By John Lee Pendall
“I’m going to quit smoking, stick to a diet, exercise, cut down on social media, be more outgoing and use the world, ‘like,’ only when it’s, like, absolutely necessary.”
It’s almost the New Year; a time for stocking up on goldschlager, assembling 80’s hits playlists on Spotify, and writing, “New Year, New Me,” posts on social media. Oh, and resolutions.
New Year’s resolutions aren’t anything new (See what I did there?). In fact, they’ve been around since Babylonia. Around 50% of Americans make a resolution each year, and a surprising 45% manage to follow through with them. Here are some tips on how to keep your resolutions.
Life is all about repetition. We create ourselves over time. Sure, our parents provide the raw materials and culture gives us carrots and sticks, but we put it all together. We become the things that we do over and over again. Everything about us comes from repetition. Even these words only make sense because they were repeatedly paired with certain meanings.
Most of our resolutions have to do with stopping bad habits. The problem is that we tend to underestimate how much force these habits have behind them. Have you ever had a weekly ritual, like getting some doughnuts before work each Monday? After doing that dozens of times, if you skip those Monday morning doughnuts, it’s probably gonna throw your whole day off.
If missing Doughnut Day is enough to spoil our moods, that shows how tough it’s gonna be to follow through with any of our more transformative resolutions. But that doesn’t mean they’re impossible to achieve. It just means that, if we think it’s going to be easy, then we’re probably going to fail. And if we think it’s going to be impossible, then we’re probably going to fail.
That elusive Middle Way is usually best.
The first thing to do is not be stupid—form realistic goals. Your long-term goal might be to lose 50 pounds, but we can break that down into more manageable short-term goals. We’re wired for instant gratification. If our goal is somewhere far off in the mysterious ether we call the distant future, then it’s going to tough to stay motivated. We can take that 50 and break into 5 or 10 pound chunks. It’s like breaking $100 for a bunch of singles. Don’t ask me why I need 100 singles. That’s Zen business.
Keeping our resolve going is vital as well. Skillful Resolve is one of the aspects of the Noble Eightfold Path. It’s usually called Right Thought or Right Intention. The trick is to keep that resolve alive. We can undo habits using the same tools we crafted them with: repetition. It’s not enough to make a resolution once at midnight. To follow through with it, we have to make it over and over again until the habit we’re trying to overcome is like an emergency roadside pee we dribbled on some weeds 10 miles behind us.
Prying ourselves away from our habits isn’t fun. So, we can throw a little Skillful View and mindfulness in for flavor. “I don’t smoke anymore because I want to feel healthy and live a long life for my family.” It’s good to keep the reasons in mind, and the phrasing helps too.
Studies show that when we say, “I don’t,” rather than, “I can’t,” we’re more likely to stick with our new behavior. That’s because the brain is kind of an idiot, so it generally believes whatever you tell it.
If you tell yourself, “I can’t smoke,” then that’s going to tickle your amygdala and send the brain into fight-or-flight mode. Saying, “I can’t,” makes the brain think it’s being detained by something against its will. If you say, “I don’t smoke,” then that bypasses that circuit and activates the parts of the brain responsible for pleasure and feelings of autonomy.
Most of the habits we’d like to break are maladaptive coping mechanisms that we’ve picked up along the way. Just like with addiction, we’re more likely to fall back on these habits when we’re stressed. I’m a fan of comfort food; that’s why I look like Jabba the Hutt (the original Jabba, not the weird CGI version). Whenever I start eating better, everything usually starts going batshit crazy, so I say, “Screw it, give me that pizza! I must assimilate it!” Yes, I’m terrible at following my own advice. Ya know what they say, “Those who can’t do, teach. And those who can’t teach, teach Buddhism.”
Self-deprecating humor is one way that I deal with stress. The less stressed out you feel, the easier it’s going to be to keep at your resolutions. This might mean introducing something new to your routine that calms you down, finding ways to limit contact with stressful people and situations, or learning to relate to stressful events in more positive ways—like arson. No, not arson; not arson, John.
I recommend meditation, but I’m a Buddhist, so that’s about as surprising as an EDM fan recommending Molly. You know what relaxes you; try to make more time for it (even if it means pissing people off because you’re not at their beckon call 24/7 anymore).
If you find yourself at that level of exhaustion, it’s going to be tough to even think the word, “resolution,” much less keep one. Our resolutions are often just as much for others as they are for us. Doing our best to keep them, even if it means putting our foot down with others, isn’t selfish. I meditate at the same time everyday, and everyone knows that when I’m on that cushion, I’m not getting up until the timer goes off. I don’t care if the house starts on fire, I’m going to keep sitting. That’s hyperbole, of course. I’d at least get up to turn the smoke alarm off.
There’s nothing wrong with taking time for you. Without, “me time,” it’s hard to find the energy to even be personable with other people. I’m an introvert, so when my energy levels drop, the best I can manage is a few monosyllabic grunts and lackluster head nods.
Anyway, to recap:
1) Turn a long-term goal into several short-term goals
2) Keep renewing your resolution as needed
3) Be mindful of why you’re doing this and think in, “I don’t,” or, “I do,” terms—not, “I can’t,” or, “I should.”
4) Manage stress and exhaustion
5) Take time for you
If we don’t plan on putting that kind of commitment into a resolution, it’s better to just not make one at all. The New Year sometimes sees an upswing in depression because it’s cold as balls outside and everyone feels like failures.
“It’s better to try and fail than to never try at all,” is only applicable if we put in an earnest, committed effort. If that doesn’t seem likely, then it’s better to avoid the depression and learn to be okay with who we already are, in all of our lazy, binge-eating, chain-smoking, socially awkward, “like,” saying glory. It’s easier to change when you don’t hate yourself.
That sounds counter-intuitive, but any career depressive will tell you that it’s a fact. Just like how it’s easier to exercise when we’re already in shape, it’s easier to make positive changes when we already feel positive.
It’s an Olympian challenge to change your life for the better when you feel like you don’t deserve something better—it’s a challenge, but it’s not impossible. The same way that catastrophe can strike at any moment, Lady Luck can give you a lap dance at any moment as well. The only difference is that catastrophes are usually on the house; luck tends to charge.
But those nickels and dimes gather interest fast. May you be free of suffering, and have a Happy New Year.
Editor: Dana Gornall
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He has a B.S. in psychology and lives between two cornfields in rural Illinois. His errant knowledge base covers Buddhism, philosophy, psychology, astronomy, theology, music theory, and quoting lines from movies.
Feel free to check out his Facebook page, and his blog "Salty Dharma".