By this time of year, almost nobody is talking about New Year's Resolutions anymore. We still have more than half the year left, but usually we've already given up on ourselves. Caroline Arnold has a better idea in Small Move, Big Change: Using Microresolutions to Transform Your Life Permanently. We can make the changes we really want to make by focusing on tinier, faster, easier steps.
It isn't always obvious how to go about breaking a big project or life change into smaller, more manageable pieces. If we had the idea, we'd be doing it, right? Small Move, Big Change has countless examples of microresolutions that real people have used. Simply reading them has a tendency to spark connections and clicks that make these changes seem easy and manageable. Because they are personal, they're memorable in a way that boilerplate advice often is not. The book covers such a huge range of topics that there is bound to be at least something transformative for everyone.
Arnold starts with sleep as the best area to start making microresolutions. I couldn't agree more. Most of our failure to have perfect "willpower" (a fantasy creature that only exists in storybooks) is due to tiredness. Too tired to even get ready for bed! As she picks apart her own issue with sleep procrastination, we can't help but compare her routine with our own. A busy, married working mom with a young child, Arnold's struggles are totally relatable.
Small Move, Big Change can help us get more sleep, save money, be on time, get organized, get fit, lose weight, and get better performance reviews at work. Best of all, there are ideas for how to transform relationships with our romantic partners, family, friends, bosses, and colleagues. We start to feel like maybe we can handle this pesky old Resolution thing after all. Small Move, Big Change is definitely a path in the direction of greater happiness.
BE RIDICULOUS was my quest for the year, and the most ridiculous thing about that is that I didn't give much thought to the many ways the Universe would interpret this command. Every single thing I planned to do with my brand-new, freshly minted 2017 has already been completely upended. Our lives have been in total upheaval every single day of the year so far. I keep talking about the desire for transformation, and now I'm going to stop that for a while and talk about the desire for tranquility!
There are certain things I don't talk about on this blog, namely personal, familial, and health events. Suffice to say that we got hit with two of the three, plus a bonus veterinary crisis. It's been...interesting. Eliding over a trillion details, my husband got an offer for his dream job, and we suddenly found that we had twelve days to move to a new city. Cut to us packing up our house in between giving our dog eye drops three times a day while he can't get his Cone of Shame through the dog door and needs to be let out constantly. Most of First Quarter 2017 was an epic disaster for us, but hey! Now we live at the beach and my husband is working in the space industry!
Unconnected to any of the above, we decided to get rid of our car and try being car-free. It's been three weeks. My husband has been taking the bus to work, and he just ordered a little scooter (toy kind, not internal-combustion kind) to get around between bus stops. Our new place is within less than half a mile of almost everything we need or want, so it's been an easy transition.
My major personal goal for the year was to "follow a set schedule." I choose a counterintuitive, uncomfortable goal that is contrary to doing what comes naturally for me. That's where the juicy stuff is hidden, in the radical change of perception. I used to hate running, and then I pushed myself, fell in love with it, and ran a marathon. I used to have an abiding dread of public speaking, and then (last year) I pushed myself, and started winning ribbons and learning to work a crowd. I thought, heck, what's left on the list of things I hate and also suck at? Then our life went crazy and a schedule was the least of my worries. Then the unexpected happened. Even though our new bedroom window faces west, (my parrot and) I have been waking up around 7 AM every day. We're not quite done unpacking yet, but I'm already moving toward a more natural-feeling, biologically appropriate daily rhythm. Ridiculous.
My career goal has somehow been moving forward, despite everything, mostly because my business partner is a person of great dedication and industry. Sometimes just not saying no is enough to maintain momentum.
My physical goals of doing P90X and running five miles have not happened yet. What has happened is that I've spent the last three weeks lifting and moving heavy objects. Moving is moving! The other thing that's happened is exactly what always happens when we move, which is that I rapidly gain five pounds from eating convenience foods. Now that we're in an apartment, the dog needs to go out at least three times a day, and we're also car-free, meaning I am walking to the grocery store about 5 out of 7 days. At this rate, I can lose five pounds in roughly... three months. [(3500 calories per pound x 5 pounds)/65 calories per mile]/3 miles per day] = not quite 90 days. Or just quit eating my stress and get more sleep.
My home goal was to "digitize, downsize, minimize." I will call that a SUCCESS+. All I was planning to do was to clean out the garage! Now we don't even have a garage. Or a car. Or a yard. Or a... Our new place is awesome, but it's smaller than our tiny house, with significantly less storage. We're still getting rid of things after a yard sale and something like six carloads of donations.
We haven't done our couples goals yet, which are both summertime things. Shared adversity will either drive you apart or bring you closer, and in our case it's closer. We're feeling pretty smug about living in this tiny shoebox apartment; it's like living our twenties all over again, even though we could almost be the parents of most of our neighbors.
I haven't done my stop goal, my lifestyle upgrades, or my wish yet. I will say that my lifestyle has been massively upgraded anyway. Looking at the tiny postage-stamp sized square of ocean we can see from our balcony while wild parrots fly overhead definitely does not suck.
