New Year’s Resolutions get an F. Only 45% of Americans usually make resolutions, as opposed to the 38% who absolutely never do, and only 8% are successful at the resolution. I’m part of that 8%, and I’d like to say two things. One, only 5% of applicants to Harvard University are accepted, so at least accomplishing a resolution is more likely than that. Two, EVERYONE IS DOING IT WRONG.
Resolutions are magic. Choosing just one is a reliable indicator of an awareness that something in life could be better, that someone has an outrageous dream or heart’s desire going unheeded, or that something is seriously screwed up and needs attention. Blurting out a resolution on New Year’s Eve is much like standing before the Sorting Hat. It has some very important things to say about character and happiness.
Say I find an old lamp at Goodwill (likely) and when I pick it up, I rub it and a genie floats out (possible)! The genie offers to grant me a wish, or three if I like, or an unlimited amount if only I commit to stating them out loud. What do I do? What do I say? I say wishes are stupid. I say I don’t know what I want. I say I’ll probably screw up somehow and wish for the wrong thing. I say I can’t make wishes because I don’t have the motivation or the willpower. I say I’ve tried making wishes before, and it didn’t work. I say I refuse to make a wish because I know I’ll just let myself down, like I always do. I say I’m fine just the way things are, that I don’t need a wish. I say wishes are for narcissists. I say this is a tough time of year for me.
I look up, and the genie is still there, waiting with the patience of an immortal being for whom time has no meaning whatsoever.
Although I do have a genie who grants infinite wishes, this story isn’t about me. It’s about everyone. We suck at making wishes. We talk ourselves out of them. We go all sour grapes over anything that causes a glint of passion to shine from our hearts. We grow more cynical every year. Not only are we our own naysayers, but we love to be naysayers for others, too. We’re jealous when others succeed at things we are perfectly capable of doing.
The thing is that wishes are good for everyone. Every time I’ve ever coaxed a pure wish from anyone, it has been a very humble, pragmatic wish. People wish to get better jobs, to be debt-free, to be physically stronger, to move to different cities, to travel, to ride horses, to take classes or resume practices of art, dance, and music, to learn foreign languages, to be free of addiction, to get organized. Raise your hand if it bothers you that anyone plans to do any of these things. Okay, you with the raised hand, see me after class. We are always free to make changes, starting with our attitudes, our thoughts, our behaviors, and our words. Most entropy-driven changes are neutral or negative. Conscious choices in the direction of change are positive for the individual, and they also ripple outward, benefitting others.
What is it about resolutions, that they seem so simple, yet we can never seem to pull them off?
What is the wish behind the resolution?
A lot of us wish to lose weight, and we usually screw this up in every way we can devise, many of them involving gym memberships. I’m at my goal weight, a weight I had never experienced since before I reached adult height, and almost everything I ever did to move in this direction was misguided and ineffective. More on that later. The wish behind the resolution to lose weight is a wish for body pride. We’re wishing to feel right inside our skin. Sometimes we’re also wishing to escape critical scrutiny, to ignore health concerns, or to swap lives with a phantom of perfection.
A lot of us wish to get organized, and this can mean many different things. When I first made this wish, what I really wanted was peace of mind. Being organized in the women’s magazines way does not necessarily lead to peace of mind, though. Peace of mind tends to lead to organization more often than the reverse.
The idea here is that it helps to start with the emotional state or mood that we wish to feel. We almost always start with a list of feelings we DO NOT WANT, what we want to wish away. Wishes take space. They push other things out of the way. Passion burns hot. When we focus on what we don’t want, rather than what we do want, it burns away our initiative. It’s like letting the propellant out of a can of whipped cream while there is still cream in there. We have to look toward what we want, and name it, and call it towards ourselves. I wish for love! I wish for confidence! I wish for patience! I wish for friendship! I wish for self-mastery! I wish for peace of mind! I wish to see the fairies!
I’m not here to talk about fairies today, but I can say that if you never look for them, you certainly won’t find any. There is plenty of enchantment in this world to go around.
My recommendation is to start from a place of curiosity. What would it be like to have my wish come true? How would it feel? How would I feel if I were living that reality right now? Who do I know who knows more about this? We turn the knob on an inner door and open that door a crack. Does the door pull inward or push outward? Do the hinges squeak? How much light is coming in?
I finally reached my goal weight because it occurred to me that I didn’t know how it felt to be at that weight, and my curiosity overcame my perceptions that I would somehow be submitting to the patriarchy by doing so. I started keeping a food log while I was on my strict, tear-inducing diet, and then I became curious about micronutrients. Magically, I accidentally managed to cure myself of night terrors and to start sleeping 8-9 hours a night. Resolutions done right can lead to other things falling into place, effortlessly.
So you want to make a resolution and keep it? First, stop being a naysayer. Catch yourself every single time you start a sentence with NO. “No, that won’t work for me.” “No, I tried that.” “No, I heard fifth-hand that that doesn’t work.” Remove the resistance, remove the obstacles, remove anyone who persists in treating your dream with contempt or mean-spirited criticism. Refuse to take “advice” from anyone who hasn’t done the thing and anyone who lacks credentials in that area.
I’ve become more of a believer in the power of New Year’s Resolutions every time I have accomplished one. I don’t always succeed at every resolution the year I make it. FLAT ABS took something like 15 years from the first time I wrote it, and DRINK MORE WATER took longer than that, but once I’ve decided I have a wish worth pursuing, I will eventually get there. What is improving is my skill at researching a problem, my persistence in exhausting multiple approaches, and my ability to devise ways to track metrics that reveal patterns in my behavior. What works usually has nothing to do with what I thought would work. For instance, becoming an endurance athlete made me so thirsty that my chronic dehydration became impossible to maintain, but it never crossed my mind that highly strenuous activity would solve my water problem. I didn’t realize that my sleep problems had at least a dozen different inputs, all of which would have to be addressed independently. Now I understand more about the aggregation of marginal gains and about how all our behaviors interact in a network.
Resolutions can be complicated stuff. Looking for the true wish buried inside can be hard, because sometimes we hide them so deeply that we forget they’re even there. Fortunately, New Year’s Resolutions are one of my greatest passions in life, so I’ll be writing about them all through the month of January. It is my wish that you feel completely smug by this time next year, knowing you have granted your wish to yourself and that you know how it feels to have it.
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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.