As we proceed through the intensity of merry-making, gift-giving, and gift-returning, one more holiday tradition will remain: pondering those pesky New Year’s Resolutions. It’s probably fitting that after a season of indulgence (financial and/or caloric), we resolve to change our habits in the new year. Lose ten pounds! Exercise 5 times a week! Save more money! No more ugly sweaters!
And then, come Valentine’s Day, we sit on the couch with our chocolates, laughing with our sweetheart about how rarely we’ve used that new gym membership (which is working out to about $35 per workout), and wondering why we haven’t lost those pounds or saved any money. Maybe it’s because we’re now wearing expensive and tasteful sweaters?
If this sounds like you, you’re not alone. Research indicates that only 8% of people actually achieve their New Year’s resolutions! Most fitness resolutions last, on average, 8 days. Are we going about this whole resolution thing the wrong way?
Perhaps resolutions are hard because those words — determination, firmness — are hard. We are resolved to act in a certain way. We have firm expectations of specific outcomes. But we’re still human, prone to slip-ups and mistakes. We still live in a constantly changing environment, which can derail even the most strong-willed and tenacious among us.
One of my mindfulness teachers recently shared a talk entitled “Patience vs. Determination in Personal Practice.” She described how the attitude with which we approach our meditation practice can be considered along a continuum, from militaristic effort on one side and extreme laziness on the other. As with most dichotomous systems, neither extreme feels very good — the idea is to find our way to a comfortable spot in the middle.
I think this is our problem with resolutions — they put us firmly in militaristic effort mode, obsessed with outcomes and notions of success and failure.
The answer is not to abandon the practice of self-improvement. It is to find that sweetspot between effort and patience: to identify areas for growth, summon the courage to transform our habits, and do so with kindness and compassion for ourselves.
We should perhaps think in terms of intentions instead of resolutions. Intention comes from the Latin intendere, “to turn one’s attention,” and intentionem, “a stretching out.” While resolutions are firm and hard, intentions are flexible. They’re about where we direct our attention. They’re about being mindful.
As we seek personal transformation in the year ahead, I offer you my mindful approach to New Year’s Resolutions and Intentions:
A Mindful Guide to New Year’s Resolutions
1. Consider Your Intentions
The most common resolutions are to lose weight, spend less money, and get organized. Those are all valuable and healthy practices. But why are they your intentions? Do you want to feel better about your body? Save for retirement? Stop wasting time looking for all your things in the morning? Honoring the personal meaning behind an action helps us maintain our resolve.
2. Focus on Process, Not Results
Resolutions like “lose weight” and “get organized” are completely focused on a result, with no identification of a process for how to get there.
Studies show that when workers — from sales executives to Formula One pit crews — focus on process and style instead of sales numbers and speed, they actually perform better. Intensely focusing on results paradoxically makes us less likely to achieve them.
If we focus on going for walks or eating healthy salads for lunch, we will probably lose some weight in the process. And we’ll probably enjoy the journey a lot more. The purpose of a resolution should be the process — the infinite present moments in which transformation will occur — rather than waiting for the single instance of its attainment.
3. Change Your Habit Loop
Self-transformation begins with self-awareness. First turn your attention to the habits that you would like to change, and examine what sustains those habits. If you want to spend less money, for example, take some time observing how and when and why you spend money. Is it your morning habit to turn on the computer, check your email, and click on all those ON SALE NOW–ACT QUICK! impulse messages? If that remains your morning ritual, you’re going to have a hard time saving your money.
Charles Duhigg, in The Power of Habit, argues that the key to changing our behaviors is understanding the habit loop — the cues that trigger a particular action, and the rewards that lead us to continue to do it.
For example, I shared a post last year about my old morning habit loop that I wanted to change: instead of rewarding myself with coffee while checking my email in the morning, which often left me grumpy, I made my coffee the “reward” for meditating in the morning instead. And after a while, meditating in the morning simply became routine. I looked forward to it, and noticed the benefits of a more dedicated practice. But I had to change my habits, not just resolve to “meditate more.”
Duhigg writes, “Once you break a habit into its components, you can fiddle with the gears.”
And wouldn’t you know? The word “resolution” is derived from the Latin resolvere, which means “to reduce into simpler forms.” That’s where we should start.
4. Be Kind to Yourself
No matter what intentions we set for ourselves, there will be days and weeks when we don’t live up to our expectations. A fundamental lesson we learn through practicing mindfulness is that we are constantly beginning again — each day, each breath. We sit down to meditate, and we experience a brief moment of awareness. Then our mind starts chattering, planning dinner and worrying about the kids. And then with a deep breath, awareness rearises– and the mind is off again to the next episode of Fuller House in our Netflix queue.
When the mind wanders, we gently bring our attention back to the breath, without judging or berating ourselves. The moment we notice our mind has wandered is the moment of insight — noticing the action of the mind is the practice itself.
The same goes for resolutions. When we fall short, we can gently and non-judgmentally bring our awareness back to our intention. That’s really the purpose of setting resolutions — bringing a kind awareness to our behavior, recognizing when we’ve wandered, and beginning again. And again…
5. Consider Resolution Alternatives
If the pressure of New Year’s Resolutions is too much, consider a few alternative ways to set your intentions for the upcoming year:
- Make a Vision Board: You can find lots of online instructions for making a vision board (like these ones here, which include users’ uploaded pictures of their boards). A vision board compiles images that represent what you want for yourself in the upcoming year. It’s a great way to have a visual reminder of your intentions (I have mine hanging in my office). The images of heart-shaped fruits, dancing yogis, and glowing candles gently remind me to eat healthy food, move my body, and make time for stillness.
- Choose a Word of the Year: Many people have embraced the trend of choosing a word for the year — like breathe, trust, dance, fly — that encapsulates the feelings, attitudes, and behaviors they desire in the year ahead. This word can guide your choices and actions — instead of setting firm expectations for yourself, you can ask if a particular behavior aligns with your word and your intentions.
Ultimately, New Year’s Resolutions are about growth and improvement. They are about bringing health and joy and ease into our lives. With mindfulness we can bring awareness to our habits and hold ourselves with compassion and kindness as we seek meaningful transformation.