New Year's resolutions are usually a list of things that you want to do differently, skills that you want to learn, bad habits that you want to stop, good habits that you want to establish. We make these lists and then come January 1st we try to implement them – all of them, all at once.
Come around January 5th or 6th, we usually find that we have failed, and then that list of resolutions gets packed away like the previous week's Christmas decorations, not to be seen again until next year's attempt.
"Great, Joel. Thanks. So I should just give up on making any positive changes this year? Isn't that the opposite of what you write about?"
Good questions. I'm glad you asked.
New Year's resolutions are a good idea but a bad strategy.
The New Year is a great time to re-assess where you are in your life. The Roman god Janus, for which the month of January is named, has two faces − one looks back toward the past and the other looks forward to the future. The symbolism of this myth holds a great idea.
But the strategy of the traditional New Year's resolution is ineffective because it requires you to use your will for too many things at once, which all but guarantees failure. Willpower works very much like physical exercise − you get stronger by using it consistently over time, but you also get overly fatigued with too much all at once.
By trying to fulfill a list of resolutions that each requires willpower, you are overwhelming your capacity for willpower and ensuring that you fail.
Today I want to show you how to use the great idea of New Year's renewal effectively.
First of all, if you have a bad habit that you want to stop, or a good habit that you want to build, pick one. This can be a difficult choice, because sometimes you know that you have several that are all hurting you, or would enrich your life greatly. If you are an alcoholic, a smoker, and you'd like to learn to play piano, the piano should probably wait – for now.
There is a saying: "You can have it all, just not all at once." Once you get off of alcohol, then you can tackle the smoking. Once you've quit smoking you can turn to learning piano.
If you try to do everything, you will run out of willpower very quickly and end up not doing anything.
If you pick one, and focus your energies on mastering that one thing, then you can establish a new baseline for what's more automatic for you – and then you can decide which challenge to tackle next.
Once you've chosen what your first goal is, you have to commit to achieving that goal. Then it's time to plan.
Decide when, where and how you will begin, and state your intention as an "if-then" statement. If my intention is to stop drinking, then I will need to start today by finding a nearby AA meeting and going to that meeting today.
It is extremely important that you not only commit to your goal, but that you also make a plan, and commit to that plan.
You need to define the steps that it will take you to reach that goal. Be precise. If you cannot see exactly what you need to do in a given step that means that that step is too abstract and will likely be a point of derailment.
For example, if you want to learn piano you will start today by finding three music stores in the phonebook, calling or visiting them and getting the name and contact information of at least one good piano teacher.
If you say that you will start today by finding a good piano teacher you are leaving out several concrete steps and you'll likely go through the day doing other things while on some level you'll be stumped by the question, "How am I supposed to find a good teacher?"
Once you've established the first physical action that you need to take, and you have taken that action, then you can define what the next physical action is that will take you closer to your goal. You may have several clear steps in mind – which is great – but what's most important is to know what you need to do next.
The other thing to do is to anticipate what will go wrong.
Things will definitely go wrong with your plan. They always do. Yet we often approach our goals as though everything will go according to plan. When they don't we get derailed, and once our plans get derailed we are more likely to lose momentum and focus toward our goals.
Using if-then statements, imagine what will be likely to throw you off.
If you're getting yourself sober and you're going to meetings or doing a rehab program, that's great. What happens when some friends ask you to go to dinner with them and they start drinking, expecting that you will be joining them as always?
You can avoid getting derailed by:
Then practice seeing yourself actually doing each of these, and research things like the alternative AA meeting as your backup plan.
Think of whatever else might throw you off of your plan. Be honest with yourself. Be as realistic as you possibly can and search for what could derail your plans. Then come up with a solution for each of those possibilities, see yourself doing them, and practice seeing yourself doing them every once in awhile.
Then when the inevitable happens and your plans hit a snag, you will have practiced your response and you'll be more likely to successfully weather the challenge.
This New Year, pick one important goal that you'd like to achieve and commit to that goal. Then make a concrete plan and commit to that plan. Then anticipate the problems that could arise and practice effective responses to those problems.
That's the strategy for happy and effective personal growth and success for 2012.
All my very best wishes for a happy and prosperous New Year!