Here’s what I mean. For the most part, the areas of life people want to improve fall into general categories: financial, health, spiritual, relationship, and sense of worth. Our goals within those might vary. Your measure of financial success might be a second home while someone else aspires to pay off debt. Maybe you measure your worth in the world by the number of kind, respectful people who surround you, while your neighbor craves power and fame.
The problem is not with the goal. The problem is that smaller, contrary pleasures get in the way. You want a healthy committed relationship, but you lose days, weeks, or even months hanging out with Mr. or Mrs. Not-Quite-Right. You want a great job, but after a hard day of slogging away at your J-O-B, you avoid hunting for a better one. Or applying for school. Or fixing what’s wrong where you are.
You want a vacation similar to the one you coveted when your friend posted fabulous pictures on Facebook. But when you spot a great little black dress that would impress everyone at the New Year’s Eve party, the immediate gratification you gain from laying down your credit card outweighs the distant reward of saving those dollars and sipping Chardonnay in wine country. In fact, if in that moment you even remember your desire for the trip – and chances are you don’t – you reason that the cost of one little dress is nowhere near the cost of a get-away. And you are right. It’s the cumulative cost of black dresses, and new jeans, and lattés, and concerts over the course of the year that add up to at least as much as the fabulous trip.
You see what I mean: One little cookie won’t keep you from losing 20 pounds. You can be a better friend/neighbor/partner/co-worker even if you sometimes indulge in a little gossip or embarrassing joke in front of others. You can do what feels a little good RIGHT NOW without losing what will feel wonderful in the future. Or can you? Ultimately success is about habits – the little things we do each day, the overarching mindset we choose to live by – determine whether we meet our goals.
So as you consider your New Year’s resolutions ask yourself the following questions:
- What do I wish I had/could do?
- What do I have or what am I doing instead?
- What new habit will ensure my success?
Let me show you what I mean. I’ll use the example of a person I’ll call Michelle (my real name). Michelle would love to be fit and healthy. She would like to be able not only to run far and fast but also to look like she runs far and fast. Specifically, she wants to look like the women on the covers of Runner’s World and Shape magazines and she wants to be competitive in road races. So the answer to question 1 is: She wishes she had a rockin’ body – or at least relatively rockin’ given her over-40 status -- and a sub-30 5k.
Michelle loves to exercise – weights, running, elliptical. It doesn’t matter. She loves to sweat and move and burn calories. So she’s good there. However, Michelle’s favorite foods are carbs and fats – fatty carbs especially. In that moment when she brings the second helping of pasta or 30th French fry to her mouth, she isn’t thinking about her fitness and appearance goals. If they happen to, annoyingly, flit through her head, she thinks about how there’s no way these few extra calories will impede her PR in the half marathon or keep her from having a flat belly. And she’s right. But a few calories here and a few indulgences there have added up to extreme difficulty meeting her goals.
So you might think the answer to question 2 is “stop eating junk or stop eating second helpings.” Not really. Our brains are not wired to obey orders of what NOT to do. Someone says “don’t touch the stove,” and our brain registers, “touch the stove? I want to!” So instead, Michelle needs to determine that she is going to DO something – maybe limit desserts to weekends; have no more than one bite per day of junky foods or limit carbs to one serving per meal. Once she decides these limits, she can move to question 3.
Remember that Michelle is doing all this in order to reach her goals of health and vanity (perhaps her 2017 resolutions can focus on not being so shallow). So her new habit might be to give herself a high five as soon as she has polished off that first portion that she has determined will also be her last portion of fatty carbs and then do a symbolic pushup or sit up to remind herself how great it feels to be strong. Or maybe she’ll walk to her closet to look at the fantastic dress she’ll wear once that belly melts away. Whatever she decides, she must pair her success in being disciplined with food DIRECTLY and IMMEDIATELY to how wonderful she will feel when she reaches her goal. That’s her new habit – constantly linking in her mind the ways that practicing discipline now are related to looking and feeling great in the long term.
Finally, the start of a new year is a great time to start fresh and focus on our goals, but it’s not the only time. Three months before a goal date is good too. Or your birthday. Or Lincoln’s birthday. Monday is good. So is Tuesday. Whenever you decide it’s time to change, take a day to say goodbye to your old vices and bad habits, then start fresh, focused on what you will do to bring about your new you. Happy New Year!