My "Do the Obvious" goal for the year was to transform my appearance. I am also going to call this one an early SUCCESS. Speaking of my quest to BE RIDICULOUS, I got this wild idea to apply to be on a game show, and I actually got a screen test! Of course I didn't get selected, because I am not in the least bit telegenic. But I did go out and get my hair blown out and have my makeup done beforehand. I couldn't believe the results. Suddenly I looked both younger and smarter. My husband absolutely couldn't take his eyes off me. He took me out to dinner, and I think he spent more time making eye contact with me than he did at our actual wedding. All righty then! I learned how to straighten my hair, and astonishingly, it only takes me ten minutes. I finally have the answer to my depressingly unmanageable hair, which has been the plague of my existence for 35 years. If I'd learned to do this when I was 14, I would have had a completely different life. Now I'm 41 and I already have a completely different, completely different life.
2017 has been a very weird, whirlwind year for us so far. Topsy turvy and all that. Now we're starting Second Quarter and it's like we're the ensemble cast of a TV series that just went into a new season, like American Horror Story with slightly less horror. Now I've gone off on a mental tangent, trying to figure out whether there has ever been a TV show much like our life, but there really aren't any sitcoms about engineers, and someone else would have to play me anyway.
This is the short version of my 2017 goals, resolutions, quests, wishes, etc.:
Personal: Follow a set schedule
Physical: P90X, run five miles
Home: Digitize, downsize, minimize
Couples: WDS, homemade pickles
Stop goal: Stop being the last person to pack up my tent
Lifestyle upgrades: Phone and work bag, tent
Do the Obvious: Transform my appearance
Quest: BE RIDICULOUS
Wish: Pay off my student loan.
Groundhog Day. An American tradition. A marmot-based weather forecasting device. Also one of the best movies ever made. If the only thing you do today is think about Bill Murray, consider this a day well-lived. Watching Groundhog Day would be even better. What would be even better than that would be to consider today to be a Second New Year, another chance to live up to your expectations for yourself.
A quarter of people who made New Year's Resolutions quit after the first week. That's according to statistics. I think it's because people get all wound up and perfectionistic, and punish themselves for not having an instant 365-day streak of success. My way around this is just to not count January.
January is for: getting a cold; staying home and trying to catch up financially after the holidays; decompressing after holiday travel and Fourth Quarter workloads; thinking about putting away decorations; and maybe realizing how crowded the gym is for two weeks of the year. The weather is so bad in most of the Northern Hemisphere that, if you're ever going to spend a month bundled in a blanket on the couch, then January should be that month.
My Januaries are a bit different, because New Year's is my favorite holiday and because I'd rather be lazy in the summer. I use January to finish any projects or books left over from the previous year, research my new resolutions, purge my closets, and level up my workout. By the time February rolls around, I have a sense of how I'm going to make progress on my resolutions. Then it's just business as usual, the new normal.
The worst mistake people make about habit change is to moralize. We blame and punish ourselves. We insult ourselves, saying we are lazy and that we have no willpower. We think we're weak. It's really more like learning to tie your shoes or ride a bike. It's more complicated than it looks, and just because other people can do it easily doesn't mean we're going to get it right on the first try. We'll make our changes eventually, but only because we keep trying over and over and over again. We'll change only when we really want to and when we're convinced that it's a good idea.
Plenty of people don't wear shoes with laces and don't know how to ride a bike. Clearly you can live your entire life without learning certain skills or doing certain activities. All it means is that if you can't tie your shoelaces, you'll have a tough time going hiking, or running, or wearing the most comfortable shoes. All it means is that if you can't ride a bike, then you can't go anywhere on a bike, and if you're invited to ride somewhere then you'll be left behind. If you never make the habit change you resolved to do, you can go right on living the same way you did before. All that will happen is that you'll continue to be excluded from activities that involve those skills and abilities.
Continue not to study a foreign language, and all it means is that when you meet people who speak that language, you won't be able to talk to them. If you travel, there may be situations that would have gone differently if you had the right language skills, but you'll never know.
Continue to maintain your body image, and all it means is that you'll continue on the same vector toward old age that you're on now. You might have had totally different life experiences if you were fit and strong, but you won't be finding out this year.
Continue not to be organized, and all it means is that you'll have a certain number of preventable disasters where you're late to your commitments, can't find things when you want them, and have to pay the occasional fine or fee.
Continue not to pay off your debts or save money, and all it means is that your debt will snowball. The interest charges will add to your balance and your minimum payments will gradually increase. It'll wind up costing you more and more the longer you wait. If you've been in debt a long time, this may add to your sense of futility and disempowerment, but if you're good at ignoring it, then maybe it won't.
None of these things make you a "bad person" or "lazy" or "unmotivated" or whatever. I don't believe in laziness. I think that when people don't do something that is a good idea, it's either because it never occurred to them, they don't know how to do it, or they're focused on something else. New Year's Resolutions imply that an idea has occurred to someone and that there is at least a little bit of focus on it. If the resolution isn't happening immediately, that's a good sign that it's unclear how to proceed. If it's a part of a big enough vision, then it may require more research and testing than other, lesser aims.
