But jumbled up among those frustrating scraps are the occasional items that draw me into contemplation. Like finding my old New Year’s resolution lists, some of them over five years old. It’s an interesting exercise to peruse the lists and see where my thinking was over the course of the last few years. My goals and ambitions, and the things I eagerly intended to accomplish to make my life feel more fulfilling. But you know how I feel after looking over those lists now? Like a bit of a loser.
Well, “loser” is probably too strong a word, but definitely like someone who bites off more than they can chew. People like that are the type that set themselves up for failure because they spread themselves too thin. And that is why I think we’ve got this New Year’s resolution thing all wrong. We (as in “I”) spread ourselves too thin.
Truth be told, it’s not just those resolution lists, but how we set up our goals in general that is the problem. I think we go shopping for our goals like we do when we hit the grocery store with an empty stomach. We end up buying way more than we need or can possibly eat before it spoils, and also throw in a lot of “junk food” in the process. Just like our eyes can be hungrier than our stomachs, our minds’ eyes can hold heartier ambitions than our ability to accomplish them may be.
Take my last year’s resolution list as an example. It’s nearly two pages of fist-pumping, heart-throbbing, inspiration-building stuff. And I got about a half-page of it done before I either lost the paper they were written on, or lost interest, or both. I can’t remember which happened first. And out of that half-page, maybe only one or two items actually stuck for the long haul, while the others got a good week or so of dedication before my willpower to continue them waned.
The point is there was just too much stuff to focus on with any serious level of intent. Human minds don’t function well when you spread their willpower too thin. Task saturation sets in. And science informs us that our brains don’t form new habits as easily as we can list the new habits we want to bring into our lives. Whether that be to quit smoking, eat better, exercise more often, write more regularly, commit to a certain hobby or career endeavor with more zeal, or whatever. So, why try to force a goal/habit structure on them that they’re not biologically inclined to succeed at?
In order to form and instill new habits into our lives, it takes a concerted, focused effort over at least eight weeks of time. And that’s for a single habit. It’s much harder to focus and instill habits over the same period when we’re trying to do more than one or two at a time. Our willpower drops and we tend to give in to the nags of our daily lives.
A better way might be to make a short list of those things most important to you to change or begin. Consider it a good exercise in learning to distill what’s important from the clutter of the unimportant. And then prioritize those items in the order of which you’d like to accomplish first, and set about doing them in two month blocks over the course of the year. If you haven’t done the math already, that translates into about six to twelve new goals/habits per year. A pretty sustainable number.
Two books I recommend as a means of helping you along on your journey are Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength by Roy F. Baumesiter and John Tierney, and The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business by Charles Duhigg. Both are written in easily accessible language, but the first is by far the more important in my opinion since one of the key scientists involved in the studies behind the science of willpower and habit formation is its author. The second is more of a reinforcement of the science of the first book and its appendix has a good layout of how to apply these ideas to your daily life.