The Annual Tease of New Year’s Resolutions
Do you, like myself and many others do a bit of a mental review of your year (or your life)at New Year and come up with some ‘resolutions’ for the coming year? Some big goals for personal change? If so, to what extent do you achieve those goals? I read yesterday that 25% of people abandon their New Year’s Resolutions after one week, and 60% do so within six months. I didn’t check if there is any research backing up these statements, but they were food for thought, all the same.
I think there are many reasons that their New Year’s Resolutions don’t work for many people, but I will list just three that I think are particularly important. Hopefully this list might help you to identify some of the thing/s that trip you up if you are unable to persevere with your resolutions. Or they may even allow you to give yourself permission not to engage in this annual tease, if the time is not right for you.
Your challenging goals – problems or dilemmas?
1. If it is a challenging enough goal that we need to set a New Year’s Resolution to achieve it, it is most likely not a simple or easy goal to achieve. Dike Drummond, M.D. in his book ‘Stop Physician Burnout’ writes about the distinction between a problem and a dilemma. Understandably, we generally approach challenges with a ‘problem-solving’ mind-set – analyse the problem, identify possible solutions, choose the best solution, implement it and voila! Problem solved. This approach works well for straight-forward problems – e.g. there are two people in your house-hold and only one car, but today, you both need the car. Apply this process and voila! Problem solved.
But many of our challenges are more of a dilemma than a problem. A dilemma is a situation in which a difficult choice has to be made between two alternatives – especially when both alternatives are either undesirable or mutually incompatible. Or perhaps both alternatives are very desirable – for example “I want to lose weight and I want to keep on enjoying yummy sweet and fatty foods”. And in the case of the changes we tackle in New Year’s Resolutions, it’s not just one difficult choice, but a choice we need to make over and over and over again, day after day, after day – on days when we’re feeling highly motivated and on days when we are exhausted and don’t have any delicious and easy-to-prepare healthy food in the refrigerator.
A dilemma requires managing, not solving. And managing requires an ongoing strategy with regular reviews to ‘tweak’ the strategy to find what will work best. It’s not a quick fix process. Many people approach their New Year’s Resolutions as if they are problems, when they may in fact be dilemmas.
Maintaining mindfulness, awareness and perspective regarding our goal over the long-haul
2. When we are working on an issue that requires us to make ‘the good decision’ over and over and over again, we need to be able to maintain a relatively high level of awareness or mindfulness. Using the weight loss example again – we need to be able to notice the urge to grab a bag of chippies or chocolate bar from the ‘snack box’ at work, before we’ve gone ahead and done it. We need to be able to resist urges, see the bigger picture – remember our overall goal for better health or losing weight, be aware of the consequences of our actions, be aware of alternatives for healthier choices – to generally maintain a state of awareness, choice and perspective. These are all mental functions that we can only achieve when we are in a ‘relaxed and focussed’ frame of mind. When we are stressed out, in the ‘fight-flight’ physiology, we are more likely to be caught in tunnel vision, impatience, impulsiveness, and black-and-white thinking – not a place where we can make wise decisions.
In fact, to have a ‘fighting chance’ of sticking to our New Year’s Resolutions, we need to spend as little time as possible in the ‘fight-flight’ physiology, and know how to change state to the ‘relaxed and focussed’ physiology each time we notice that we are stressed. In addition to Mindfulness and Diaphragmatic Breathing, Neurolinguistic Programming has some great strategies for accessing and anchoring resourceful states such as being relaxed and focussed. But first we need to have a good level of awareness of our current state so that we know when we need to change it! Again, Mindfulness is vital here.
Ironically, at the time when we make our New Year’s Resolutions, we are usually in quite a ‘relaxed and focussed’ place. We may be on leave from our jobs or on holiday, and are giving ourselves some ‘me-time’ / thinking time where we intentionally choose to enter a place of perspective. Which is a great place to formulate goals, so long as we stay there long enough to formulate a fairly detailed and grounded strategy that will ensure we are able to achieve those goals. But many people don’t take the time and effort to formulate a detailed strategy at that time, and then return to a busy life and get caught back into the rut (and ‘tunnel vision’) of being busy, ‘fire-fighting’, and coping or surviving. It is likely to be almost impossible to stick to resolutions that involve managing dilemmas under these circumstances.
‘New Year’s Resolution’ or ‘New Year’s Wishful Thought’?