When I choose a resolution for the year, I pick something that I believe will give me an easier or more interesting life. I imagine that by next December, this new thing will be a regular part of me. It'll be something I know how to do, somewhere I've gone, or something I've done. I'll cook recipes I've never tried before, go to cities where I don't know my way around, get down on the floor and do exercises I've never tried, pronounce words I've never said before, and try to learn how to do complicated new things. If I've chosen something really juicy, it might take me all year to learn how to do it. Why would I quit doing something in January when the year has barely gotten started? On February Second, only nine percent of the year has elapsed. There's still PLENTY of time left. Maybe the groundhog will see his shadow and there will be six more weeks of screwing off. Get started in mid-March, then. Otherwise, spring into action and be awesome.
Quitting is highly underrated. The desire to complete every single thing we start is a neutral trait. It's purely negative when it keeps us tied to irrelevant past decisions. Sometimes, following through is simply a bad idea, a waste of time, energy, and money. The art of doing what you want includes the art of making executive decisions, and that means knowing when to quit. Quit something for the New Year. Quitting something may free up enough energy and mental bandwidth to start something better.
Quit watching TV series that aren't living up to your expectations. For the sake of all that is holy, please quit watching episodes that you've already seen.
Look at all your books. If there are any that you quit reading, and then moved on to read something else, just quit. Give them away or put them in the recycle bin.
Open your fridge and your kitchen cupboards. Anything you bought as a taste test that you can't make yourself eat should just go straight into the compost. Owning a bunch of kale that you aren't planning to learn to cook is just going to turn into brown pudding.
Go through your drawers and your closet. Anything in there that doesn't fit today should go into a trash bag. Haul it all off to the Salvation Army as soon as you're done. If you're ever going to transform your body, it ain't going to be because you're haunted by your old skinny jeans.
Look around for the relics of old projects. Craft projects. Shop projects. Electronics projects. Language learning projects. Musical instruments. If you weren't working on it yesterday, you're not into it. If there's dust on it, well, dusted is busted. You don't love it anymore. Quit and move on.
Quitting done properly should bring a sense of relief. Just because Past You made a time commitment on your behalf does not mean that you are obligated to fulfill it. Past You probably thought you'd have time in this life to audition for Cirque du Soleil, become a surgeon, and learn to communicate with dolphins, just as soon as you finish becoming a master chef and winning the Nobel Prize for Literature. Not happening. Present Self likes to do the same stuff that Past Self did, like watching TV, playing with your phone, and eating brownie bites. Future Self is going to carry on the old family tradition.
Acceptance of reality is a necessary part of self-compassion. Look around and say, IT IS WHAT IT IS. Here you are, today, in the home that you have, the career path that you have, with the education that you have, the bank account that you have, and the body that is you. Better than it might have been, perhaps not as good as it could have been, but, here it is. Current state of affairs.
Is this what you want?
All we get is default mode. Whatever we structure into our daily routine, that's what our lives will be. Every minute that we spend doing one thing is a minute that we can then never spend on something else. Every object that surrounds us takes up a spot in the physical universe where another object can't be. Every penny we spend is gone, never to be spent on something else, such as retirement. These are the choices we made. When our choices are intentional, we shape our world to our liking. When we cruise along on autopilot, we may not always stop to realize that we haven't been setting intentions. That means we are not choosing, we are not deciding, we are not exerting free will. Things happen to us when we could be happening to things.
Commitment means what you think it means. If you make commitments lightly, with only mild interest and vague intentions, then the results of your commitments will be unimpressive or nonexistent. Gradually, the halfhearted, lackluster nature of the commitments begins to pile up. Magazines we thought we'd read one day, mail we intended to sort, classes we planned to take, projects we wanted to finish, messes we meant to clean up. We wake up one day, realizing that we're broke, out of shape, and surrounded by clutter. It's because we never stopped to make executive decisions and quit anything. We don't like to stop and declare something DONE, either because we're quitting or because we followed through until it was finished. Our dance cards are full.
Making a total commitment can transform your life. Your word becomes your bond. You know you will follow through unless you are forced to quit. When I signed up for my marathon, my brother asked me if I thought I'd make it. "Oh, I'll make it to the finish line. I'll make it if I have to drag myself by my chin. The question is WHEN I'll make it." It took over seven hours, and I had to drag my leg for the last eight miles due to an injury. They rerouted the end of the course. I had to go on the sidewalk and wait for stoplights. But I made it to the finish line, and I was still vertical. That's what commitment looks like. It's not always pretty and it's not even always a good idea. But breaking promises to yourself is what happens when you make them too readily. Only commit, only make that inner promise, when you know it really matters to you.
