Why Your New Year's Resolution Will Fail
'Tis the season to be delusional. That's right, ladies and gentlemen, the new year is upon us, and that can mean only one thing: it's time to hurl your best intentions into the void of your imagined future, and hope that the New Year's resolution fairy waves her magic wand and grants your wish.
Okay, I'm being a little harsh. But from the way things usually shake out, this is how you'd think most folks approach the great American ritual of New Year's resolutions. I have a friend who works at 24 Hour Fitness here in downtown Portland, and she told me they put a lockdown on employee travel for January, February, and March of each year. Apparently, there are so many new gym memberships following the New Year that they can’t afford to lose any employees, even for a little while. But by the time April hits, things have levelled off again. All those good intentions have fallen by the wayside, and employees can hop on that plane to Hawaii and finally take a break.
I'm not saying that all New Year's resolutions are bound to fail. But there's this peculiar, almost superstitious sense that just by making the resolution on a special day like New Year's, it will be imbued with a magical power that renders the standard rules of follow-through unnecessary. And hey, maybe there is something a little bit special about New Year's. After all, it's a clean slate, and people all over the Western world are lending their mental powers toward a collective belief that from now on, things can be different; that 2017 doesn't have to be at all like 2016, except for the similarity that both will almost definitely begin with a massive hangover.
With so much information so easily available these days, we have the advantage of knowing that whatever we resolve to do, we can figure out how to do it. Want to lose weight? Get more muscle tone? Run a half marathon by summer? Start a meditation practice? You can find solid, reliable information about how to do any of those. Gone are the days when you had to pay your way on an ocean liner by shoveling coal for four months before crossing a harsh and unforgiving desert just to maybe meet a guy who might know something about yoga. Now, you can Google it.
But all this, of course, only begs the question: if we have such advantages, why do most resolutions demonstrably fail? It must be that making and keeping a resolution are separate and independent skill sets from whatever the specific resolution happens to entail. And like all skill sets, there are some fundamental principles.
The Gentle Art of Being Realistic
Last year, a friend of mine showed me her New Year's resolutions. She had made a list. A long list. A very, very long list. It overflowed with vows about going to hot yoga, learning to cook more vegan dishes, going to the gym, starting her own business. On and on it went. It was all cool stuff, and I imagine after writing it, she sat back in self-satisfied amazement at what a cool chick she would be just as soon as she checked all these accomplishments off her list. And she was so excited about it, it was hard not to get a little excited for her, too.
But I knew right away that she would fail, and I knew why she would fail. And worse, I knew that she would blame herself, even though it really wouldn't be her fault. And sure enough, now that the year has passed, I can confirm that she has done literally none of these things. All that's changed is they seem just a little further out of her reach, and she hates herself just a little more.
I didn't mention any of this to her when she showed me the list. I was polite. She's not a student or client, and she wasn't asking me for advice. But I wanted to say, "Pick one or two of these, and cross everything else off the list. Focus on those one or two for the whole next year, make it to the finish line, and then add something else."
Of course, she would have felt deflated. I mean, here she was, with this great big fantasy, and she had just gotten it to feel real. But being genuinely realistic is not as simple as it sounds, especially in our instant-gratification, fantasy-fueled culture. We've been trained so thoroughly to live in a wish-fulfillment fantasy land through media, entertainment, and advertising that when we stub a toe, it feels like a personal affront against our private reality. But the first step in making something reality is giving up our fantasy version of it, and that can feel just like a big old bucket of cold water over the head.
On the other hand, once freed from fantasy and in reality, making small but consistent changes often has way, way more of an impact than we generally anticipate. Most importantly, it trains willpower and commitment. It turns you, bit by bit, into the kind of person that's capable of following through, something all too many people simply take for granted about themselves. When you show yourself that you can set an intention and keep it, you add to your power, and the next commitment becomes easier.
You can always add to your list of New Year's goals once you have momentum. But the attitude should be that once you say you'll do something, come hell or high water, you're going to do it. So make few promises, but keep them all. That's how you accumulate real power.
You Can’t Get to a Positive Through a Negative
All resolutions begin as a specific intent, and that intent is made of language. Before you can hope to follow through with action, you have to make sure your language is precise. For example, "I'm going to have a great year" is basically meaningless and unactionable, whereas, "I'm going to run a marathon on October 1" allows you to make and execute a specific plan of action.
This spoken or written intent is the touchstone of your resolution, something you'll return to again and again, and beyond making it precise, it's important to make sure there aren’t any hidden negatives lurking in it. This can be a much subtler point than it seems.
Many folks make New Year's resolutions for the wrong reasons. They wake up underneath the Christmas tree they tried to climb whilst drunk, with a soft and distended belly from all the indulgences of holiday eating, and with a grand gesture of self-loathing, declare to themselves, "Oh my God, I am disgusting." And disgusting they may be, but that's the wrong place to start from when making a change. It's fundamentally reactive. Saying, "I hereby resolve to be far, far less disgusting" starts with a negative, and every time you try to take action, you'll just remember how disgusting you think you are. You'll grow to resent it, resist it, and ultimately remove it from your life.
Okay, that's an exaggerated example. But the same principle can apply more subtly to more common resolutions. Consider, for example, resolving to lose twenty pounds. Once again, you're starting with a negative, a reaction to undesirable circumstances, rather than an action toward desirable ones. And every time you move to take action, you'll be thinking about those extra twenty pounds you have. You'll be emphasizing the problem to yourself, along with whatever self judgment wants to come along for the ride. On the other hand, if you think of it in terms of achieving the specific weight you think is healthy, you'll be focusing on the positive end product. You're getting into this for the long haul, so you want to make sure your vector is pointed in the right direction.
Hidden negatives are what evoke the subtle but potent forces of self-sabotage and inner resistance. Who wants to be constantly reminded of the thing they're trying to avoid? So, don’t think in terms of what you want less of, but what you want more of. And if this seems like too subtle a distinction, keep in mind that this kind of inquiry into your motives also opens up what is possibly the most important question you can ask yourself:
Why, exactly, are you doing what you're doing?
Is this something you really want, or something you think you're supposed to want? If your resolution is just a reaction to internalized "should's," then you'll likely be waging a futile battle against inner forces of resentment and self-sabotage. You need to know what you're doing and why you're doing it for all horses to be pulling in the same direction. If you know, you'll get there. If you don't, you won't. And if, in examining your why, you find that the desire isn’t authentic in the first place, then for God's sake, drop it.
Play the Long Game
Barring some unforeseen tragedy, it's safe to assume that you'll make it through this coming year. That means you'll find yourself at the end of 2017, once again, facing yet another New Year, and a New Year's resolution. And on that day a year from now, I'd say the most demoralizing thing that can happen is that you make the same resolution you made this year, with the addendum of, "Okay, but for real this time."
Taking that long view can be sobering, but very powerful as well. That's a full 365 days of sustaining your intent, and taking consistent action. So be realistic, and set your intent carefully and honestly. Lay a foundation so that when next year comes, you'll be building on something, not starting again from scratch. Think of your resolution in terms of where you want to be at the end of 2017 instead of where you don’t want to be now. Play the long game, and play it well, and you'll become more powerful, more joyful, and more real with each new year.
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