Whenever a friend tells me that they’ve made their New Year’s resolutions, my typical response is why, why, WHY? Because this is one situation where one “why” won’t do. Why on Earth do we spend 364 days of the year not doing something, and suddenly decide we’re GOING to do something? Or quit doing something (more on the start vs quit thing further on). It’s often been pointed out that many people – if not most people – spend more time planning a one-week vacation than they spend planning their life. And New Year’s is yet another instance of this kind of behavior.
What’s On That List?
According to this USA.gov list, the most popular New Year’s resolutions are…
- Drink Less (or Quit)
- Eat Better
- Go Back To School
- Get a Better Job
- Get In Shape
- Lose Weight
- Deal With Debt
- Quit Smoking
- Recycle More
- Save Money
- Do Volunteer Work
Do you see any recurring themes in there? I do. One would be guilt. Guilt about the things we fail to do all the time that are actually fairly easy. Like recycling, volunteering, and – barring unemployment issues that are genuinely beyond one’s control – saving, and dealing with debt. At the end of the year we suddenly realize how careless or sedentary we’ve been, and make some bold proclamation that magically, beginning in January, EVERYTHING WILL CHANGE. We throw in “volunteering” as a sort of all around tool to make ourselves feel better. It’s like religious redemption or something. A second category we might take note of here is prestige. Get a better job, go to school, and maybe get in shape. All worthy goals, but when suddenly targeted for action in December, clearly another thing to attempt to make us feel better about ourselves, in this case through our good looks and net worth. And the third category is a tangle of health, addiction, and fitness. So far we have a pretty good short list right out of church as motivators:
But I’m just having a little fun here. The real point I’m trying to get across is that guilt and pride are horrible motivators that will either not be self-sustaining, or will lead to an empty-feeling kind of success.
So Should We Chuck The List Altogether?
Probably. Trying to fix all the problems in your life in one fell swoop is probably a pursuit destined for failure. Which will just set you up for more guilt and frustration. So what’s the solution? Achievability. Chunking it out. Doing what you can do today, and letting things proceed from there. Most people can’t manage more than one or two projects simultaneously, and in this case, we’re talking about SELF-DIRECTED projects that we’re planning to add to whatever ELSE we’re doing in our lives. Where will the time and energy come from to do all these new things?
How About A Plan?
Instead of making generic lists of positive activities to beat ourselves up with, how about using one of the many common methods for prioritizing the big picture, and then digging in on the right stuff? One example is the altitude approach suggested in the book Getting Things Done, wherein you put current actions on the “runway”, current projects at 10,000 feet, broader responsibilities at 20,000 feet, and so on. This kind of metaphor may not work for you, but there are MANY methods for prioritizing; the main idea is to have a realistic strategy instead an overwhelming list of tasks. And in this case, tasks that you’re apparently not very good at, or you’d ALREADY BE DOING THEM. You’re going to quit drinking, quit smoking, and start working out all at the same time? Really? Did you know that this could actually kill you? If you have a list like that, maybe you should slow down and do some research, and maybe even talk to your doctor. You’re suddenly going to start saving money and clean up your debt? HOW? Some people have success with Suze Orman’s material, some people have success with Dave Ramsey’s strategies, but the fact is that if you’ve been living in a way that has you in debt without a clear way out of it, you’re going to need guidance, and a workable PLAN. You’re going to eat better? What are you going to eat? If you’re also going to start working out, you’ve got some serious thinking to do, and some preliminary steps like cleaning out your cupboard and restocking it for the new diet. Now there’s an idea. When was the last time you cleaned your pantry? I know I’m overdue for some inventory control!
Spread it out. Take some time. Use your head.
One thing I personally did a few years ago has helped me tremendously. I was doing a general sort of year end review, and thinking about my goals for the next year. And then it hit me. Why was I doing this at the end of the year? I’m a very motivated, creative person, and A LOT transpires in my work in a year. So I made one New Year’s resolution that year, and haven’t made any since. What was it? I committed to doing a monthly review. It’s amazing how many things we intend to do in a year that fall by the wayside, and how many things we ARE doing that are really just helping us spin our wheels. For me personally, a once-a-month assessment is just about perfect. Maybe your time frame would be a little different, but a year is a pretty long time for the majority of the things in our lives that aren’t related to career and childrearing.
Besides, there’s more than one calendar.
Heck, at the end of the day – or the year in this case – the whole idea of when a year begins is pretty arbitrary. In fact, Wikipedia lists over 40 different calendars that are currently in use. I used to really enjoy one aspect of this when I managed a Chinese restaurant years ago. If I failed in a New Year’s resolution on the common western calendar, I’d just start again at Chinese New Year. This was all in jest at the time of course, but the truth is that every day is the beginning of of a year, if you want to measure life in years.
Me? I measure life in minutes these days. Mostly the one that’s occurring right now.
Happy New Year!