A commitment is a tradeoff. It means you're spending your time and treasure on it instead of something else. Accepting one job offer means that you reject the others. An RSVP to an event means declining other opportunities. In our world, this idea is falling away. We think we can multi-task, to the point that we try to text and drive. We think we can have it all, and we think we can have it all at the same time. This is why we only have what we already have. This is why our reality so rarely matches our fantasies. Doing what we were called to do means quitting everything else that is taking up our time and attention.
Goals are for amateurs. This is true for many reasons, and one of them is that goals usually aren't ambitious enough. Making goals can be like adding a minor chore to your to-do list just for the satisfaction of crossing it off. We give ourselves the feeling of forward motion in life, without acknowledging that we're deliberately going as slowly as possible. Usually, when we think about going bigger, there's no reason why we couldn't. We balk because we can't imagine what comes next, and we'd rather control our rate of risk exposure.
Another problem with goals is that they aren't always the right goals. We choose worthy goals in order to disguise the fact that the really juicy ones are being studiously ignored. We feel resentment, confusion, or anxiety about particular goals, so we put a big mental 'N/A' over that sector. We don't know what to do, or we don't want to, so we do nothing, even if this would be the area of greatest benefit in our lives.
Probably the worst flaw in goal-setting is that we don't plan what we'll do after we reach the goal. WHY are we setting this particular goal? This is part of why we don't make progress more quickly. Lack of vision for the far horizon keeps us focused on the middle distance. Often, we reach our goals, only to backslide all the way to where we started, or farther. The goal itself hasn't satisfied the inner need and is then discarded.
This is how it works for the Big Three:
Lose Weight. Worst goal parameter ever. Why? How? How much? Then what?
Get Organized. What does this mean to you? What does it look like? How do you do it? How do you know when you're done? What comes next?
Get Out of Debt. Great, good job. Now you're only spending 100% of what you earn. What next?
This came as a big surprise to me, but: Successful people don't think about these goals. Elite athletes don't think about weight loss; they think about performance metrics specific to their sport. Accomplished people (artists, entrepreneurs, athletes) don't think about getting organized; they think about making art, making money, or setting records. Wealthy people don't think about getting out of debt; they think about getting rich. They don't have weight to lose, clutter to clear, or debt to repay. What we're doing when we set these "goals" is rolling the dice to get our pawns onto the first square of the game board. We're not at the end of the game, we're at the beginning!
Lose weight WHY? Get organized BECAUSE WHY? Get out of debt AND THEN WHAT?
Clarifying what would be More Awesome Than This can unleash a massive amount of energy. Suddenly we understand that the sooner we get this over with, the sooner we can move forward into an enchanting new chapter of life.
I lost and gained the same 15 pounds at least six times. Unfortunately, at the low end of that range I was still 18 pounds overweight. When I finally made the decision to find out what it felt like to be at the "healthy weight for my height," curiosity drove me. The excess weight I had carried since I was a teenager was gone in four months. The last time I weighed what I weigh today, I was 12 and not yet at my full height. Of course, at 12 I couldn't run a marathon or climb a rope like I can as an adult. My REASONS for maintaining an athletic fitness level are that I can hike to staggeringly beautiful places that are only accessible on foot, keep going all day when I travel, and avoid canceling my plans due to migraine. At this point, I don't have to think about it anymore, because the way I eat and plan my day to support my new physique feels natural. I feel like myself, like the old me wasn't the Real Me.
Getting organized was always really tough for me, and I didn't figure out why until I was out of college. I read through a description of ADHD and realized that I checked almost every box. Aha! It was so liberating and validating. I wasn't alone, I wasn't defective, and I wasn't lazy! I read some books on attention deficit and started getting a handle on it. Now I stay "organized" because it helps me think straight and enables me to do fun things. I organize my luggage, my camping gear, my writing projects, and the occasional big party as part of the process of awesomeness.
I paid off my consumer debt in my early 30s. That was a big victory. Suddenly the money I had freed up enabled me to buy a new couch, go on vacation, and move to a nicer place. I maxed out my retirement contributions at work. Ten years later, I'm starting to realize that saving at that rate is not the only option. A trend line can be predicted for different ages, different savings rates, and different rates of monthly expenditure. Another way to put that is, how much Yee-hah do I want when I'm too old to work? Now my focus has nothing to do with getting out of debt. It has everything to do with not having to eat ramen when I'm 86.
Do it for Future Self. The thing about our Future Selves is that we create ourselves by aiming in particular directions. Or not. Many of the things that happen to us as we get older are the result of not planning to avoid them. I have to plan to avoid losing my umbrella because my tendency is to leave them all over the place, like Johnny Umbrellaseed. Likewise, we have to plan NOT to be poor, sedentary, overweight, or cluttered. Not very interesting in the long run, though. We have to plan TO create a real legacy: close friendships, admiring students, a thriving business, a body of work. Poetry doesn't write itself. Let's get over the speed bumps that are minor goals and start moving toward our real destinies.
Perfectionism is the enemy. Resolutions are about transformation, not about getting an A+ on our report cards. A quarter of people who make New Year's Resolutions quit after the first WEEK. Is this because we chose things we didn't really want for ourselves, or because we thought we have to do it perfectly every single day as soon as we set the goal? Either way, there are better, more fun ways to approach this obstacle.
