It’s that time of year again, when people make grand New Year’s resolutions to do things they feel like they should be doing, ways they should be acting. And, the majority of these resolutions will be abandoned before February.
I’m not fond of New Year’s resolutions, honestly, for two reasons: first, they usually feel somewhat forced rather than inspired; second, the date feels arbitrary to me. Why January 1? Why not October 1? For that matter, why not every third Saturday, or on the first blue moon of the year? Arbitrary or not, however, the turning of the calendar year often puts many of us in a contemplative state. We find ourselves thinking about what went well or poorly over the last trip around the sun, and how we would like to do or be different in the one to come. And many people turn those contemplations into New Year’s Resolutions.
An acquaintance of mine named Alice is one of these people. Every year, she would tell anyone who would listen how she planned to workout three times a week in the new year, “I’m getting back in shape” she would say. And, every year she would abandon the goal after a couple weeks. “I just don’t have the willpower,” she would say. The definition of insanity, as the saying goes, is repeating the same thing and expecting a different result. While I wouldn’t call Alice insane, I think it’s fair to say that her lack of follow through year after year was starting to drive her crazy.
If you are going to do New Year’s resolutions (or Third Saturday resolutions), there might be a way to do it that will make you feel much more inspired, and more likely to actually keep your promises to yourself. It all starts with getting clear on what you want.
Author and Physician George A Sheehan wrote, “We may think there is willpower involved [in reaching a goal], but more likely… change is due to want power. Wanting the new addiction more than the old one. Wanting the new me in preference to the person I am now.” The key to keeping a resolution, in other words, is to want it enough. While I agree with this statement, just wanting something won’t necessarily get you there.
It’s not that Alice didn’t want to get back into shape. Clearly some part of her wanted it enough that she revisited it year after year. However, that want operated on a surface level —and it wasn’t enough to get her to the gym more than a handful of times. Without a deeper want driving her actions, no amount of willpower was going to build long-term workout habits.
I see wants as living on a spectrum, with surface level wants on one end and deep core wants on the other. There’s also another kind of pseudo-want, the “should” want, that truthfully isn’t a want at all.
“Should” wants sound like, “I should work out more,” or “I should eat better.” We tend to use them when we don’t really want to do that action, but we feel guilty or wrong about not wanting it. “Should” wants often are a driver for New Year’s resolutions, especially the health-related ones. After a holiday season of eating too much, drinking too much, spending too much, etc., they are a way we try to rein ourselves in. “Should” wants also come with an implied dire consequence: “I should work out more so I don’t feel so fat,” or “I should eat better so I don’t have a heart-attack.” That kind of negative motivation might scare you into action, but it’s not going to inspire you to build a long-term habit.
Most New Year’s resolutions, however, come from surface-level wants. Like Alice, many of us make vague resolutions like “I’m going to get back in shape,” or “I’m going to be better with money.” How will you know when you’re “in shape”? What does “better” look like? Without anything to measure against, it’s hard to know whether or not you are actually keeping your resolution. In time, these vague objectives tend to devolve into shoulds.
Surface level wants can also cause us to mistake a strategy for a goal, “I’m going to workout three days a week,” or “I’m going to stop eating out,” sound clear and measurable, but they aren’t grounded in anything meaningful. Usually driven by the vague objectives above (“I’m going to workout three days a week so I can get back in shape”), these pledges are too superficial to penetrate your daily life and routine in ways that are profound enough to make lasting changes. They are wants that we have on the surface of our existence, but they are weaker than deeper one we might have that derail us, like lounging on the couch, or buying the latest tech gadget.
However, when you can connect a new behavior — such as working out regularly — with a want you have on a deeper level, you can translate that pledge into a permanent life change that sticks.
A simple way to identify your core want is to start with the surface level want and ask yourself, “What will having X do for me?” Your answer will be a little closer to your core. Ask the same question of this new answer, and keep repeating this process until you cannot go any further. When I walked Alice through this exercise a few years ago, I started with, “What will being in shape do for you?”
“I won’t be as winded when I go up the stairs,” she answered.
“And what will not being winded when you go up the stairs do for you?” I asked.
“I’ll be able to keep up with my kids and play with them more,” she replied.
“What will being able to play with your kids more do for you?”
“I’ll spend more time with them.”
“And what will spending more time with your kids do for you?”
“I’ll have deeper relationships with them — be closer to them.”
“What will having deeper relationships with your kids do for you?”
“There’s nothing more important to me than being close to my kids,” she replied.
This last one, being closer to her children, is a bedrock, deep-seated want. For Alice, there was nothing more to it than that. It was something she felt so strongly about, she was willing to do whatever it took to achieve it. Perhaps, even, work out three times a week.
So, I inquired, “If you saw working out as a strategy for developing stronger relationships with your kids, do you think you would be more driven to keep your New Year’s resolution?”
“Yes, of course!” Alice exclaimed, and her face lit up with the possibilities of this realization.
Once you understand the core wants, it also becomes clear that there is more than one way to get them. Now you can brainstorm on all the elements that could be a part of achieving that want, such as what the ideal scenario would look and feel like, or what strategies you could employ. Ultimately, the strategy you pick doesn’t matter, as long as you achieve your deepest wants.
It’s only when you have identified your core want, and know what it looks like to have it, that you are ready to set specific and measurable goals so you will know when you have achieved the result you are looking for. Write these goals down, with specifics of how you will know if you have met them, and then enlist an accountabil-a-buddy to check in on you from time to time and ensure you’re keeping yourself on the path. Once you’ve got the plan in place, work the plan.
Alice was able to identify several ways to build deeper relationships with her children, from doing art projects together to chaperoning their school field trips. But since being more in shape was what started our conversation, I asked her how she would know she was in shape. She replied that it would be when she can keep up with her kids without being winded, which connected to her cardiovascular health. So we devised some specific and measurable goals surrounding her heart rate and blood pressure levels. She devised ways to track these elements, and started doing a variety of things to reach her goal, from exercising more and taking the stairs instead of the elevator, to volunteering to coach her son’s soccer team where she would get to spend time with him and run around the soccer field.
After three months, Alice was still as committed to her New Year’s resolution as she was on January 1st. By the end of the year, what had been a daunting New Year’s resolution had transformed into a new lifestyle.
When it comes to building new habits, having to rely on willpower is an indication that we’re not in touch with our core level wants. It’s want power — connecting our surface level wants to the core drivers — that gives our resolutions more weight and meaning, which translates into more ammunition to overcome the short-sighted temptations when they come along (and they will), in favor of long-view accomplishment.
Do you have a New Year’s resolution, or something you’ve thought about doing differently this year? Is it vague and non-specific? Or is it too focused on the how and unconnected to a deeper why? This week, take a moment to sit with yourself and dig down into the deeper desires surrounding your resolutions for 2018. Ask yourself what having those resolutions will do for you, until you cannot go any deeper. Then, devise strategies that can help you get there — strategies that will deliver specific and measurable results — and outline for yourself how you will track them and who will help keep you accountable. Then, and only then, go after what you want with gusto.
“What you get by achieving your goals is not as important as what you become by achieving your goals.” — Zig Ziglar