3. Maybe it would help to ‘call a spade a spade’. We think of these things we set in the new year as ‘resolutions’. Definitions of ‘resolution’ include: the quality of being resolute, great determination; a mental pledge. But for many, New Year’s Resolutions could more accurately be thought of as ‘New Year’s Wishful Thoughts’ or perhaps ‘New Year’s Vague Goals’ – if we haven’t developed a long term strategy for implementation which includes supporting our ongoing determination in keeping this ‘mental pledge’ or ‘promise’ that we have made to ourselves. So my suggestion would be that if we haven’t got the time, or level of commitment to create a good strategy, why not spare ourselves the guilt and disappointment and slight erosion of self-esteem that occurs when we break our promises to ourselves, let ourselves down – again, and just acknowledge the reality of the matter, without judgment – that the time is not right for this particular goal at this time.
So bearing this in mind – choose your ‘thing’. If not a ‘resolution’, then what? I do think that setting general intentions without a clear goal can be helpful. Last year, a friend set her friends the challenge of selecting a quality to focus on for the year. I chose the quality of ‘spaciousness’ – which I pondered upon many times during the year. It served as a general sense of direction for the year, and although I didn’t have a specific detailed strategy I frequently revisited this somewhat vague intention, with positive results I wouldn’t have predicted.
Be kind to yourself, and get real
My words of advice on New Year’s Resolutions
– Be real with yourself – accept what is, because it is – yourself and your circumstances. Following the advice of the Serenity Prayer – accept the things you can’t change, have the courage (and determination) to choose to change the things you can when the time is right, and use your wisdom to know when and how to effectively tackle those changes you want to make.
– Be kind to yourself – don’t set yourself up for guilt and disappointment with unrealistic and ungrounded ‘resolutions’.
– Consider using this year to put some more foundations in place to help you tackle those important goals that the time is not yet right for. Look out for ways to develop more mindfulness and mental spaciousness this year – and maybe next year you will be in a better place to tackle those goals successfully.
A penny for your thoughts … (not literally, but you know what we mean – we’d love to hear your opinion and learn about your experiences). Please add your comment/s below.
Do New Year’s Resolutions work for you? What words of advice would you offer regarding setting New Year’s Resolutions?
Any and all comments welcome – whether or not you agree with what I’ve written.
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Feeling a bit like you’ve just got too much going on at once? Too much pressure? Too many people making demands on your time or your peace of mind? And feeling like you just can’t think straight, get perspective, work out where to start?
And possibly, as a result of this feeling, saying and doing things that ‘aren’t you’. Maybe you’re normally relatively calm and organised, but at times you just feel like all this stress is ‘doing your head in’.
Well, maybe it’s not just about you. Maybe you’re not ‘losing it’, going crazy or whatever. In fact this is just what our brains do when we end up in the ‘stress response’ (also often known as the fight-flight response).
I personally find it quite reassuring to understand what happens when our brains flick into these particular unhelpful patterns when we are stressed. Partly I find it helpful because I can remind myself I’m not going crazy, this is exactly how my brain is designed to operate under stress. And that thought reminds me that focussing on actions that will help my physiology shift from ‘stressed out / freaking out’ to ‘relaxed and focussed’ is the most useful thing to do. But I’m running ahead … first, here are some ideas that help to explain in simple terms why our minds do what they do when we are stressed.
We’re not as ‘modern’ as we think
In the same way that it is a natural reflex for our bodies to flick into ‘fight-flight’ physiology any time we perceive we are facing a threat (whether that is a real physical threat or a perceived threat, perhaps something that has us feel that our security or wellbeing is under threat) our mind can flick automatically into a ‘fight-flight’ style of thinking. The ‘fight-flight’ reflex is a very primitive reflex which we have in common with even the most ancient animals.
Unfortunately our minds and bodies are not great at telling the difference between real, physical threats and everyday worries or anxieties. So most of us flick into the fight-flight response without even knowing we are doing it. We are then caught in a physiology that would equip us well for a brawl, or to survive in a dangerous world, as if we were surrounded by sabre-tooth tigers.
The ‘logical’ brain goes off-line and ‘emotion brain’ jumps into the driver’s seat
Ironically, the more ‘modern’ or highly evolved, rational, problem-solving part of our brain (the neo-cortex) is less activated when we switch into the fight-flight response, and instead the more ancient ‘emotion brain’ (limbic system) takes over the ‘driver’s seat’. So when we are facing stressors and most need our problem-solving ability, we have least access to it if the ‘fight-flight’ response has been activated. And you may have noticed evidence that the ‘emotion brain’ is more activated in times of greater stress – you may find yourself feeling more emotional than usual, perhaps more prone to tearfulness or more ‘short-fused’ than you would normally be, and you may find that you take things more personally than usual.