What we're trying to do is to make something worthwhile into something that becomes a natural part of our lives. Once upon a time, we had trouble eating with a spoon and putting our own socks on. Those are great resolutions for a baby! We master them and take these challenging new abilities completely for granted. The same thing can be true for anything we want to do, whether that's playing guitar, riding a horse, or learning to cook. What we're doing is figuring out how to redistribute our attention and our time to include the new thing. We're telling new stories about our identity. "I am the kind of person who X," with X representing "COMMITS AWESOMENESS." This is about changing our minds. With certain habits, that can happen in an instant, like when we have a bad experience and know we'll never eat at a certain restaurant again. With other habits, it takes much longer to catch ourselves in the act and redirect toward a habit we like better. If it's really worth it, then we should be willing to give it as long as it takes.
Take a resolution like learning to speak a foreign language. This is the most commonly kept resolution, one that people like well enough to carry on with it. How do we check the box and say we've completed this resolution? For me, the first moment was breaking the ice and speaking any word at all to a native speaker. I ordered food in a Mexican restaurant, and when the waitress said, "Buen provecho," I was so happy I almost cried. IT WORKED! I spoke a foreign language and someone understood me! I even got the right dish! Then we went to Spain and I was able to negotiate train tickets. Not only did we get to the correct destination, but the agent even told us about a cheaper fare and we got a 40% discount. If we can forgive ourselves for being beginners, if we can give ourselves the A+ for EFFORT and not for perfection (which does not exist, by the way), then the momentum will carry us along. Learning new things is exciting.
There is no "done" with the best resolutions. We're not going to learn to do something like playing a musical instrument and then quit just when we're getting good. Or are we? Many resolutions have to do with resuming things we used to do, things that we already know how to do. Artists who haven't picked up a sketchbook since before their kids were born may resolve to start drawing again. Singers may look for a choir or sign up for serious voice lessons. High school athletes may head back to the pool, join an intramural league, or sign up for a triathlon. When we take this approach, we're reclaiming part of our schedule and saying, I am allowed to do things for myself. I don't need permission. I'm setting a good example for my kids (or other parents).
Where we get into trouble is when we choose a major transformation without really knowing how to go about it. This is why I think resolutions are better than goals. We can choose a recurring action that doesn't have a deadline, and work it into our schedule without a specific goal attached. When we choose a specific goal on a deadline, and we don't reach it for some reason, it can be so demoralizing that we quit. We never thought about what 'done' looks like, we don't know what steps to take, we refuse to ask for help, we thought we would get results faster than everyone else does, and we insist on believing in willpower and motivation. Sometimes we know what to do, but we don't like that idea, and we want to try to reinvent the wheel and do things our own way. A way that doesn't work. Especially in the arena of New Year's Resolutions, we are conditioned to not only accept, but to expect failure. It's a low-stakes commitment. It's easier to let ourselves off the hook than it is to have to change our minds and realize that we have to do what works, even if the way that works is the way we don't like.
It's better to accept reality before we start. A 'stop' goal like nail biting or smoking is simply going to take multiple attempts. The average smoker tries to quit three or four times before succeeding. Weight loss typically happens at a rate of about 1.5 to 2 pounds a week. There's an urban myth that it takes 21 days to form a habit, but that has been debunked. In reality, some people make changes instantly, like the moment they find out they're going to have a baby. The more accurate figure is 66 days. That's well over two months. It's a marathon, not a sprint, and since I mentioned it, marathon training schedules are spread over four months. It would be nice if we could just snap our fingers and be transformed. I won't even rule that out. Our habits, what we think of as our personalities, have been built over time, and thus they'll only be reconstructed over time.
The secret to success is to pick the right time for the right resolution, and structure it in a way that makes it really hard to lose. An awesome goal like "visit all 50 states in the US" can be scheduled as a madcap summer vacation, or spread out over 25 years. There's no real reason that we have to fit everything into one calendar year, and in fact the really ambitious stuff takes multiple years to complete. The main thing is not to rely on memory or the spur of the moment. We have to get out our 2017 calendars and figure out EXACTLY WHEN we are going to fulfill our resolutions. Expecting a perfect streak starting on 1/1 is setting ourselves up for a loss. Half of those who make resolutions have given up within six months. We didn't make backup plans for what we'd do when the weather changed, when we got sick or injured, when we went out of town, when we had to work overtime, or when we just didn't feel like and weren't in the mood.
We still know how to feed ourselves with a spoon and put our socks on when we're not in the mood. We just learned to do these things long ago, made them part of our identity, and moved on. What we have to learn is how to fit new habits into our lives in the same way. Eventually we'll do them no matter how we feel or how much we'd rather be doing something else. It takes time, many, many, many failed attempts and forgetful moments, forgiving ourselves, picking ourselves up, and starting over.
