Updated: Dec 31, 2021
It's that time of year where you get flooded with all kinds of think pieces and promotions about starting fresh and making this year different.
Personally, I tend to be pretty skeptical about all of it, but if you're big on setting intentions for the year, here's 3 tips that I'd encourage you to keep in mind when writing resolutions.
If you've already written your resolutions, here are some questions you can use to make sure you're set up for success:
Is/are my resolution(s) based on my values or are they just goals?
Am I trying to do too much too quickly? Can I make the effort smaller?
When and where will I practice new resolution? Can I stack it between other habits?
What will I do when my thoughts get loud and things get busy? How can I practice stepping back from my thoughts?
Before we begin, let's acknowledge a few pitfalls that many of us face when trying to change our behavior. From there, we'll explore the three ways to manage and overcome those challenges.
Pitfall #1: Obsessing over goals. This is likely a personal problem, but I find the discussion around goals to be incredibly draining. You see it everywhere — in ads, on social media, in classrooms, in organized sports, etc. The subtle message is that once we reach our goals, we'll feel permanently happy. While this is definitely untrue, our internal desires for quick change and to feel good makes goal setting really appealing. What we often skip over and don't pause to consider is whether the goal is actually moving us in a direction that will be fulfilling long-term.
Pitfall #2: Overestimating what can be achieved in a particular timeframe. I'll admit right away that this is the pitfall I struggle with most. Because I'm so eager to get to the end result (i.e. achieve the goal and feel happy forever), I often speed up timelines or assume that tasks will take half the time that they actually require. When we fall into this trap, it's really easy to lose motivation and doubt our efforts. At worst, it can cause us to give up entirely. Thoughts like "if it can't be done in two weeks, why even do it at all?" can enter our mind and impact our actions.
Pitfall #3: Getting caught up in our thoughts and emotions. While any one of these pitfalls can throw us off track, I've found that they often show up together — creating a cycle of behavior that's hard to break once we're in it. The thoughts and feelings that come up when we're obsessing over goals or overestimating our abilities are difficult to manage. In these moments, doubt, anxiety, fear, shame, or concern can all show up and force us to question what we're pursuing and whether we're capable.
In seemingly no time at all, we abandon our goals because the whole process of making a change feels really hard. Not only that, it's easy to personalize the experience. If I'm not paying attention, my thoughts can quickly shift from "I failed to achieve the goal" to "I am a failure."
What can we do instead?
To counteract these obstacles, we do need to make changes, but not all at once or with any short-term, grand efforts.
Instead, we'll design a system of small behaviors and actions that help us consistently focus on values, achieve and celebrate small victories, and step back from the default thoughts that come up and disrupt our efforts. These systems can be applied at work, in our personal lives, in relationships, or with our hobbies and interests — just not all of those places at once.
Incremental small changes won't guarantee that we'll meet or exceed our wildest goals in unrealistic timelines and they certainly won't make us feel happy all the time. That said, these behaviors, practiced over and over again, will move us consistently in the direction of what we care about most. These small efforts actually increase our likelihood of accomplishing the goals we set. More importantly, they can bring about experiences that provide greater depth and meaning to our lives.
1. Prioritize values over goals
Because many of us already have a definition for what values are, let's introduce a different term to discuss this concept. Our "ways of being," or wobs, as I like to call them, describe how we want to act in any particular moment. Though we don't often talk about it, our ways of being help inform what we really care about and how we want to act. For example, it's far more likely for someone to ask "what do you want to do right now?" rather than "how do you want to be right now?"
As odd as that second question sounds, it's far more connected to what matters to us, and therefore has a much larger influence on how we feel. If you ask me what I like to do, I'd probably mention climbing, pickleball, meaningful conversations, board games, learning about emotions, and asking lots of questions. While it's true that I care about all of these activities, what's actually more important to me is how I'm able to be while I'm doing those activities.
