CHANGEABILITY: WHY NEW YEAR’S RESOLUTIONS FAIL
Happy New Year! As soon as the confetti streamers settle to the ground, we wake to the sound of that inner voice rising up in the biggest proclamation of change we collectively know—the New Year’s resolution. We pledge, we promise, we avow to make a change that gets us back on track after a season of excess. Or was it a year, or possibly several years of neglect and the great need for course correction? We go on a diet, we go to the gym, we call our loved ones more often. We resolve to begin that home project or finish that novel (fill in your resolution here___________________).
That lasts for about a month. For, come February, we find that despite our best intentions, our New Year’s resolutions have failed. Our old habits set back in, or never really left. We feel disappointed and discouraged, and find a way to rationalize our failure. Either that, or we distance ourselves from the change we wanted to make, driving it down even further out of sight. None of this moves us towards the intention we set. So, let’s take a look at why New Year’s resolutions fail.
Your timing is off
I don’t know why anyone thinks it’s a good idea to start something new in the dead of winter when the natural world is frozen, receded, and resting. We humans should be doing that, too: conserving energy, contemplating, and gestating so that when springtime comes, we, too, can spring into action. At that time, your new ideas, ventures, and makeovers can emerge like the new blades of grass, and mature into bountiful, flowering trees as the seasons progress.
So then, if your January resolve is not taking hold, consider that your timing is off. It could be nothing more than that. Just because the lights of the city can be on all day and night, or our technology is available to us 24/7 we think we can and should respond to those cycles of endless doing rather than align with the natural cycles of the seasons. There needs to be a time of year when we slow down and go inside: when we rest and restore. Winter is that time. If we don’t take that gestating time in the winter, the continuance of the year proceeds without the proper nourishment for ideas, activity, and resiliency.
However, the beginning of the year is a good time to simplify: eat less, do less, taper off from all the socializing and carrying on of the holiday season. But starting a new regimen or a new discipline? Better to continue to gestate in the darkness for a while, understanding that with each day past the winter solstice of December 21 we are moving one day closer to the full light. Simplifying what you take in or do outwardly can only give room for what is yet forming in the unformed darkness. I know, it’s not easy to remain in the dark, to remain in the place of unknowing, or to have our yearnings still unanswered—but, to sit with our desires until the proper time for action, only makes their realization more potent.
Goals are too far, too fast
Which brings us to the topic of patience. Another reason why your New Year’s resolution might not succeed is that you’re overly ambitious. Not necessarily in your desire for change or the reach of your goal, but definitely in the strategy for implementation. If you set your bar too high, too fast, I guarantee, you’ll get bored or discouraged because you think you could and should go faster than you actually can or do. It’s well within our culture to think big and want to rush to the end result. We want what we want, and we want it now.
Change takes time. I repeat that. Change takes time. I repeat that, again. Change takes time. Each change has its own timing. Why can some events occur that will change your life in an instant—like the death of friend, or the destruction of your home in a wild fire—but to lose twenty pounds after the holidays, to stop smoking, or build a new career seems to take forever? There’s a big difference between sudden and shocking events, and breaking old habits in order to establish new ones. That requires patience, persistence, and a good strategy that allows for course correction that compassionately accommodates setbacks and failures.
Mark Twain is reported to have said, “Giving up smoking is the easiest thing in the world. I know because I’ve done it thousands of times.” Right? Like with any addiction that is also a habit, smoking cessation is a difficult and complex process, and smokers use many strategies in order to quit. Knowing how many quit attempts it takes an average smoker to quit is important, as it can reframe success to include some missteps along the way. The American Cancer Society suggests that it takes eight to ten quit attempts; the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) suggests eight to eleven attempts before quitting permanently. Understanding that quitting and returning is part of the process allows you to be forgiving of yourself as you continue to stay engaged in achieving your goal. The same is true for the change of any behavior or habit. Coffee, alcohol, overeating, smoking: these are all addictive habits that can be changed, but often require more than just your will power. Professional help, proper treatment, the support of friends and likeminded seekers, and a forgiving, incremental strategy for success are necessary for overcoming addiction. Your resolve to make these changes can be your driver, but in order to ride the waves of all the ups and downs and the back and forths of complex change, you will need a compelling reason why. Why is it important for you to change this habit? Your compelling reason is what will return you again and again to renew your discipline when your will power wanes.
If you find that you’re not able to sustain your goal or resolution then you must ask yourself, “Why do I want to make this change?” Your answer needs to be strong and clear, one that will carry you through each and every obstacle that comes in your way, for there’ll be many. There always are. So, if your New Year’s resolution is not coming into realization, your compelling reason why may simply not be compelling enough.
Making significant change is not easy. Sustaining the new actions required for change is not especially comfortable to keep up. If you’re breaking old habits and trying to create new ones, not only does your hope have to be renewed over and over, your compelling reason has to be refueled when reaching for that tempting pastry or cigarette, or when you’re just too tired to want to go to the gym in the cold weather. Believe me, I can come up with any excuse to not do my discipline. I’m sure you’re very good with that, too. But what ultimately helps me win over my sloth or habit is the reminder and strength of my compelling reason why. Why do I want to be on this diet? To feel lighter and be more healthy. Why do I want to call my loved ones more often? To be in closer connection and feel the support of the bonds. Why does Batman want to save Gotham City? Because he really hates bad guys. Anything, I mean anything, can arise to distract us, or redirect us from our stated goal. It’s only your clear and compelling reason why that will remind you of your purpose—so it’d better be very compelling.