I recommend that we just skip January entirely. Make January the month when all we do is watch videos of people doing the thing we want to do. Interview people who do the thing and ask them how they do it, what they like about it, how they get over the hard parts. Read articles or books about doing the thing. Figure out some strategies. Come up with some backup plans. Figure out how we're going to fit it into our lives during non-routine situations. Schedule things we're going to do related to the thing every month. Imagine how it will look when we're successful at the thing sometime after Thanksgiving. A year is really a pretty long time. January represents only 11% of the year. There's still time to earn a B+ even if we blow off that month entirely. Skip January and think more about December.
Year of Yes is a concept that can take over your whole life. It's also a great example of the way that resolutions are so much more powerful than goals. I had no idea who Shonda Rhimes was, but I'm a fan now. In fact I might even think of her as a guru. This book made me laugh out loud, and it also made me pause and recognize my own resistance, fears, and stubbornness. What better time to read it than at the turning of a New Year?
The thing about Shonda Rhimes is that she has what a lot of us think would solve all of our problems. She has a loving family, a fascinating and fun job, money, fame, and the ability to call the shots in most situations. Yet there she is, doing what we all do, which is to manufacture our own problems. As the book begins, her sister calls her out for always saying NO to opportunity. Where the natural reaction would be to get angry and tell the sister to mind her own business, Rhimes lets the criticism filter through. She resolves that for a year, she will say YES to everything. That's when it starts to get crazy.
Resolutions are great because we have no way of knowing how they will turn out. Resolutions can be terrifying for the same reason. We have such a strong desire to control our lives and manage risk that we will say NO to almost everything. We'll even reject many things in advance, on the off chance that they might happen. There's a common pattern of talking about what we DON'T WANT, rather than what we do want. It makes us feel discerning, like we are exerting our great taste and driving the bus of life. Saying yes to things and declaring what we want can get awfully specific. Suddenly we're rocketing past our comfort zones so fast we can't even imagine what comes next.
When the resistance goes, a lot of things go with it. The unintended consequences that follow Shonda Rhimes and her decision to live a Year of Yes make the book that much funnier. Her willingness to examine herself and let go of her desire to stay in the comfort zone ripple outward into areas she never expected. It is impossible to read this book without at least a few moments of rueful agreement. Yep, me too, me too. That's me, right there. Say Yes to a Year of Yes and see what happens.
Resolutions fail so often because we are too vague about the details. We might really want to do the thing, we might really be able to picture ourselves doing the thing, we might even make a public commitment to do the thing. Then we stop. We blame ourselves for lacking motivation or willpower. We think we're procrastinators. We beat ourselves up for being lazy losers or for always failing at our resolutions. Really, all that happened was that we skipped a step. If it doesn't get scheduled, it doesn't happen.
WHEN am I going to do it? Say I'm planning to go to the gym. What time of day? Which days? What are my backup plans?
HOW am I going to do it? Say I choose a resolution like 'Spend more quality time with family.' On December 31, 2017, how am I going to know whether I kept this resolution or not? What does 'more' mean?
WHY am I doing it? Do I truly care about this resolution more than I care about my default behavior? Am I curious about it? Does it sound so fun and exciting that I want to jump up and down? Do I involuntarily break into a grin every time I think about it? Or does it sound like duty, obligation, and boredom?
As an example, last year I had an extremely boring goal. I wanted to digitize all my paper notebooks. Some could be scanned and some would have to be typed up, because my handwriting was too faint. This was THE MOST BORING RESOLUTION IN THE WORLD. I thought I might actually die doing it and that cobwebs would grow from my skull to the keyboard. All together, it took me weeks scattered throughout the year. I could have finished it in a month if I'd really knuckled down. It took me until the last week of December. I only finished by forcing myself. Now I'm really pleased with the results, because all this information is instantly available on my phone, instead of sitting in a closet where it was vulnerable to damage. There was nothing about it that would make me want to do it; it sucked. A reminder would show up in my phone and I would go "UUUUHHNNNNNNG." I just had to keep reminding myself that once I was done, I was done, and I'd never have to do it again. Thanks, Past Self!
Recognizing the emotions that are brought up by goals and resolutions can be a huge help in meeting them. If I feel guilty every time I think about scheduling family phone calls or visits, it's going to make me want to avoid this, even though I love my family and enjoy spending time with them. If I feel angry every time I think about going to the gym or losing weight, I'm never going to do it, unless of course I discover kickboxing. If I feel depressed and overwhelmed every time I think about getting organized, I'm probably going to be in the same state next year as I was this year. This is why it helps to make resolutions around how you want to feel.
I resolve to go to the gym at least three times a week, because when I come out of yoga class I feel the way I wish I would feel every minute of every day. When I don't go, my neck gets all stiff. I'll go Monday, Tuesday, and Thursday, and if I miss one of these days, I'll go to the noon class on Saturday.
I resolve to set a bedtime alarm Sunday through Thursday, because I love how it feels when I sleep 8 hours and wake up without an alarm.
