I have not had a solid history with making (or keeping) new year resolutions. Living in a cold, dark winter climate, I definitely feel the pull towards the back half of winter, when it slowly starts to be lighter (sunset moves from 4:30 pm towards 5 pm in early January). In North America, we are surrounded by a media-driven culture to resolve to be or do something better in the New Year. New Year= New Person. It’s just a matter of willpower, right?
My personal problem with that premise is that I have lots of different wills – my early morning will is pretty good at getting up, meditating and having breakfast before getting down to work. My 11:30 am will really wants lunch. My 3 pm will sincerely wants to nap under a blanket, preferably with a cat. My 8 pm will really, really wants salty, crispy carbs – so much so that I have to schedule activities during that time to ride out the impulse. My Monday will wants to get down to work and get stuff done. My Wednesday will gets distracted, feeling slightly weary of chasing after goals. My Friday will wants to kick back and relax.
Moshe Feldenkrais in his book, Thinking and Doing, described willpower as a form of self-coercion. He wrote, “Willpower is the force we apply to coerce this or that thought to linger in our brain, but this is not the force that rules. Control resides in imagination and in correct thinking. Thoughts such as “I must,” or “I want very much” contain within them the disturbing element of “I can’t” or “This is very difficult.” Were it not for these thoughts, you would have been able to fulfill your intention without feeling the internal resistance you are struggling to overcome.”
I want to start a new routine to go to the gym. The first week or two goes great – I feel good about my workout, feeling changes in my body, mostly in the region of my body where my self-approval lives – above my heart and below my forehead. Until one day, my resolution slides into “I must go to the gym today.” Blammo – I have set up an internal resistance that I have to overcome. It’s like willpower is a kind of drug dealer – setting up challenge after challenge that we have to break through and overcome. When willpower fails, then the next destructive drug is inner criticism and shaming. Inner voice: “You can’t even keep your resolution for a whole month, you are never going to get fit.” Harsh inner barriers to get over.
I have maintained a meditation practice for the last 8 years. But before that, I really, really, really, really, really tried to establish a meditation practice – for like 10 years. I wish I was kidding. I would clock along, meditating daily for 3 months, for 6 months and then one day I would just stop. A week would go by, a month, sometimes a year and then I would muster my will power to start again, inspired by a new book, a new recording, by joining a new community. This time it would be different. And finally, after 10 years it was. I just needed to persist.
So what if there is another way? A way to set an intention for new activity, to make new habits without experiencing the conflict, without wading through resistance and the largely unconscious thoughts that keep that elusive new normal from taking hold?
Give this experience a try before reading on. Get a pencil and paper. Say out loud, in a casual, easy manner, “I will make precisely 7 dots.” Say it two or three times. Now visually create an image of yourself making 7 dots without saying anything. (Shut your eyes if you feel you need to). Now say the word “seven” without thinking about anything else and make 7 dots on your paper.
Try it 2 or 3 times. When it is clear you will succeed, change the number. Make 11 dots. You might find that this time it is easier for you and you can do it while muttering “eleven” under your breath.
When you reduce the number of unnecessary actions and thoughts and your thinking approaches the simple, direct situation in which you intended to make seven dots, the number of your errors will decrease. Your confidence will increase.
Repeat this one more time, except before you start tapping say out loud, “I want very much to tap 7 times”. Or “I’ll try to tap 7 times.” Or “I must not make any mistakes tapping 7 times.” You may find your performance on this task erodes.
We use will and effort when confidence and skill are not present. Keeping your New Year’s resolution and transforming that resolution into a new normal – requires focused intention – a clear, uncomplicated, positive voice (this is the one your body listens to) – this is the gateway to a new habit, the new reality. The voice of will power “This is going to be hard, and you are likely to fail, so you have to work hard to make sure that won’t happen.” The body hears – “This is hard, you will fail.”
Clear intent + Action (minus unnecessary thoughts and actions) = Success.
So let’s apply this to setting up a habit to go to the gym.
Clear Intention – I am at the gym Monday by 7 pm.
Action – I organize myself to leave home so I can arrive by 7 pm.
Self-Support – I notice, acknowledge and let go of thoughts that distract or disrupt my intention coming to action. (Yes I feel too tired to go tonight. I can go and pick something like a recumbent exercise bike so I can well supported while I work out).
Self-Support – I find myself starting a task that will prevent me from getting to the gym by 7 pm. I stop, assess how I can get this crucial task done and shift to departing for the gym.
This is a crucial part of shifting intention to action and doing it in a way that you will want to repeat it. In my next blog, I would focus on how you interact with your environment and the ways that can support or interfere with your follow-through on a New Year’s resolution.