Resolutions have a dismal success rate: a quarter fail by mid-January and less than 10 percent are deemed successful by year’s end. The problem isn’t that we’re lazy or that winter is a lousy time to punish ourselves (although getting up at 6 a.m. to run in 20-degree weather isn’t exactly pleasurable).
What we’ve been taught about behavior change is wrong because it’s incomplete. Twenty years ago, with a newly-minted PhD, I believed that motivation was The Answer. That if workers were properly resourced with training, equipment and time, if expectations by their managers were clearly understood, and if results were linked to rewards deemed important to workers, they (and their companies) would be successful and satisfied.
Like individual resolutions, organization-wide change initiatives fail at about the same rate (if you’re wondering). But back to you.
Motivation IS important, but it’s not The Answer. You may have set yourself up for success: You’ve rid your pantry of the crap, adopted a new schedule, a “buddy” is part of your plan, and you’re going to measure progress. What’s the problem?
The problem seems two-fold, only one of which suggests we have some real agency. The first is powerful evidence of a type of neurochemical-hormonal-evolutionary determinism in Robert Sapolsky’s Behave. That virtually every one of our actions is unavoidably caused by preceding events in the world, including those in our brain. So, is there such a thing as free will? Not according to Sapolsky, at least to the grander extent we imagine we possess.
The second problem may be linked to our never-ending, almost pathological quest to find happiness. In doing (exercising) or not doing (eating carbs), we’ll be healthier (thinner, more attractive), which will certainly make us happier.
The Power of Paradox
The Antidote: Happiness for People Who Can’t Stand Positive Thinking has become my anti-self-help bible. I revisit it every year. Oliver Burkeman’s compelling idea is that our constant efforts to eliminate the negative — insecurity, uncertainty, failure, or sadness — are what causes us to feel so insecure, unsure, doomed to fail, or unhappy. After years of research on several continents, Burkeman lands on something he calls the ‘negative path’ to happiness.
The negative path offers no neat, single solution but includes abandoning the chase for happiness and embracing the fact that happiness involves paradoxes. The Stoics knew this millennia ago, as did counterculture philosopher Alan Watts who pointed out that we sink when we try to stay on the surface of the water, but we float when we try to sink. And as Aldous Huxley put it, the harder we try with conscious will, the less we succeed.
So, what are we to do? Resign to poor habits and a shorter life span? Obviously, we can and do change. Giving up on a better you isn’t the answer. But neither is incessant positive thinking, believing that the harder you try to eliminate the negatives in your life, the more you will succeed.
I’ve reframed a piece of Burkeman’s wisdom on the negative path to hang on my own formidable wall of self-change. Specifically, it’s Burkeman’s reflection on poet John Keats’s letter to his brothers: “Sometimes the most valuable of all talents is to be able not to seek resolution; to notice the craving for completeness or certainty or comfort, and not to feel compelled to follow where it leads.”
But wait… before you ditch your resolve and refuse to follow its lead, before you return to the habitual comfort of your 2018 programming, pay attention to this nuance. The fact that you chose to make a resolution (fervently or as a half-assed hope) means that you are willing to curb your comfort. You are okay with some level of discomfort in the service of desired change, a change that includes uncertainty, temptation and feeling — at least periodically — incomplete.
Could it be that you are already on the negative path? The more promising one?
If a reasonable inference, resolutions themselves don’t get us into trouble. Our tidy expectations of how and when we will be successful do. The path that ultimately leads to happiness will be paved more smoothly by “embracing imperfection, and easing up on the search for neat solutions.”
Resolve to Play at Your Problem: Turn it Upside Down
I became interested in how to foster creativity about 25 years ago. The context was my writing. Two books, that influenced me most (neither targeted to writers, specifically) were A Whack on the Side of the Head by Roger von Oech and Drawing Upside Down by Betty Edwards. The former got me out of my bloated left brain hemisphere and the latter helped me literally see things I’d not seen before.
Turning things upside down or inside out can be helpful in multiple contexts: cognitive problem-solving, art, spirituality. Artist and designer Kelly O’Dell Stanley, author of Praying Upside Down, suggests that readers reframe their prayers using artistic concepts — allowing them to shed preconceived notions about answered prayer in favor of new, unexpected insights.
In business, pre-mortem meetings help teams imagine that a project or organization has failed, and then work backwards to determine what might lead to failure before it happens. And there’s reverse brainstorming which is like Opposite Day for big kids. If your team needs ideas to promote customer loyalty, you’d ask, What could we do to drive customers away from our site?Working backwards brings attention to opportunities and threats that are harder to see (or envision) via the same ol’ patterned processes.
Change Requires Your Inner Rebel
Take a note from the underdog, the weird and glorious exception, that character in your favorite book, play or film. You can find yourself effortlessly connecting with their imperfections and struggles to succeed or simply survive in a world rife with stress, conflict, injustice, temptation. Adopt one of their traits, philosophies or habits (preferably not a habit you’re trying to break).
Take a tip or two from Tom Robbins. A guru parrot in Fierce Invalids Home from Hot Climates: “Peeple of zee wurl, relax!” or indulge in some irreverent, immortal wisdom by reading Jitterbug Perfume and “Lighten up!”.
Don’t give up on what you want. Muse on how you approach the same old devils. Invert them and their mandated shoulds. Mold them into novel, playful challenges. Here are some some of mine, shared in hopes they might inspire your inner-rebel:
GET FAT — Gorge myself on writing and reading to outweigh self-doubt.
SPEND MORE time on what and who I love. DON’T SAVE it for later.
REFUSE TO EXERCISE control over or criticize others.
ENABLE others to be their best selves.
GIVE UP on past mistakes, missteps and regrets.
CHEAT on others’ negativity, their personal, political and social despair.
LIE with (not to) myself: Take time to be still, unplug, reflect.
and above all: DON’T QUIT!