Why new year resolutions fail & how to make them work
Photo: Andre Benz/ Unsplash
The biggest enemy of successful resolutions is the power of Now! This statement may seem paradoxical. There is so much good press for how wonderful it is to be in the Now. But, think about it: If you're in the Now, why would you sacrifice the satisfaction you are experiencing right now for a reward that may (or may not) materialize in the future? Why would you get off the couch and go exercising?
You can tell yourself that it's right for you, that you really should get off the couch. Or: stop smoking. Or: (fill in with your resolution). It sometimes works, of course. But, so often, it's an uphill battle.
Fighting the power of immediate gratification is like opposing the law of gravity.
Why is that? The information that comes through your nervous system is present-moment: For instance, how comfortable it is to be lying on the couch. Or how soothing it feels to eat, or drink, or smoke. Compared to that vivid, present-moment information, the resolution feels like some abstract "should" that lacks urgency. From that place, it makes sense to postpone it.
So you want to get the power of Now to work for you instead of against you. To do so, you need to change your relationship to that goal, so that it feels more vivid, more inspiring. This approach is not a mind game where you are trying to trick yourself. It would not work, simply because you'd know it's a trick. You need to experience your motivation in real-time. And, of course, you cannot fake authenticity.
The above ideas may seem a bit abstract. So I will give you an example where moment-by-moment motivation is not the same as the ultimate goal. Let's talk about what happens at war. Soldiers enlist for a variety of reasons: patriotism, a family tradition of being in the armed forces, to get funds for college or learn a trade, etc. But these original motivations are not necessarily what motivates soldiers during battle. Then, what sustains people is a sense of being in it together: your buddies are there for you, and you are there for them.
A deep sense of human connection is something that stays present in the now. Not only stays present, but it is also reinforced moment by moment, as the soldiers fight together. It takes this deep motivation, in the present moment, to counterbalance all the present-moment factors that would make people recoil from it.
So, we have a great tendency to give a higher value to present-moment gratification. How do we counterbalance this tendency to give greater weight to future benefits? The strategy is to shift your motivation to something that can deliver satisfaction, either in the present moment or very soon.
How we shift the future to the present
Let's take, as an example, the resolution to exercise regularly. Moment by moment, you will easily find reasons why "now" is not a good time to do it. All your lofty ideas about the benefits of exercise are all well and good. Still, they are not powerful enough to counterbalance the urgency of doing what feels better at this precise moment.
So, for instance, scheduling exercise with friends - either exercising together or challenging each other to accomplish a goal, e.g., a specific mileage of weekly running. Better yet: there comes a time when remembering how good it feels becomes your motivation to exercise. By that point, you have successfully replaced a relatively abstract long-term motivation (health) with a current one (feeling good).
We're talking about the felt experience of feeling good, here and now (or very, very soon), as opposed to an abstraction.
These are very simplistic examples. They do not necessarily work for everybody. This is precisely my point: You have to look for what works for you. Not what "should work," but what gives you a present-moment incentive.
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