The novelty of the new year has not worn off yet. Most people are still going to the gym every day, and are still absolutely nailing it with the diet from that book they just read. They’re still writing a-page-a-day in their novel, and still making sure the kids eat everything on their plate. In other words, the new year’s resolutions still look like they’ve got a chance. But do they feel that way? Except for the fumes of holiday optimism, probably not.
Let me explain why I think that is.
When I was a kid and began taking care of myself a little bit more–you know, like pouring my own milk, or trying to fix my own toys–“Don’t force it!” was a piece of advice I heard from my dad on a regular basis. Not unlike most children, I was not someone who wanted to wait for anything. If something wasn’t working how I thought it was supposed to, I wasn’t going to wait while I figured it out. I concluded that it must just need more force. The cabinet won’t open from the other side–better grab the crowbar!
In part, my dad’s “don’t force it” advice was really about figuring out how something is intended to work. If a jar is supposed to open, it should do so relatively easily. If you don’t figure out that the lid twists, you’ll break the jar trying to pull the lid straight off.
But brute force, as it turns out, would be a strategy I’d use to my own detriment for many years to come. If it’s not working the way you want, press on it, squeeze it, smash at it harder until there’s almost nothing left. Of course, that outcome would never be so obvious until after the fact. I’d still try it over and over again. While tinkering or trying to fix something. While creating something new. And eventually, with my behavior itself.
I’ve always been an introspective person, but as an adult, I also became analytical of my habits and behavior. I found some things about myself that I liked, and some that I wished to change. Guess what method I used? When I wanted to read more, I tried to binge read for hours on hours. When I wanted to get in shape, I started going to the gym for two or three hours at a time. Brute force. I wanted to be in shape, but did not want to get in shape. I wanted to be someone who read a lot, but didn’t necessarily want to read. By applying brute force, and more pressure right away, I’d hurry along those results I really wanted.
I basically made these big sweeping resolutions, and they always failed for two reasons: I didn’t respect the finite nature of my energy, and I didn’t respect the ebb and flow of my feelings. I was always trying to pull the lid straight off the jar, and it always left jam all over the floor.
Mention ‘new year’s resolutions’ in June and you shouldn’t be surprised to see eyes rolling. The tried-and-failed trope in new year’s resolution stories exists for a reason and we all kind of know it. But, we also all kind of do it anyway.
When the new year comes around, most people get an automatic motivation bonus. The promise of progress in a new year, or the feeling of being able to finally put the last year in the past just gets our juices flowing. It feels good. It’s like being at a party and talking about getting back together for breakfast in the morning… after the fifth shot of Jack Daniels. It feels good to do it, but it’s probably not going to happen.
Can you really blame us for getting swept up in those feelings and making a bunch of promises a more exhausted, and possibly disgruntled, person will have to make-good on later?
By the time I was familiar with the concept of new year’s resolutions, I was already pretty cynical about the idea. I knew from my personal experience that these grand propositions of change just didn’t happen. I scoffed, but continued to expend all my energy and fail the resolutions I was making quietly in my head.
The truth is, change almost never happens quickly.
Instead, it happens slowly over time when you repeat some fundamental behavior enough, and this is where we get into trouble with our resolutions. We know we have to do something to make a change, but we trick ourselves into thinking that the intensity of what we do will correlate with our ability to adopt that behavior for the long haul. So, if your resolution is to get in shape, you’ll make an elaborate effort right out of the gate, then run out of energy or find yourself in a bad mood, and it will quickly taper off. Or if you resolution is to spend more time with your kids, you’ll probably have a series of very fun and exciting outings before there’s a time conflict or something, and again, it will quickly taper off.
All these elaborate efforts cost us energy, but they don’t make the process of change faster.
A resolution has to be nurtured until the change has matured into a part of who you are. An effective resolution plants a seed for some behavior to grow. So with a resolution to get in shape for example, one minute of running every day costs less energy than forcing yourself to go to the gym three days a week, and it doesn’t do anywhere near as much to get you in shape. But at the end of the year, you’ll still be doing it and maybe running a lot more than that even. That would be huge, and it would continue to grow because fitness is becoming part of who you are.
Fulfilling a new year’s resolution is not about the intensity of your effort, it’s about being resolute. Since you can’t promise you’ll be resolute about everything at all times, you have to focus your attention on something that requires so little energy you can fairly assume you’ll never have a good excuse not to do it. Be resolute about that one thing and it will slowly teach you how to twist the lid off the jar off.