A big problem with New Year’s resolutions is not something intrinsic to the practice of resolving to make positive changes in the coming year—these can be beneficial forces in a person’s life—but with the way we word our resolutions. Word choice determines everything. Words mean things. The words we use determine everything that follows. With just slight modifications to the wording and by being more specific, these resolutions can become more powerful, more effective, and more true to our nature and our actual desires.
How would I rewrite eight common New Year’s resolutions?
“I’m going to lose 50 pounds.”
This might be the most common goal. The world has a growing obesity problem, and the vast majority of people implicitly understand that this is indeed a problem to be solved. But “I’m going to lose 50 pounds” doesn’t give you a roadmap. It doesn’t even give a specific destination. Are you going to lose 20 pounds of fat and 30 pounds of muscle? Are you going to count calories? How many do you plan to burn and consume? What are those calories going to consist of?
This is better: “I’m going to lose body fat and gain or retain lean mass by eating foods that naturally increase satiety and inadvertently cause a reduction in calories.”
“I’m going to focus on my relationships.”
A noble goal, to be sure, but what does it mean? Which relationships? How are you going to “focus” on them? Determine which relationships you’re most concerned with and identify what they lack and require most. Then, resolve to provide what they’re missing.
Better options: “I’m going to find a reliable babysitter and plan a date night every Wednesday with my wife/husband.” Or: “I’m going to read to my kids every night.” Or: “I’m going to get together every Sunday morning with my friends to hike/grab coffee/work out.”
“I’m gonna exercise more.”
This is a popular resolution, and, at least for a couple of weeks, people stick with it. But around mid-January, the gym depopulates. The newcomers all migrate elsewhere. They don’t stick with it, despite quite honestly wanting to work out more often. What goes wrong?
They’re not specific. They don’t make concrete plans or set a schedule. It’s one thing for someone with a lot of gym and training experience to practice “intuitive training,” where they just do what feels right and interesting. That’s pretty much how I train, but I’ve been doing fitness for most of my life. The total beginner will flounder if they try to go to the gym without any experience or any plans.
Better options: “I’m going to lift heavy things twice a week, go for a 30-minute walk every day, and do some intense anaerobic activity like sprints or rowing.”
“I’m going to meditate.”
I see it all the time. Someone listens to a podcast with a business guru who swears meditating got him where he is today, and that it’s the single most important thing anyone can do. They try meditating, and it just doesn’t work. They can’t stick with it. So New Year’s rolls around, and they resolve to finally make it happen.
Maybe meditation will work. Some say that it’s those who have the most trouble meditating who need it the most. Perhaps. But as someone who’s dedicated to improving myself and never has trouble doing hard things like lifting or pursuing business ideas or taking risks, meditating simply didn’t work. What did work?
Going for walks in nature.
Going paddle boarding.
Even guided meditations worked better for me.
In essence, “finding the flow” is what worked. Finding that activity that allowed me to turn off my mind and just be.
Better options: Find the thing that allows you to reach that Primal state of flow. “I’m going to go for a quiet walk without any stimulus in nature every single day.” Or: “I’m going to go surfing/rock climbing/play music.”
“I will live life to the fullest.”
Too often this translates as, “I will stay up late getting black-out drunk as often as possible.” Maybe that’s someone’s “full life,” but I don’t recommend it. That doesn’t take “resolve” to do. That’s the kind of thing that people revert to when their better inhibitions fail. It’s the opposite of what a good resolution looks like.
Better: “I will embrace looking stupid and try new things that I’ve always wanted to do but have felt nervous about being bad at.” Or: “I will pick something new and novel to do at least once a week (with an allowance for repeating if the new activity sticks).”
“I’m going to learn a new skill/language.”
Be more specific. What are you going to learn? What is the thing that keeps surfacing in your mind as you drift to sleep? What do you dream about? What do you keep noticing in your everyday life?
Better: “I’m going to learn how to change my brake pads.” Or: “I’m going to learn German.” Or: “I’m going to take judo classes.”
“I’m going to stop drinking.”
This is a noble resolution, but it may not be effective by itself. When someone’s alcohol intake becomes a problem, it’s usually masking a deeper issue. People don’t drink to excess because they’re celebrating real life too much or living a totally fulfilled life when sober. Drinking becomes a problem because you’re covering something up.
Instead of just “not drinking,” plumb the depths of your soul to determine the true cause of your over-indulgence in alcohol. Figure that out, come to peace with it, and figure out a resolution to address it. In doing so, you will have a better chance at fixing the drinking.
A better option: “I’m going to figure out and overcome the reasons I’m drawn to drink so much alcohol.”
“I’m going to read more.”
I’m a bibliophile. I understand the joy of reading books and the frustration that comes when the end of the year rolls around and I realize I haven’t read as many books as I would have liked. There are so many to read, so little time, and time squandered is reading time you won’t get back.
“Books” is such a general category to be useless. Get more specific about what kind of book you want to read. Read only what you truly enjoy. Don’t feel guilty about stopping a book after 30 pages if it hasn’t grabbed you (it’s just an inanimate object, it won’t feel anything). Go to the library (having a time limit forces your hand; sometimes owning a book means you shelve it and forget it).
Better: “I’m going to read books I enjoy and quit books I don’t without feeling guilty.” Or: “I’m going to get a library card and start checking books out.” Or: “I’m going to read more fiction.” Or: “I’m going to flip through books and read what I want without worrying about reading the whole thing.”
The hardest resolution is the one we can sense but can’t articulate. In my experience, almost everyone in this modern age is missing something, is searching and yearning for something that they can’t quite pin down. If it exists in some immaterial dimension of potentiality outside of language, the resolutions we write down won’t capture it. That, I suspect, is a major reason the resolutions we choose do not complete us.
How do we fix that one? How do we find it? Maybe by moving through the world, by throwing ourself into meaningful pursuits that resonate in the moment, by taking long walks and letting the mind and body wander where they will, by letting go of our need for constant stimulation and embracing boredom.
What are you resolutions this year? If you could rewrite them, what would you say?
Have a great New Year, folks. Take care!
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