Why new year's resolutions fail & How to make them work
The biggest enemy of successful resolutions is… the power of Now! This statement may seem paradoxical: After all there’s so much good stuff being written about how good 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 good for you… that you really should get off the couch. Or: stop smoking. Or: (fill in with your resolution). It works sometimes, of course. But, so often, it’s an uphill battle. Fighting the power of immediate gratification is like fighting 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 good resolution feels like some abstract “should” that lacks urgency. From that place, it makes sense to postpone it.
So you want to make the power of Now 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 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.
This may seem a bit abstract. So I will give you an example where motivation in the moment is not the same as the ultimate goal. Let’s talk about war. Soldiers enlist for a variety of reasons, such as patriotism, a family tradition of being in the armed forces, to get funds for College or learn a trade, etc… However diverse their original motivations may be, what motivates soldiers in the midst of battle 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, it is 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, how can you counterbalance this powerful human tendency to give a higher value to present-moment gratification? The strategy is to shift your motivation to something that can deliver gratification either in the present moment, or very soon.
Let’s take, as an example, the resolution to exercise regularly. Moment by moment, it is very easy to find a good reason why now is not a good time to do it. All your lofty reasons to exercise are well and good, but 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 certain mileage of weekly running. Better yet is when you reach the point of remembering how good it feels to exercise, so that your motivation to exercise is to feel good very soon (as opposed to the longer-term goal of being healthier).
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. Which is exactly my point: You have to look for what works for you. Not what “should work”, but what actually gives you a present-moment incentive.