It’s the time of year when many of us fall into the cyclical trap of “this year sucked and next year will be so much better because…”. We take the bait and before you know it, we’ve decided to completely re-vamp ourselves from being human to being perfect. And by February, it turns out we’re still human, but just a little less self-confident than before we failed that resolution.
I am known as The Goal-Maker. Okay, I’m not. As hard as I’ve tried, that nickname has never caught on, no matter how many times I tell people to call me that. Friends and family will tell you that I am, however, a perpetual goal-setter. I have been all my life. Out of the womb, my first goal was to get grownups to talk jibberish to me. Goal accomplished.
From very early on, I set diet goals, workout goals, reading goals, writing goals, nicer person goals (that never panned out), and financial goals. As a friend pointed out, I don’t wait until January 1st – I do it year round. Part of this pattern of behavior is pathological – the never good enough syndrome hit me at a young age. It’s taken me a decade or three to untangle that web and come to terms with whoever it is that I am.
Over the last few years, I’ve set and failed goals at an alarming and increasingly rapid rate. I justify this pattern by saying that even a failed goal is partial success. I tell myself that some progress is better than no progress. The truth is that, while I’ve made some steps forward, the failures and the lack of positive, permanent outcomes have chipped away at my confidence. In the last year, I set goals halfheartedly and gave them up at the first sign of resistance.
Goal-setting became a rote reaction to getting on the bathroom scales, noticing a loss of muscle, not sleeping well, feeling stupid, panicking about how old I was getting, or feeling an overwhelming sense of personal underachievement. Goals made in a reflexive panic are the least likely to be thoughtful, reasonable, or attainable.
I have, over the last year, had a slow epiphany about speed and time. We are inundated by the quick-fix mentality that focuses on outcomes and not process. The seductive before-and-after picture, the TV show that shows extreme personal changes in what seems like one week. It sets up the idea that self-punishing rule-setting in the short term will bring us happier long-term outcomes.
I bought into every bit of this. I consider myself a fairly rational, intelligent person, but in the area of goal-setting, I’ve been a bit of an idiot. I knew I’d hit a point of just going through the motions, as if any attempt at self-improvement was actual improvement. It wasn’t. It was damaging my belief that I could change anything. It was bringing me to a point of bleak acceptance. Not the fuzzy warm self-acceptance that people go on about, but the dismal, aren’t you a complete shit kind of acceptance.
Whenever I come up against a wall in my life, I do the research. I read everything I can get my hands on, I take notes, and I spend some time letting it all knock about in my noggin. In a movie, this montage would be accompanied by “Chariots of Fire”. I went to outside experts. I have the good fortune of having a personal trainer/life coach/friend who asks all the right questions when I’m trying to get things sorted.
Even with all that, I am at a point in my life that could cause despair. I turned 50. I have no career. I’m still unpublished. I’m heavier than I’ve ever been in my life. I’m in an ongoing battle with aches and injuries. I still wrestle with depression. On the flip side, I have a wonderful family, great friends, accessible resources, and that magical, exasperating quality of persistence.
A month ago, I fell for it again. I resolved to make changes. I wrote everything out. I worked my way through my intentions, I thought through the obstacles. I mentally practiced in the days prior to my goal start date, adjusting my goals to be more attainable.
Today, I have met both the goals I set every single day of the four weeks. And it was relatively easy. As I write this, it feels like this is one big ad for a book I read or a system I want to promote. I write this because it feels like a small miracle. And when you experience a small miracle, you want to blab to everyone about it.
I had been doing it all wrong. I’d blamed my lack of willpower or self-control for failing to meet goals. I blamed it on my depression and hormones or circumstances beyond my control. The real reason for my failure was that I didn’t know how to set attainable goals. My ambition and overestimation of my abilities always got ahead of reality. I expected myself to be someone different or my life to somehow function differently tomorrow. The reality that I wrote the goals for was not the reality in which I lived.
A lot of people have written blogs and books about changing habits and setting goals. Some things made sense to me and hit home and many others did not. But I think this is a key point – meeting resolutions starts at the very beginning, with the resolutions you select. If the resolutions aren’t right, no amount of willpower is going to get you to your goal.
As a result of my two small resolutions, I sleep better, read more, eat fewer calories, and have written 40+ pages (10,500 words) in the last month that I would not have written otherwise. Immediate results. No pain.
Wow – what miracle did you procure? What magic wand did you wave? And can I send you $19.95 for it in six installments?
But wait, there’s more…
Tune in tomorrow for So You Want to Start a Resolution, Part 2
How to play resolution roulette while avoiding trap doors, anvils, and wet blankets.
Great Resources for Figuring Out Goals and Resolutions:
Small Move, Big Change: Using Microresolutions to Transform Your Life Permanently by Caroline L. Arnold
For whatever reason, this book resonated with me. The basic concepts are covered in the first half and then loads of examples are given. I also watched her talk at Microsoft. Her approach is the incremental building of positive habits to slowly push out the negative habits.
Mini Habits: Smaller Habit, Bigger Results by Stephen Guise
Similar concept, smaller book. Especially useful in working on exercise resolutions, since that is his main example. He also writes a blog.
The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business by Charles Duhigg
This covers a lot of the science involved with habits for people who need more than the “do this” kind of explanation. Runs more to the business and productivity talk, but the concepts are the same. It also approaches it from the perspective of breaking negative habits. He explains the cycle of habits here.