It’s a familiar experience…as we enter New Year we write up a blue print for our ideal vision of ourselves. We resolve to eliminate all of our unhealthy habits, initiate new healthy ones and enter a Nirvana of sobriety, fitness and living to our full potential. A few weeks in we are wondering where all our good resolve went and what to do about that year long gym membership we can no longer cancel but don’t seem to be making any use of!
This approach to making New Year resolutions is based on the belief that there is a master controller in our head who can give its regal decree and all will bow to its command. Instead we are more a people’s republic of conflicting interest groups that all seek to assert their will, with those that are connected to what feels most familiar and commands most of our interest being more likely to win out over the novelty of a new and unfamiliar approach. In the 8 week mindfulness course I teach this tendency is described as living life on autopilot. It is much easier to go to the default mode of behaviour than adapt to a new one that requires creating new neurological pathways in the brain.
How then to approach the New Year? Do we instead just accept we are destined to stay the same as we are now forever? If how you are now is serving you well, you feel happy and fulfilled and are living life to your full potential then there is little you to need to change. If, like me, you are aware of having got caught in unproductive patterns, feel the frustration of good intentions that never made it to being acted on, feel a sense of having been limited in your self expression and less happy than you know you might be….then this is an opportunity to reflect on the last year and how to enter into the new.
My first principle as I look at entering the New Year is to reflect on what I appreciate about how I have been in the last year: what qualities, achievements and successes have I had? It is not very motivating to go into the New Year telling myself I am a total failure! New Year resolutions based on this approach will read like a school report where the teacher is saying “disappointing year, could have done better. Needs to work harder next year”.
- Gym: Instead of blaming myself for not working out according to the full schedule I had set myself, I can look back and appreciate the commitment I have shown to training and keeping it going as it becomes a new habit in my life. I can reflect on any small areas where I have cared for my health and well being and take a moment to appreciate that. Resolving to keep this going as I go into the New Year.
- Eating: Instead of blaming myself for not dieting well enough (in my case needing to gain weight through eating enough calories each day) I can look at how I have brought a clear attention to this issue and appreciate any measures I have taken to address it. Resolving to keep this going as I go into the New Year.
- Work: Instead of feeling I have failed in my work plans I can appreciate the measure I have taken to develop my skills through attending training courses and the ways in which I have built on last year by finding new clients for mindfulness work and maintained the Monday class in the face of challenging rent increases.
- Social life: Instead of feeling frustrated at not going to more of the social events I had thought I would enjoy participating in via other Meetup groups I can appreciate the connections I have developed and strengthened with my friends.
Then what to do about the things we see that we know are unhelpful habits that without any effort will drain our energy and not lead to greater happiness or well being? It might be watching too much television, being addicted to social media, porn addiction, drinking too much alcohol, difficulty dating, feeling lonely or frustrated with our work, needing to get fit…..or any number of areas where we know we are limiting our potential for feeling alive, engaged and competent.
Once way to approach this is to address the underlying issue. Rather than make resolves that we then fail in so that we feel even worse about ourselves, we can instead resolve to look at any issues that prevent us from naturally doing what is best for us.
- This might mean looking at issues around low self-worth. How can I learn to feel I am of worth so I take care of myself and don’t instead go to addictive or familiar behaviour that fills the feeling of being empty.
- Exploring the belief systems we operate by – such as “I don’t deserve to be happy”, “life is tough”, “only superficial people are happy when life is so obviously full of suffering”.
- Reflecting on what it is we gain by staying stuck. There will be some pay off to staying as we are. See what it is that keeps you feeling comfortable by being in a familiar place. This might simply be that it keeps the belief system in place….”you see I AM a failure”. Or it gives a feeling of familiarity, or gets us a certain type of attention.
I’ll explore these areas in the first three classes of next year and the emails for those weeks.
- ask, “where is my bliss” – it is hard to feel excited by a negative. Being sober because it is ‘right’ may not feel as exciting as going out getting drunk and having a party. But if instead one reflects on how it would feel to be full of energy from sleeping well, to be alert, to be making clear and informed choices rather than in the haze of a drunken night out then there my start to be a sense of what is exciting about being sober. Likewise rather than resolving to work harder, imaging how it would be to have a new job, the increased income or greater sense of satisfaction from the increased variety of work you will be doing can offer a sense of excitement and something to move towards. Rather than just saying I will eat less from a sense of self denial, imaging how it will feel to be more full of energy, fitter, able to do activities which currently may be impossible due to weight or lack of stamina will give something exciting to move towards.
- finding an accountability buddy: it is hard to motivate ourselves. We will find all sorts of reasons to tell ourselves “not today”. But it’s harder to let someone else down. With this approach you find a friend or someone you can buddy up with who is doing something similar to you. It might be you arrange to goto the gym together, so not going lets them down, or you commit to a diet and check in each day to see how the calories have staked up with your accountability buddy who is also dieting. This also works with the tendency we have of not wanting to loose face. Whilst we can make excuses ourselves, it’s harder to tell someone else we have not met our objective and so are more likely to find ways to meet them.
- finding a way to engage the reward system: is there a way you can reward yourself as you meet you goals? A treat that acts as an encouragement to move towards them? Perhaps if you are dieting you give yourself a cheat day once a week where you allow yourself to eat whatever you want….but only if you have had 6 days on your diet. Or it might be a trip to the cinema or even a weekend break that you only give yourself if you meet your objectives. You can set this up with your accountability buddy so you only reward yourself if you can honestly tell them you have met your criteria.
- making small changes that can be implemented step by step: probably the main reason we fail in our New Year resolutions is that we try to make a giant leap rather than take smaller steps. Rather than one grand gesture think about what small things need to happen to move you towards your objective and start to implement them.