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.
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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.