So You Want to Start a Resolution… (Part 1)

canstockphoto17363632It’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.

canstockphoto13579921Over 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.

canstockphoto1076788Whenever 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.

canstockphoto5001137Today, 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.

canstockphoto37460924As 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.

16 Comments on “So You Want to Start a Resolution… (Part 1)

  1. I like breaking my big picture resolutions down into smaller, more actionable items. And I make sure that all of it somehow relates back to my Bucket List, so that it all feels very intentional.

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    • This is exactly what it’s about. I think it’s hard to imagine working on those small components will ultimately get us to our big picture goals. We’re so used to thinking in terms of goals and not process. I’ll write more about this tomorrow, but it sounds like in your case, I’d be preaching to the choir!

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  2. All you say is so very IMPORTANT, Michelle – setting objectives that you can actually attain, instead of setting yourself up to fail, and then blaming everything under the sun for the failure, and entrenching the not-good-enough story. I have tried setting absolutely no objectives – the end result – as might be expected – being nothing. Writing-wise I think there’s a lot (if not everything) to be said for setting modest targets per day – 200 words – 500 words, and a specific time when you sit at the desk to start doing them. That said, looking back on my stop-start career, I think the most motivating force that spurred me on was responding to specific submissions calls or competition deadlines – this I’ve decided – is not only about someone outside of me setting a target, but also because my psyche responds best to someone else needing something that I might just be able to supply. Keeping the faith-in-oneself-fire burning brightly enough to see an uncommissioned project through from start to finish requires one helluva lot of energy – the keeping on keeping on. So more power to your 40 plus pages. You are travelling. And this is the main thing 🙂 🙂 🙂

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    • You’re right about how setting oneself up to fail really entrenches old stories. I think that having done it so many times in combination with turning 50 made me realize that what I was doing was not working and would never work. It’s that old mis-attributed Einstein quote about doing the same thing, expecting different results.

      Breaking that loop of thinking was the toughest part about all of this. And as I’ll explain tomorrow, I’m not free and clear of it yet. But each small success is definitely a step in the right direction.

      And I’m in the “keeping on” stage of my novel. Faced with the drudgery of editing and revising, I’ve done just about everything I can do to avoid it. I am trying to use my newly-learned resolution skills to deal with it and I’m at least hopeful, which I haven’t been in a long time.

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  3. You’ve nailed it. Being realistic and setting achievable goals is the key. Yet for some reason we think “success” means we should have bigger, more lofty goals. And then all we’re really doing is, setting ourselves up to fail.

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  4. You’re right about that before/after picture mentality. It’s terrible. I knew someone at work who continued to wear an old employee ID after she had lost considerable weight so she could be reminded of how she changed. Eventually she gained it all back.

    I subscribe to the idea that it is just as easy to develop a good habit as a bad one. For example, rather than try to break a bad habit like eating when I’m not hungry, I add a good habit of tracking my calories to raise self-awareness. I eat whatever I want, but that self-awareness incites me to want less. I don’t try to attain a number on the scale anymore. My goal is to adopt good habits. I know if I can do that, the results will eventually follow. In the meantime, I am nicer to myself and have escaped the hamster wheel of never-ending self-deprecation.

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  5. Pingback: So You Want to Start a Resolution…(Part 2) | The Green Study

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