Steven Pressfield wrote a profoundly helpful book called, The War of Art (Orion Books), all about the insidious forms resistance takes when we’ve set ourselves on a course of creativity, initiation, or change. Written especially for writers who face resistance daily as soon as they begin to write, these principles apply to anyone who declares that they’re going to make a positive change. Immediately, resistance sets in to keep us in the status quo, and it’s only in clarifying and strengthening the compelling reason why, as well as recognizing all the unexpected forms resistance takes that can distract us and pull us off course, that we can triumph. By declaring a New Year’s resolution, well that’s just one big invitation for resistance to rush in. Read his book; I can’t recommend it enough. It’s changed my life and given me successful work habits. It can change your success, as well.
Remember though, that your success in achieving the change you seek also depends on your use of proper timing, an incremental and forgiving approach, and lots of appropriate support. That support can come in many forms.
When we make change, or even dream of it, we are vulnerable, off balance, and in brand new territory from where we have known before. Sometimes, we’re embarrassed to even believe we can quit smoking when we’ve tried and failed many times before, or to actually take steps to drop the corporate job for a start-up food truck enterprise when we’ve done nothing but talk about it for years. In order to bring these young, tender ideas and first steps into play we need all the support we can get. Friends, professionals, support organizations, physical practices, spiritual practices all can provide a needed scaffold of support when we’re stumbling around in what is new for us. What kind of support do you have? Can you set up more? Frankly, if you’re going to make a New Year’s resolution, it ought to be to find more support in your life, period. That may be an incremental process, too, but better to begin now.
So to review, why have your New Year’s resolutions failed?
Not the right timing
The dead of winter is a time for gestating not jumping into action.
Goals are reaching too far, too fast
Discouragement comes when we think we have to make large changes, quickly. Slow down your strategy for change to incremental, achievable steps that include room for failure, evaluation, and course correction.
Compelling reason is not compelling enough
Without a strong reason why, we can all succumb to temptation, sloth, and revert to old habits. Strengthen why you are making this change by clarifying what you love and are willing to work hard for.
Not enough support
Thinking you have to do it alone, especially in times of vulnerable change, is a fallacy and a sure recipe for disappointment.
And there’s one more reason your resolutions fail:
Not enough fun
Is this resolution any fun? How can you make it fun? Where is the Eros, the play, or the pleasure in it? How are you rewarding yourself for the hard work of new change? You might need to reframe your rewards, as well as your approach to making that change. For instance, it may be that you’ll have to find new rewards if sweets or cocktails have been your past rewards and that’s what you’re trying to eliminate. Your ability to make even the most unpleasant tasks into some sort of play will contribute greatly to your success and your pleasure. It’s not impossible.
There’re plenty of people out there who’ll tell you how to create the discipline around reaching your resolutions. They’ll provide systems about how to set a goal, a strategy, and how to stay in action around your choice. So much of that is done through sheer will power and muscling your way through, which is only part of what is needed to be successful in making significant change. How about falling in love with whatever it is you desire to change, bringing your passion into play, and bringing a sense of play to your approach? If you’ve made a resolution, the change you want to make has probably been knocking at your door for a long time, waiting for you to finally love the change or love yourself enough to do the hard work associated with it.
Or, how about succeeding with New Year’s resolutions by not making them at all? My favorite way for approaching the new year is to select a guiding word. It’s not a resolution, it’s not a declaration: it’s a guide. It can be a single word or a few words, but I set this word before me as my guide for the quality of what I want most in this year to come. I navigate my days by that word. This is a practice taught to me by one of my teachers, Continuum Montage founder, Susan Harper.
My guiding words from past years have been: trust, play, Eros, courage, and joy. Let’s say my word is joy. When a situation comes up I ask myself, ”Am I feeling joy in this moment? If not, how can I bring more joy to this moment?” Sometimes, the remedy is as simple as putting a smile on my face, or finding some little detail to appreciate. When I do it, I’m on my way to fulfilling the feeling, quality, or even actions that I say I want. If I’m not able to bring joy to the moment, I get to experience the resistance in either my context or within myself, and try again next time. The state of joy would be one I’m trying to bring in as often as I can, and that just comes with awareness and practice.
This year, my word is dance. I’ve been trained as a dancer and have been a somatic movement educator for over twenty years; in many ways I could say that movement and dance is my native tongue. And yet, I find I’m not dancing enough for my own good, not letting myself glide, or leap, or wiggle my hips both literally and metaphorically, and I want to return to that sense of play in this next year. I could also have chosen other words, but the word dance is the one that grabbed my attention.
There’ll be so many times when I’ll forget my word and I’ll find myself back to my old habits. But, by simply remembering my word, and that I was the one who chose that word over all other words in the English language for this year, I’ll be reminded that’s what I really want right now, and not this old stale habit. If I can’t fully get there on a given day, then I ask to have compassion for myself and recognize that change is an incremental process. And, if it’s still wintertime, and not yet the bloom of spring, it may be better to dream or meditate on my guiding word until it’s truly time to put it into action. I can let “dance” gain potency, and perhaps even urgency, as I sit with it and let it simmer in the dark. Once the warmth and light of spring calls me forward, my guiding principle for change will leap and spin with me.
What will your word for 2020 be? May it guide you through the changes you’d like to create for yourself and for our precious world.