In addition, the limbic system responds in a very fast, very ‘black or white’, or ‘all or nothing’ way. You might find that when you are feeling particularly stressed that you find yourself saying things to yourself like “This is a disaster” (as opposed to “This is quite a big setback”), or using ‘all or nothing language’ such as “I will never be able to …”, or “They always do this to me”.
And when I say that we see things as very ‘black or white’ I guess I’m really saying we see things as very black – we are not in a state to notice what is going well or the many good things in our lives. We are in a negative mind-set because of the fight-flight response. This leads to us to a bit of a ‘siege mentality’ – we can feel that we are surrounded by people who are mean and/or stupid.
Looking out for danger
When we are in ‘stress physiology’ we become ‘hypervigilant – we are on the look-out for what is wrong or what could go wrong. This makes perfect sense given that your body and mind are acting as if you are living in a very dangerous world. In a genuinely dangerous world, we need to be on the look-out for danger. But our tendency to flick into this stress physiology, and the hypervigilance that goes with it when faced with every-day ongoing stress, is very unhelpful.
As you can see, we are hard-wired to think negatively when we are caught in the fight-flight response. Another way of describing ‘hypervigilance would be to say that we are in a hyper ‘judging’ mode – we are filtering for whether something is ‘good’ or ‘bad’ (and mostly when we are in the ‘stress’ physiology we are only able to see the ‘bad’) and we are paying particular attention to the size of the gap between how we perceive things to be and how we perceive they ‘should’ be or we wish they would be.
The ‘Relaxed and Focussed’ Physiology
This is the opposite to the ‘fight-flight’ physiology. When we are relaxed, we much more easily and automatically notice the good things in our lives. In this physiology we don’t have to give ourselves a ‘pep talk’ to think positively, we are naturally aware of the good things in our lives. We are also much more compassionate, and much less likely to judge – either others or ourselves. In this physiology we also have full access to our pre-frontal cortex – the part of the brain that can problem-solve, be rational, be creative, and get perspective on life. Our concentration is better and our memory works better. All-in-all this physiology has a lot going for it!
Adopting a ‘bottom up’ approach
There is growing acceptance within psychology today that we can’t easily ‘think’ or ‘work’ our way out of this dynamic. For many people trying to be ‘rational’ in our thinking when we are caught in stress and anxiety, and trying to be ‘positive’ doesn’t work when we are trying to get out of this nasty cycle. In fact, we can end up feeling worse because we think we ‘should’ be able to ‘just be rational’ or ‘just be positive’ and try as we might, this ability eludes us. And this leads to more self-judgment and more of that nasty vicious cycle.
Instead of trying harder to think our way out of this physiology, a more effective approach is to ‘use our bodies to change our minds’. It is helpful to recognise that we are in the stress physiology, remind ourselves that we are hard-wired to think in this negative way when we are in the ‘stress’ physiology, and then choose to take action to change our physiology. So give yourself a break. Trying to stop yourself thinking in this negative way when you are in the ‘stress’ physiology is like trying to rake water up hill. Once we take action which moves us into a more ‘relaxed and focussed’ physiology, then we can ‘go upstairs’ and change the way we are thinking.
‘Bridges’ into the ‘Relaxed and Focussed’ physiology
There are many ‘bridges’ that help us to move from ‘stressed brain’ to ‘relaxed and focused brain’. Physical exercise is really helpful, as is spending time with people who care about us or whose company helps to uplift us. Spiritual practices such as prayer or meditation, or being in nature can also be very helpful, as can music, art or other creative activities. Play is very potent also.
But perhaps the most direct and powerful is diaphragmatic breathing.
Learning to gain greater control over your physiology through diaphragmatic breathing will pay dividends. Imagine how much more calm, enjoyable and productive life would be if you could easily access the ‘Relaxed and Focussed’ physiology, where your brain is more efficient and you can easily get things into perspective. So if you haven’t already, do explore the simple but powerful process of diaphragmatic breathing. And make sure you use it as often as you need it to, to help you keep things in perspective and to prevent you from visiting that ‘it’s doing my head in’ territory that detracts so significantly from our quality of life.
A penny for your thoughts … (not literally, but you know what we mean – we’d love to hear from you): I’d love to hear your opinion and learn about your experiences: Please add your comment/s below.
Can you relate to any of this – have you noticed some of these thought patterns when you’ve been stressed. And have you been annoyed with yourself for being ‘so negative’ or ‘so grumpy’ but not been able to get out of that frame of mind. Or maybe you’ve had friends who’ve given you that oh so helpful (not) advice ‘Don’t be so negative’. I’d love to hear about your experiences of this ‘stress dynamic’.
Any and all comments welcome – whether or not you agree with what I’ve written.
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