The biggest problem with New Year’s Resolutions is that they get miscategorized. If you want to win at this game, you have to be clear about the rules. What does I WON look like?
The whole thing is much easier when you look at it as a game and approach it with curiosity, or hilarity if you can manage it.
Typically it looks like this. Someone blurts out a resolution on New Year’s Eve, and then quits by the middle of January because they couldn’t manage a perfect streak. Each time they feel guilty and dumb for trying.
The only things we should have a perfect streak at are all hygiene-related!
Like, go ahead and skip Duolingo - I don’t care what that owl says, unless it’s a barred owl in which case watch out - but please don’t skip washing your hands or brushing your teeth, mmkay?
Okay, let’s say the goal is to choose something fun and entertaining to do over the rest of the calendar year. We’ll use my friend Ed’s idea from 2018, which was to “ride more roller coasters.”
How does Ed know that he has kept his resolution?
What he has done is to set an “implementation intention.” He is going to ride “more” roller coasters. He has a clear vision in his mind that he and his wife are going to drive over to an amusement park, buy tickets, and get on the ride. (At that point, willpower no longer applies and the rest of the resolution happens on its own).
Technically, if Ed and Mrs. Ed rode zero roller coasters in 2017, and one in 2018, then he has kept his resolution because one is “more” than zero.
In actuality, this roller coaster deal happened throughout the year and became a fun, memorable series of dates.
This was a successful “resolution” but it could also reasonably be considered a “quest” or a “mission” or a “project.” It could even be an “experiment,” the purpose of which was to overcome the fear of roller coasters.
(That’s called exposure therapy, and it usually works for most people, just like public speaking did for me).
The idea here is to find a way to explore your intent and desire in a way that is not punishing or shaming, because what fun is that? How does it get anyone anywhere? If it really is important or interesting to you, then you would probably want to figure out how to set yourself up for success. By the end of the year, whatever it was that attracted you would be satisfied in some way.
A regular part of your daily routine?
A memory and interesting story?
Information that taught you that it wasn’t what you thought it was, and now you no longer want to play the bagpipes after all?
Certainly an escape clause should be built in. You want a way to release yourself from your internal contract. A learning experience is not failure; in fact, far from it. Every learning experience gets you closer to the ideal vision of what you want for your life - and do not want!
A friend of mine has made a resolution to stop making assumptions about other people’s intentions. He had the insight that he tends to tell himself stories about what other people are thinking when they do or say certain things. This type of projection is stressful, and often wrong. This is a great example of a resolution, because it is meaningful to him and because it will take time to get it down. If he’s right, it will improve his life and there would thus never be a reason to quit doing it. It’s a resolution without a specific timeline or destination, which makes it poorly suited as a traditional “goal.”
Meanwhile, someone could have a goal of returning their ancient overdue library books from three years ago. That would be a clearly defined “goal” that also counts as a resolution. They would know when they were “done” and they would also have kept their implementation intention. (I did this once for a client and the librarians emailed me because they were so curious how I got ahold of the books). This same hypothetical person could make another resolution to “only check out digital books” so they never again have an overdue book, yay!
One of my resolutions for 2020 includes a “project.” I am learning about new ways to simplify, automate, or eliminate household chores. Built-in motivation, right? I have no idea how much I am going to learn or how long it will take me to explore this, which is why it’s a project and not a goal or a resolution. Another person might have a cooking project, or something like making raised garden beds, turning their garage into a music studio, or building a treehouse.
I also have a “quest,” which is to train for a fifty-mile ultramarathon over the next five years. If I were able to do this within three years, that would be amazing. I also wouldn’t be disappointed if it took me longer. The idea is to be fit enough to do an ultra at age fifty, so performing this magic trick at an even more advanced age would actually be an improvement over the original vision.
I have a traditional style of “resolution,” which I call a “stop goal.” I only frame stop goals when I realize that I’ve been doing something to drive myself crazy and annoy myself. One year it was to stop leaving tissues in my pockets and then running them through the washing machine, so that little shreds of wet tissue would disperse themselves throughout all the clothes. Years later I am six-sigma successful at this. This year it’s to stop procrastinating on listening to my voicemail on the rare occasions when I get them. Perfection is not the aim for a stop goal; it’s actually liberation from an easily preventable form of self-bothering.
Even if you only do it once, that’s one less time than usual, one less time of annoying yourself for no reason.
Probably the reason so many of us quit and give up on our “resolutions” is that we pick the preachy ones. Quit biting my nails, stop smoking, Lose Weight, save money. If we had any idea how to do these things, we definitely would have done them already. It’s not our fault if we don’t know what to do on day one.
This is why I believe that it pays to set aside two months to be streak-free, goal-free, and thus failure-free. December is for deciding what to do, and January is for starting to learn how to do it. The more clarity we can get on what we want, how it looks and feels, and how other people have generally made it happen, the more likely that we are to keep our resolutions. Because we want them, they are fun and interesting, and we like them!
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.
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