It’s that time of year again when many people are beginning to frame their resolutions for the new year. Almost two years into the pandemic, many are frustrated and depleted, ready for things to be less weighty in 2022. And hopefully, they will be. But, if the pandemic has taught us anything, it is that uncertainty is part and parcel of the human experience. As much as we wish differently, there are no guarantees of what 2022, or any other year, will bring.
And yet, it’s a normal human tendency to want to exert control over the future and reduce uncertainty wherever we can. And when we set resolutions, we’re hoping for that certainty…
But, how many years have you set resolutions and, come mid-February, experienced a sense of disappointment when these have not materialized?
I know that I certainly have.
For years, for example, I set a New Year’s resolution to establish a regular exercise routine. And for years, I managed to exercise for a few weeks but then petered out. Guess what happened then? I went into high gear criticizing myself, accusing myself of being a weakling, and feeling like a failure. All that self-castigation only served to deplete my motivation further. I headed into March each year with a sense of hopelessness that I could ever change my pattern.
But now, I am happy to report that I have actually exercised regularly for over two years! I credit this success with three simple mindfulness-based strategies. Perhaps you can try these for yourself.
1. Stop being a bully
So many times, we set goals for ourselves then beat ourselves up when we don’t achieve them. I know that I do. Yet, none of us are perfect. We all deviate from our goals. It is simply the way we humans operate.
When we criticize ourselves, however, we’re basically feeding ourselves the message that we don’t support ourselves. Just think about it for a moment: Are we being an ally to ourselves or more a bully? For many of us, it is the latter. And does bullying ourselves serve to motivate us to do better? We may think that it does, but is that true?
Here’s a brief exercise to help you answer this question.
Bring to mind right now something you want to improve on in 2022. This first part of the exercise won’t be much fun but take a moment right now to list all the ways you’re not up for the challenge. For example:
“I’m not good at this.”
“Others are so much better at sticking to things than I am.”
“I’ll never get this done.”
“This is going to be another year where I don’t achieve my goals.”
“I’m so bad at setting new habits, why should I even try.”
Now rate your level of motivation to complete the task on a scale from 0 (no motivation) to 10 (highly motivated).
For the second part of the exercise, stay focused on the same thing you want to improve on. This time, though, tell yourself affirming messages. For example:
“I’m great at doing this kind of thing.”
“I may procrastinate but I always get things done.”
“I have just the right skills and strengths to do this.”
“I’m just as good as everyone else at this kind of thing.”
“I’ve got this!”
Now re-rate your level of motivation on the same scale, from 0 (no motivation) to 10 (highly motivated).
What happened to your score? Did your number go up, down, or stay the same?
I’ve done this exercise with thousands of physicians and others, and the vast majority say that their number goes up, and typically, in a significant manner.
It’s ironic, but the more we focus on what we’re not doing well, or what still needs to get done, the more draining and daunting our tasks can seem. And yet, the more we focus on what we’re doing well and are accomplishing, the more confidence and energy we have to accomplish more. This counterintuitive truth is what Mark Manson refers to as the “The Backwards Law” in his bestselling book, How to Not Give a F * * *.
2. Set your intention
Instead of resolving to lose twenty pounds, exercise three times a week, or save X amount of money per month, setting a daily intention is a great way to guarantee success. After all, traditional New Year’s resolutions set us up for a binary metric of success vs failure, and you may know exactly which side of this equation most of us land on.
A daily intention is much more nuanced, less black and white. You can think of it more like setting your course. Even if you don’t reach a specific goal, you are helping yourself shift into a mindset of efficacy and accomplishment.
Your daily intention can be about a specific action (a “doing” intention) or more about an emotional or attitudinal approach (a “being” intention.)
Examples of daily intentions include:
Today, I will try to avoid empty carbs and sweets.
Today, I will show up as my best.
This week, I will exercise just as much or more than I did last week.
Today, I will be as kind to myself as I am to my close friends.
This week, I will get more of my charts done in real-time.
Today, I will remind myself not to take things personally when they are not.
This week, I will try to be more mentally present when I’m with my family.
Instead of leaving us with a fixed mindset of success vs failure, setting an intention helps us see that life always involves bumps in the road, and that times when we step off our desired path are completely normal and to be expected.
Intentions are about growth and a growth mindset. The growth that we can achieve moment to moment, imperfections and all.
3. Focus on wants instead of shoulds
From Gretchen Rubin, author of The Happiness Project, to James Clear (Atomic Habits,) all experts make clear that for any new habit to take hold, we need to focus on what we truly want to achieve, rather than on things we believe you “should” be achieving. In other words, to be successful at any life change, we have to really want it.
Similarly, Ryan and Deci’s theory of self-determination, the leading theory on human motivation, tells us that intrinsic motivation is much more powerful than that generated by external forces.
So it pays to take the time to consider what it is that you truly want, teasing out the things others have said you should do or stop doing.
You can ask yourself the following questions:
What’s truly important to me about this?
How will I feel when I move forward on this?
What do I most want to look back and see?
Lastly, whatever you do, please try not to use your resolutions as a means to beat yourself up. The more you focus on what you are achieving as opposed to what you are not, the more you will continue to accomplish. Truly.
Go forth and decide what steps you’ll take today. Move from inner bully to inner ally, set a daily or weekly intention, and focus less on shoulds and more on wants. Even if you falter from your path, every moment of your life can be used to institute change.
Self-improvement is always within your reach.
If you found this helpful, you’ll want to join the rapidly growing private Facebook group for healthcare providers, Mindful MD.