Happy New Year!
How are your New Year resolutions going? Don’t worry – I’m not here to make you feel bad or guilt trip you if they’re not going so well. In fact, I am writing today to offer you a failsafe way to avoid breaking resolutions.
This is quite a radical new direction for me. I used to love making resolutions. I’d get really excited about this wonderful new me that would result from all that exercising, healthy eating, and pledges to be a ray of sunshine in the lives of those around me…. Only to feel crushed with disappointment when I found that I’d stretched my willpower so tight that it snapped and I fell off.
So now I take a different approach, which I’d like to share with you.
1. Focus on processes, not outcomes
I learned this when I was rowing on the ocean, but forgot it at some point along the way. When I first set out on the Atlantic, I was all about the outcome, i.e. my glorious (as I imagined it) arrival in Antigua.
I could picture it vividly in my mind – stepping ashore to a welcoming crowd, the first hug with my mother, the first hot shower, the first cold beer. The image was so real to me that when my attention returned to present reality, it was rather a shock to find out that I wasn’t there yet.
Now that I understand more about motivation, I know that this is a classic pitfall. Visualisation is great, BUT not enough on its own. If the “being” of your mind believes you have already accomplished your goal, the “doing” part of your mind is going to struggle to find the motivation to do the work necessary to get you there. So you need a powerful vision PLUS a powerful action plan.
In other words, rather than resolve to achieve a specific outcome, like “make my spouse happy”, it’s more useful to create a process which, if repeated daily, is very likely to achieve the desired outcome – like writing a daily love letter, or finding out which of the 5 languages of love your beloved speaks, and finding a way to speak to them in that language.
2. Focus on intrinsic goals, not extrinsic
The other problem with a goal like “make my spouse happy” is that your spouse’s level of happiness is largely up to them. You could do everything right, but if they hate their job or their dog dies or their team is on a losing streak (or all of the above), then no matter what you do, they’re still not going to be happy.
Similar problems arise if your goal is to get promoted or be more popular or to get those six-pack abs. You can work harder, be nicer, or do 100 crunches a day, but ultimately your success depends at least in part on factors beyond your control.
Again, the ocean was a powerful teacher for me. When I started out rowing, I naively thought it would be good to aim for a minimum number of miles per day. But oceans don’t work like that. Some days I could row like a maniac just to stand still, due to adverse winds or currents. And other days a glorious tailwind would whisk me along so fast it was hardly worth rowing. Progress was anything but linear, and miles achieved had very little to do with how hard I rowed.
So I learned to focus on what I could control – the number of hours I rowed – rather than the number of miles I covered. And that went much better.
3. Focus on progress, not perfection
When we set ourselves a goal, we’re often inspired by someone who has already achieved outstanding success in that field. We go to a concert and decide we’re going to take up a musical instrument. We watch athletics on TV and decide we’re going to get fit again. We read a book by the Dalai Lama and decide to take up meditation. And almost invariably, compared with our role model, we are a complete flop. We get discouraged and after a few weeks of increasingly unenthusiastic attempts we give up.
The problem is that we’re comparing our first steps with their millionth steps. Our role model has a huge head start on us in terms of practice and training.
So we need to remind ourselves that EVERYBODY had to start at the beginning. No matter how amazing they may be now, when they first started, they were as useless as we feel ourselves to be. But they persevered, and many years later, they got to be awesome. So it is much more realistic – and much more encouraging – to focus on making progress, consistently day after day, rather than aspiring to be perfect straight out of the blocks.
It’s really great to aim high, to have a goal that really excites us, but psychologists have shown the it’s the people who combine that huge goal with a realistic expectation of the hard work they will have to put in, and the challenges they will face along the way, who have the greatest chance of success.
4. Work out your WHY
And here’s a cunning shortcut. Figure out WHY you want to achieve your goal. If you get richer/fitter/thinner/nicer, what will it achieve? Ultimately, all our goals are about how we want to FEEL, and 9 times out of 10 the feeling we want is to be more happy – whether that happiness arises from greater security, more love in our lives, more freedom, or whatever.
So why not just… be happy?
Often we tell ourselves that there are prerequisites to being happy. “I’ll be happy when…” or “I can’t be happy unless…” But, as Dan Gilbert explains in his TED talk, that’s not so.
So quite possibly you can skip all the “doing” bits, and cut straight to the “being” bit of feeling happy.
“How?” you might be asking. “How do I get to feel happy?” Nick Vujicic, who was born with no arms or legs, has this to say:
Whether your life is happy or not is your own choice. Many people think I can’t live a normal life because I don’t have arms or legs. I could choose to believe that and give up trying. I could stay at home and wait for others to take care of me. Instead, I choose to believe that I can do anything, and I always try to do things my own way. I choose to be happy. I am happy because I am always thankful.”
More on that in my next blog post – and meanwhile, do check out that Dan Gilbert talk. It’s very funny. It might even make you happy. 🙂