I get it. Sometimes, change is inconvenient (reducing our carbon footprint seems like a great idea, until we have to bike in the rain). Sometimes it's unpleasant (nicotine withdrawal is brutal). Other times, one simple resolution opens an exponential can of worms, and we realise that changing one thing actually means changing a cluster of things. Case in point: in 2012, TIME magazine released a list of the Top 10 Most Commonly Broken New Years Resolutions. The one that raises my eyebrow upon perusing this list is "Be Less Stressed." Beyond losing major points for sheer vagueness, I immediately understand why this resolution fails to produce results for people. Stress is not a singular behaviour - it is a byproduct of a multitude of factors: temperament, circumstance, coping skills, boundary setting, core beliefs, expectations of self, expectations of others, habits. It's not that it isn't possible to be less stressed, it's more that such a blanket goal actually is tantamount to at least a dozen resolutions in one.
But far be it from me, or any other therapist, to decry self-improvement. Turfing self-destructive habits, improving how we relate to others, making more authentic choices...such lofty topics are part of our daily parlance. We know how difficult the work of change is, and how even the most broken down goals can prove difficult to enact. For that reason, I've been thinking about how we can set ourselves up for success, rather than disappointment. Here's what I have come up with. I would love to hear your ideas, too!
Start with values.
Make a list of all your values, and identify which ones are critical to your satisfaction and well being. Values are not the same as goals; they are priorities that remind us of how we want to live. Here is a values inventory to help you get started. Once you have identified your most important values, ask yourself if these are reflected in how you are actually living your life. For example, if you identify "Health" as an important value, take stock of how this is reflected in all facets of your life. You may be exercising regularly and eating organic, but if you are sleeping fewer than seven hours a night, a fundamental part of good health is impacted. So there's a resolution right there: get more sleep.
Slice your goals thinly. Then slice them even thinner.
One resolution I was talking to someone about recently was "spend less time on phone." It's a good goal, but it felt too broad and aimless. When we whittled this one down, we arrived at the conclusion that the majority of time he was on his phone was spent on Twitter. So then we arrived at "spend less time on Twitter." But this too seemed insufficient, and besides, Twitter was necessary for career networking in this case. More shaving down, and we arrived at more specific parameters: post and respond to posts at liberty when alone or on transit rather than in the company of others. No posting or checking during family time from 5-8pm. Remove chimes that alert new activity; they are too intrusive. All the makings of a great goal: a roadmap for behaviour that is based on pragmatics, values and relevance.
Expect setbacks, and look at them as opportunities to learn.
Relapsing back to old ways of behaving is an opportunity masquerading as failure. Rather than judging yourself for your slips or wondering if you even have it in you to bother, ask yourself (in a caring, curious tone) what factors threw you off course this time. We do some important fine tuning by examining the context of our lapses, and we can then better prepare ourselves for future challenges.
Consider doing "experiments" rather than resolutions.
I love short-term experiments. They allow us to try out a new behaviour without being intimidated by the inherent commitment. Seeing as though it takes 21 days to form or break a habit (so they say) I've always liked the round number of thirty days to try out new behaviours or break patterns. After a month, you can decide where to go with the stated goal. You'll likely have learnt by that point whether it's a change worth sticking with, and if you're interested in making this a more permanent change, how you can reasonably go about it.
Try the twenty percent rule.
Sometimes absolutes are tough. I couldn't give up shopping, but I sure could benefit from spending 20% less money each month if I tried! Some people could say the same for drinking, watching Netflix, and time spent on Facebook. Also, this is true for adding new, constructive behaviours. Exercising every day might be a bit too overwhelming, but exercising twenty percent more than you do now - totally doable! Twenty percent is somewhat arbitrary, of course. Depending on the gap between your current lifestyle and the goal to which you are aspiring, you can scale this up or down.
The bottom line:
Inspiration is the easy part. Following through is much more difficult. In addition to wanting things to be better, we also need to buy into the belief that we have what it takes to follow through, and to accept the discouraging feelings that go along with inevitable setbacks. It's important not to lose sight of the fact that New Year's resolutions are usually relevant and self-affirming, and worth the moments of frustration and tedium that it takes to get there.
Do you make resolutions? What are they? I'd love to hear from you.
Happy New Year! See you in 2016.