep returning to your new choice every time you slip back into the old familiar patterns. Rather than looking at success and failure, focus instead on process. Each time you lapse is an opportunity to learn more about what causes you to go back into the old pattern and make new choices that move you closer to a sense of happiness, ease and equanimity.