Climbing is a vehicle for me to be adventurous and courageous. Pickleball gives me a chance to be active and skillful. Discussing ideas and emotions allows me to engage wholeheartedly with other people. Asking questions satisfies my curiosity.
One tip for identifying your wobs is figuring out what adverbs (words that end in "ly") best capture how you like to be. Otherwise, you can respond to the question "how do you want to be or proceed right now?" by filling in the phrase "with _____".
Activity: If you've never explored values in this way, consider using this resource from Brene Brown's book Dare to Lead to identify your values. First, write down any words that stand out and are important to you. From there, try to sort them into a list of your top 3-4. While there's nothing wrong with a big list, prioritizing can help clarify what's often most important to you in a given situation.
The powerful thing about ways of being is that they function like a points on a compass — they orient you in a direction that's important to you, but with no specific destination. From moment to moment, you can choose to act in the direction of your values or away from them, just as you can choose to head east or west. Over time, our experiences become more meaningful and fulfilling the more we choose a values-aligned direction.
This isn't to say that goals aren't useful, of course. The problem is that we often create goals without any awareness of our values. If I focus only on goals, it's easy to judge myself as a success or failure. And even if I succeed, what then? What next?
Imagine that I set a goal this year to go on 30 mountain bike rides, which is 10 more than last year. If I'm not aware that, for me, mountain biking is really about being adventurous and courageous, I may end up choosing the same routes or going to the same places without challenging myself. Even if I meet or exceed my goal of 30 rides, I might end up feeling underwhelmed or dissatisfied with my results.
Even worse, what if I get injured and can no longer ride? While I'd certainly feel loss, if I'm only focused on goals, I'll likely feel completely stuck. Now what do I do? By knowing that I want to live courageously and adventurously, other opportunities arise. The transition will still be difficult, but there's power in knowing my wobs. What does adventure and courage look like when I'm injured? Maybe it's 5 days of adventures walking on different trails. Maybe it's focusing on recovery. Knowing our wobs won't protect us from difficulty, but it can be a vital tool in moving through it more productively.
Keep in mind:
- Make sure that your wobs are actions and not outcomes. For example, it can be tempting to choose a word like "happily" or "successfully" as a wob. While these words sound like values, they're actually outcomes or results that we can't control.
- Be careful not to use your wobs as a tool to beat yourself up. We're human — you're not going to choose your values in every moment. Practice kindness and self-compassion when you get off track.
2. Be micro-ambitious
With your values identified and sorted, it's worth reassessing your overall capacity. I've borrowed this concept of micro-ambition from Tim Minchin, who delivered one of the most compelling commencement speeches I've ever heard. If you can make space for 12 minutes of clever, direct, and compassionate wisdom in your day, it's worth watching. And if you've already seen it, it's worth watching again.
In his speech, he opposes the very American idea that we ought to spend years of our life endlessly pursuing long-term dreams and instead advocates for a "passionate dedication to the pursuit of short-term goals." This same principle can and should be applied to our resolutions and the commitments we make to ourselves and others.
There's a number of reasons we often fail at this. In a work setting, maybe we notice a pattern of other employees being rewarded for how much they take on. In relationships, maybe we're afraid to say "no" and disappoint our partners. On social media, we might absorb highlight reels and latch onto what appears to be overnight success. Many of the images we consume leave out the consistent time and effort it takes to bring about the transformation we're seeking. Over and over the same ideas are reinforced: do more, try harder, be an expert yesterday.
Here's the reminder that you didn't want today: short-term, extreme efforts are likely not going to get you the result you want. When designing new routines, our minds convince us that if we want something really different, it has to feel different and challenging. Because of this, many of us don't start small enough. We dive into overly-ambitious commitments that fall apart shortly after we begin. What if the change I make doesn't actually feel like much at all because the adjustment is small enough that I don't have to spend significant energy adopting it?