I resolve not to drink caffeine after noon, because I hate feeling irritable and snappy and then not being able to fall asleep that night.
Temporary mood repair is THE reason we do things that we recognize are a bad idea. Procrastinating, emotional eating, setting stuff in a pile to deal with "later," yelling at our kids, complaining, gossiping, binge-watching TV, obsessive gaming, and sleep procrastinating all have to do with mood repair. It's called "giving in to feel good." We reward ourselves for skipping what we "should" be doing to do what we LIKE doing. It's like giving your dog a cookie for biting you. Instead of going to the gym, I'll go straight home and drink wine! Yay!
We wait until we'll "feel like it" or until we're "in the mood." What this means is that we always feel like the same stuff we always do, we never feel like doing anything we aren't already doing, and we're never in the mood for anything not-fun. When we let our moods dictate what we do and don't do, we'll continue to get the results we always get. Resolutions are about DOING STUFF, regardless of what mood we're in.
The great thing about this is that pushing ourselves to do things, even when we're not in the mood, can eventually create that missing mood. I'm never in the mood to put on workout clothes and go out the door to the gym, especially if the weather is bad. But once class starts, and my gimpy neck starts relaxing, I remember how much I love this class. I feel great afterward. I have to try to recall this great post-yoga feeling every time I start talking myself into skipping class.
The point of resolutions is a lifestyle upgrade. We want to have fewer unpleasant experiences and more awesome experiences. We want our most boring day to be a little closer to our ideal routine. Making this happen requires focused attention, action, backup plans, and catching ourselves when we revert back to default.
"Lose weight" is not just the most commonly failed New Year's Resolution. It's probably the single biggest reason that people don't believe in resolutions, period. I can speak to this. I lost 35 pounds and kept it off. That's a lot for a 5'4" person! I've maintained my goal weight for three years. Before I lost my weight, I probably believed every possible wrong thought about weight gain and weight loss. I had absolutely no idea what I was doing. Usually, when I lost any weight at all, it was by accident. Given my experience, my opinion is that most people fail at weight loss because we set the stakes too high. Try to do too much, on too tight a deadline, without knowing exactly what you're doing, and failure is guaranteed.
Guaranteed failure can be reassuring because we can shrug it off. Oh well, I tried. We can even try something else and then say, I'VE TRIED EVERYTHING AND NOTHING WORKED!
I say, just lose three pounds. Three is plenty, and I'll tell you why.
Three pounds is the difference between pants that won't zip, and pants that will zip.
Three pounds is the difference between tight and comfortable.
Three pounds is the difference between not being able to use your pants pockets, and being able to put your phone in them.
Three pounds is just enough to maybe start noticing a difference in knee pain, ankle pain, foot pain, or back pain.
Three pounds is just enough to prove that hey, it is actually possible to lose weight.
Three pounds is enough to reverse the tendency to gain weight without noticing it, and bring focus and attention to your body. Not gaining for a year is a victory.
Three pounds over a year is a quarter-pound a month.
Three pounds is manageable enough that, if you feel stymied and that this is an impossible goal, it's a solid indicator that your real issue is trusting in your own self-efficacy. Do you believe you have the power to make any meaningful change in your life?
Three pounds is enough that, if you do it every year, then you'll be down thirty pounds in ten years. Think of yourself as ten years older and ask whether Future You would appreciate this. (I know that if I'd asked 19-year-old me if I would want to be 35 pounds heavier at 29, plus chronically ill, single, and lonely, Younger Me would have burst into tears).
What would it take to lose three pounds? It starts with writing down your starting weight. This can be regarded as exactly like looking at your credit card balance if you are worried about money. Knowing the truth can feel panicky. Knowing the truth can make you want to berate yourself and call yourself a loser or various other horrible names. It is what it is, though. Reality is easier to live with when we acknowledge it. I would say we should all feel excited about high starting numbers and super-unflattering Before photos, because they'll be all the more impressive when we put them up next to our After photos. But nobody realizes that until later. I don't even have any pictures of me from my top weight.
First there's the initial weigh-in. Then there are follow-up weigh-ins. Then there is an ongoing plan to keep tabs on it and preserve that victory. At Curves, they weigh in on the same day every month. At Weight Watchers, they weigh in every week. I weigh in every day, unless I'm on vacation and don't have access to a scale. I bought a scale for $25 and I'm still using it a decade later.
Keeping a resolution or reaching a goal requires some kind of reminder system. The default is to make commitments and then gradually forget about them. The more people in your social circle who are not goal-setters, the more likely that is. Many people will actively sabotage someone else's goal, I guess because they have nothing better to do. Losing three pounds, though, is a small enough goal that you can keep it to yourself and they might not even notice. It can be private. Just schedule a reminder in your phone to weigh in on a predictable basis.
Three pounds is a small enough amount that making any one change will probably work. Stop eating bagels. Don't carry cash at work so you won't buy things from vending machines. Switch to a smaller size of drink. Change your evening snack from cheese and crackers to something else. Quit buying food when you stop for gas. Don't eat in your car. Don't eat on the couch. Eat a half-cup of vegetables at dinner every night. Something. If it comes from a gas station or a bakery, or it involves booze, sugar, or cheese, you're probably on the right track. Pick one change and remind yourself, the goal is three measly pounds.
