As the year draws to a close, many start talking about New Year’s resolutions. Most of us know that by the end of January, that resolution that once seemed so reasonable — go to the gym every other day, read a book a week, only drink alcohol on weekends — may be long forgotten.
Here is an example from my life: at the start of 2017, I set out to do 10 pushups, 25 sit ups and a 30 second plank each day. My plan was to increase the amount each week so that by the end of the year I would be at 100 pushups, 300 sit ups and a 3 minute plank.
How do you think I did? I am not far from where I started: 20 push ups, 50 sit ups and a 75 second plank and it is not happening every day – I am lucky if it I happens 2x per week. This is a far cry from my goal. The thing is, it is not so much about the goal we set and completing it, but that we start in the first place.
The truth is, you can make a resolution at any time. You don’t have to wait for January 1st to roll around. A few years ago, I met Kelly McGonigal author of “The Willpower Instinct: How Self-Control Works, Why It Matters, and What You Can Do to Get More of It” and she explained why most of us find it hard to stick to a new resolution or create a change in behaviour.
First, we need to place the emphasis on starting, not on finishing and not on failure. People cite lack of willpower as one of the #1 thing holding them back, but the truth is to succeed at self-control you need to learn how to fail. And the best way to improve self-control is to see, understand and learn why you lose control. It is important to understand that struggles with willpower are part of the human condition. You are not having a hard time sticking to a resolution because you are a terrible person. Perhaps you’ve just formulated the wrong resolution.
Will-, Want- and Won’t-Power
Kelly defines willpower as the ability to do what matters most, even when it’s difficult or when some part of you doesn’t want to. That begins to capture why it’s so difficult — because everything we think of as requiring willpower is usually a competition between conflicting drives in our frontal lobe which creates a tug of war in our brains between the I “will” side, the I “want” side and the I “won’t” side of ourselves.
Essentially, we have our impulsive side and the ability to control our impulses. It is almost like having two minds/selves and the idea is to bring awareness to these two aspects of ourselves. There’s a part of you who is looking to the long-term and thinking about certain goals, and then another part of you that has a completely different agenda and wants to maximize current pleasure and minimize current stress, pain and discomfort.
The things that require willpower pit those competing selves against each other. Willpower is the ability to align yourself with the brain system that is thinking about long-term goals rather than short-term needs. The reason that so many things can trigger that kind of conflict is because that’s the essence of human nature. Modern cognitive neuroscientists see this as the fundamental structure of the human brain — that there are competing systems that think about the world differently and that
respond to challenges differently.
Another way to think of it is you have: the immediate self versus the future self. We need both systems for survival. Most of our modern challenges tempt us to be in the mind-state of immediate gratification, or escaping immediate discomfort. It can be quite a challenge to access the part of you who is willing to focus on the big picture and tolerate temporary discomfort.
Choosing a Resolution
Typically, when people are making a New Year’s resolution, they don’t start with the right questions, so they end up making a resolution that is ineffective. Most people start with the questions like: “What should I do?” or “what do I criticize about myself that it’s time to change?” or “what is it that I don’t really want to do that I know I should do?” It’s kind of a typical self-improvement perspective. “I don’t really like exercise, I guess I should do it.” Or “my closet is a mess, it’s time to get organized.” People come up with resolutions that don’t reflect what matters most to them, and that makes them almost guaranteed to fail. Even if that behaviour could be very valuable and helpful — like exercise — if you start from the point of view of thinking about what it is you don’t really want to do, it’s very hard to tap into willpower. If there’s no really important “want” driving it, the brain system of self-control has nothing to hold on to.
To develop a New Year’s resolution that works you need to slow down and ask yourself what you want for yourself and your life in the next year. What is it that you want to offer the world? Who do you want to be, what do you want more of in your life? And then ask: “How might I get there? What steps do I need to take to create that as a consequence?”
When you start from that point of view, then New Year’s resolutions can be incredibly effective. They begin to turn your attention to choice points in your everyday life where there are opportunities to align your energy and attention in the direction that matters to you. I think most people start from the choice points, without wondering whether this is even the right thing to be choosing.
It is important to look at the beliefs behind the behaviour in order to drive a change in our behaviour. Another way to tackle change and resolutions is to see yourself looking back on the previous year and answering the questions: What are you seriously going to be grateful that you did? Is there a change you know that you’re going to be glad you made? What would that feel like?
That can tap into something that feels really authentic. To help guide you – answer the following questions: I “will” power: What is something that you would like to do more of, or stop putting off, because you know that doing it will improve the quality of your life? “I won’t” power challenge: What is the “stickiest” habit in your life? What would you like to give up or do less of because it’s undermining your health, happiness or success” “I want” power challenge: “What is the most important long-term goal you’d like to focus your energy on? What immediate “want “ is most likely to distract you or tempt you away form this goal?
My challenge to you is to pick one area to work on from the above list. I’d love to hear answers to these questions – leave a comment below! If you’d like help creating a different outcome for 2018, sign up for the Moving Beyond coaching program. Here’s to creating a fabulous 2018!
http://yeslerapparel.com/wp-content/uploads/2015/06/Screen- Shot-2015- 01-05-