Eat less dairy. Run more marathons. Upgrade your style. Quit smoking. Give up booze. Exercise regularly. Learn a language. Try something new each month. Sleep-in less. Sleep-in more. Call your mother. Answer your mother when she calls. Cut out gluten. Join a gym. Read a book a week. Be a better person.
Everybody has something they’re aiming towards in the New Year, some challenge or resolution they want to make stick. But studies have shown 88% of us will fail, probably in the first month or two. It turns out our brains just aren’t wired for the sheer amount of willpower it takes to not eat a doughnut 365 days in a row (I know mine certainly isn’t).
Let’s look at classic example. In 1699, when he was 32, Jonathan Swift (author of Gulliver’s Travels) wrote a list of things he wanted to achieve before he became an old man. Some are more applicable to modern life than others:
Not to marry a young woman.
Not to be peevish or morose or suspicious.
Not to tell the same story over and over to the same people.
Not to talk much, nor of my self.
Not to be influenced by, or give ear to, knavish tattling servants.
Not to set up for observing all these rules for fear I should observe none.
The obvious problem with these (a trap we all fall into) is that they’re vague. Swift didn’t narrow his focus. He didn’t set achievable parameters. We’ll never know for sure if he died as peevish, morose or suspicious as ever, but the smart money is that he did.
But there is one item on the list that is very useful, and that’s the last one (although that one about servants is good advice for us all): don’t try to do too much at once, you’ll only overwhelm yourself. When it comes to resolutions, Swift knew we tend to bite off more than we can chew. Just like actual biting, small mouthfuls usually work better (and lead to less embarrassment at meals). By committing to one simple goal, we’re a) much more likely to stick to it and b) less likely to feel like a failure because we didn’t solve world hunger on our way to the gym while eating an organic snack.
The real problem is that most of our challenges are things we feel we should be doing, rather than things we actually want to do. It’s much easier to do things we want to do, in fact we do them all the time – particularly if they involve sleeping-in or anything to do with cheese. The challenge is to channel that desire into something a little more meaningful.
It turns out the solution to all this is quite simple:
- Choose a simple goal
- Make it one that you actually want to accomplish
- Accomplish it
Everything else is just distraction.
Image c/o Vern, Flickr