Lose three pounds. If you don't like it, you can always gain it back. You don't even have to tell anyone. Losing three pounds doesn't require changing your self-image or changing what other people think of you, either. Try it and see if you like it.
What annoys you the most? Something? Someone? You annoying yourself? Harnessing negativity can be a much more potent force toward transformation than positive feelings. We believe in the negative because we notice it more, direct more attention to it, and feel it more deeply. We don't really believe in our wishes coming true because we're not sure what to do to make them happen. That's why structuring resolutions and goals around our pain points can be more effective.
In 2016, I had a resolution to overcome my fear of public speaking. I could have structured that as something positive, such as "become a dazzling public speaker" or "make a room full of people laugh." That would have been intimidating, though, and it would not have been clear to me that I could do it. I focused on how scared I was, how the very thought of giving a speech made me nauseated. It was bad, too. Really bad. The moment I woke up on Wednesday mornings, it would hit me that I was going to my Toastmasters meeting and I would have to speak, and I would have this pit of dread in my stomach. It was hard for me to even walk into the room. Everyone was incredibly kind and supportive, and I couldn't have asked for more from them, but I had to bring my fear with me. My legs shook so hard after my first speech that I could barely walk back to my seat. Everyone said that nobody could tell I was nervous. It took four months before I finally started feeling less bad. LESS BAD. At a certain point in the summer, I realized that I was actually starting to have fun. People told me they loved my speeches. I won a bunch of ribbons. They encouraged me to enter a humorous speech competition, and I came in second place! They pulled me aside and told me I should try standup comedy, and I did it, and I was... fine. Competent really. If I had started the New Year with the resolution: "I will perform live improv comedy in a comedy club in front of an audience" (of fewer than 20 people), there is. No. Freaking. Way. I would ever have followed through. I wanted to overcome my fear, and I beat that fear down with a shovel until it quit twitching. Now, public performance on a small scale is just... a thing I do sometimes.
I used to hate cooking. Then I decided that if an illiterate medieval peasant in a hut could do it, I could. Almost any human being since the dawn of time has been capable of making a pot of soup. I wouldn't even have to make it out of roots and squirrel heads. I decided that I would hate cooking less if I could make stuff taste good. This came about when I read Malcolm Gladwell's book Outliers and picked up on the 10,000-hours-to-expertise idea. I thought, "What about 1,000 hours? What would I want to be good at?" Cooking was my answer. It took more like 10 hours to make a difference. I started reading the recipe through all the way to the end before I got started. I learned to do mise en place (getting everything out first). I came up with a rating system for the recipes I tried. Suddenly, everything I made was acceptable, or even awesome. If I had resolved to "make awesome stuff for dinner without a recipe" I would have given up, probably by March.
I finally reached my goal weight after reaching a point of final frustration with myself. I had lost and regained the same 15 pounds at least six times over the years. Sure, I had kept my weight about 7 pounds lower than my top weight, but what I thought of as my goal was still 18 pounds heavier than the "healthy weight for my height." I knew that when I gained weight I would get migraines, and they were coming every few days. My fibromyalgia symptoms were starting to come back. I was having a really bad time with night terrors. I finally snapped and realized I needed to change my strategy. No more trying to keep my weight one pound under a level I knew would lead to escalating pain and misery. I was going to do the research, find my healthy weight, and stay within a couple of pounds of that. It took three months of strict dieting, and I cried, but when I reached my goal, I knew that this had been the real me all along. Three years and counting. No more crying into my ears because if I move a fraction of an inch, it will feel like an axe through my forehead. "Avoid getting a four-day migraine" was a much better motivator for me than "fit in a size zero," although that's how this negative motivator turned out.
Search for your pain point. What's the messiest room of your house? What time of day are you most likely to quarrel with your housemates? (Spouse, kids, pets)? Does the majority of stress in your life come from your job, your commute, your personal environment, your health, your energy level, your finances, or your relationships? Where do you feel the least comfortable or competent? What makes you say NOPE? Dig in and make this image as vivid as you can. Write yourself a few sentences about it. Now, WHAT ARE YOU GOING TO DO ABOUT IT?
Resolutions are about seizing control of your circumstances. You always have the power to make changes. You can pack up and move, you can change jobs, you can quit associating with people, you can change what you read, you can change what you eat and how you act, you can change your default emotional reaction to events, you can change how you speak to people. It can be hard to figure out what to do differently, but that's what a strategic review is for. What do other people in a different story do differently so that they don't have the problem I have? What can I learn from them? How can I annoy myself less?
Make this year the year you finally quit having to deal with the most annoying factor in your life.
I've been working with chronic disorganization, squalor, and hoarding for over 20 years. I'm also a marathon runner who was diagnosed with fibromyalgia and thyroid disease 17 years ago.