Say, for example, I want to show up competently at work. With that value in mind, I make a book list that I want to finish by the end of the year. One book a month and 10 pages a day. That sounds pretty reasonable, right? While it's certainly possible, if I currently have no book-reading habits, I'll likely fail. As soon as life gets busy or something unexpected occurs, my old routines automatically kick in, and I'm done for. Initial excitement, positive emotions, and willpower won't carry me through when things get hard. I can't rely on temporary feelings to create lasting change. It simply won't work.
If I really want to create a reading habit, it requires repeatable, low effort over an extended period of time. Instead, I'll start with a paragraph or at most a page. If that's hard to repeat multiple times a week, I can set a timer for two minutes and read until the timer goes off. Once that's automatic, I can increase by 30 seconds.
Another strategy I can use (borrowed from James Clear's Atomic Habits) is to stack my paragraph of reading in between two habits that are currently automatic for me (e.g. waking up and brushing my teeth). Once that page of reading becomes automatic, I slowly add volume (a paragraph or page at a time) or choose another time 2-minute window to read during the day.
Resources: If you want to some more concrete suggestions on changing behavior, check out James Clear's article on habit stacking or his book Atomic Habits. If you're looking for a values-based approach to keep yourself organized and accountable, check out Polymath's Annual Rumination guide or their planners at getpolymath.com
Remember, it's not about whether I read a paragraph or a page. It's about creating a system around routine actions that help me move consistently and incrementally toward my values. We don't have to be perfect, just consistent.
3. Get distance from your thoughts
Setting resolutions and meeting goals would be easier if it weren't for the steady stream of difficult thoughts that frequently show up to derail our progress. Learning to step back and get distance from these thoughts is an essential step if we're going to create lasting change.
Fortunately, we don't have to listen to our thoughts, though some are far more convincing than others. Let's start with an easy example to make the point.
Activity: If you're able, go ahead and make a tight fist with both of your hands (feel free to modify if needed). For the next 15-30 seconds, I encourage you to repeat to yourself with some real passion and conviction over and over, "I can't open my hands." Feel free to start now. Really take the time to complete the exercise. Done? If so, go ahead and open your hands.
Not terribly difficult, right? Did you notice anything throughout? Even though you may have never really believed your thought, maybe your hands opened more slowly than they would have normally.
Thoughts are powerful. That's especially true when we aren't aware of them.
Thankfully, if we bring attention to them, we're able to choose how we respond. One of my favorite quotes to emphasize this point is from Man's Search for Meaning. In the book, Frankl says, “Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and freedom.”
Essentially, before we respond to an event—a thought, memory, emotion, or some external stimulus— we have a moment to decide. Our thoughts and emotions don't need to determine our responses, and the more we practice creating that space between stimulus, thought, and response, the more we actually free ourselves from acting in ways that don't align with our values.
Here's a quick exercises that you can practice to get some distance from your thoughts. The purpose of these activities is not to make your thought easier, but to create space between the thought and how you choose to respond.
When a thought comes up that's particularly loud, start by repeating it once to yourself in your head to bring awareness to it. One that comes up often for me is "I can't do this."
After you've said it once to yourself, say it a second time, but add in the phrase "I'm having the thought that..." Take a moment to notice the difference.
Finally, say it one last time, and this time, add the phrase, "I notice I'm having the thought that..." If helpful, repeat the third phrase a few more times and really try to step into your observing self — the version of you that can step back and watch your thoughts without reacting to them immediately.
After you've done that, check in with yourself. Ask yourself, "what was in that thought that was important to me? How do I want to be right now? Am I willing to do the thing that aligns with my values?"
Again, the purpose of stepping back from our thoughts is not to hold tightly to the enjoyable thoughts or to get rid of the difficult ones. It's to remind ourselves that we are not our thoughts, and in reminding ourselves of that, to decide how we want to respond. Preferably, we'll choose a response more often than not that aligns with our wobs.
That's all for now. Wishing you all the resilience, willingness, and energy you need to navigate this coming year. In the spirit of micro-ambition, I hope you spend these next few minutes doing something that matters to you.
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