“Do 100 squats every day for the entire year.”
“Read a book a week.
“Get up at 5:30 a.m. every day”
“Lose 20 pounds.”
“Give up processed sugar for good.”
Sounds good, right? Except for when, on day 10, you fall ill and can’t get out of bed to do your squats. Or, when one month passes and you’re only a few chapters into the first book. Or, when you went to bed at 3:00 a.m. after your friend’s birthday bash and can’t seem to drag yourself out of bed at 5:30 a.m. Or, when things get so crazy at work that you can’t make it to the gym or the grocery store for healthy food to keep your weight loss going, and instead eat greasy take-out at your desk every night until the project is over. Or, when you realize that you really are addicted to chocolate and the sugar that’s in it, and where the heck is your secret, emergency stash? Do any of these scenarios sound familiar?
That last one is all me. ;-)
Now, I am all for setting goals. I love feeling inspired, hopeful, accomplished, and in control just as much as the next gal. All too often, however, even when we set S.M.A.R.T goals (those that are Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant, and Time-specific), life happens, and we discover that we bit off more than we could chew when we set our New Year’s resolutions. Then, when we aren’t able to live up to our own expectations, we feel bad and give up altogether.
What if there were a better way? I think there is, and for me, it involves connecting my changes to my purpose, understanding the competing commitments that are getting in my way, and looking at who I want to be in order to fulfill that purpose.
My yoga teachers have taught me the importance of finding and living your dharma, or purpose in life. The belief is that you have a unique mission. Your purpose might change over time, and you might have many purposes over the course of a lifetime. It might be taking care of a loved one. It might be stopping the spread of nuclear weapons. It might be healing others through your creative projects. In his book Fire of Love, one of my teachers, Aadil Palkhivala, writes, “When we discover our dharma, we have the feeling, ‘I am becoming more of myself. This is what I am called to do. I am expressing who I am.’” I also have found that when you are taking action towards fulfilling your purpose, things fall into place. Things work. When you are not living on the path of your purpose, it often feels like you’re pulling a boulder uphill.
Now, how often do you feel that you are becoming more of yourself when you try on a New Year’s Resolution? And how often do you feel like you are pushing a boulder uphill? Even if you feel good, it is possible to spend much time and energy accomplishing things that are irrelevant to your purpose. Stephen Covey, in Seven Habits of Highly Productive People, likens this scenario to climbing a ladder only to find that it’s leaning against the wrong wall. You built some good skills, will power, and experience in the process, now find the right wall.
Even with a solid connection to your purpose as its anchor, change can be tough to sustain. In their book, Immunity to Change, Robert Kegan and Lisa Laskow Lahey mention a medical study that showed that only one in seven seriously at-risk heart patients is able to make necessary lifestyle changes, even after they have been told that they will literally die if they don’t. A critical part of any change process is understanding what’s working, why it’s working, and what that says about your commitments. Your current way of doing things has served you up to this point, and understanding how can help you make the change you really want to make.
So, for example, several times I have resolved to wake up at 5:30 a.m. every day. However, I typically go to bed at midnight and need seven to eight hours of sleep. So, then sleeping until 7:00 or 8:00 a.m. gives me the energy I need in order to function during the day. Waking up at 5:30 a.m. does not. Our bodies and brains are pretty committed to performing during the day, and that commitment is competing with my desire to arise at 5:30 a.m.
Of course, then that realization can start a rabbit hole of other ideas for change, all with their own competing commitments. In the above example, why not just go to bed earlier? If I need to get eight hours of rest, then I should go to sleep by 9:30 p.m. in order to wake up at 5:30 a.m. Except that a couple of nights a week I don’t get home from teaching until 10:00 p.m. Then I’m hungry and eat something, and I don’t want to go to sleep right after eating. I also need some time to decompress from work. I’ve got a cascade of other competing commitments that prevent me from going to bed at 9:30 p.m.—my commitment to sharing yoga with others, to taking care of my financial wellbeing through my work, to nourishing my body, and to allowing my brain to calm down before sleep. Then I get into a groove of going to be at midnight even when I don’t work late. So, the real change that needs to happen is to my evening schedule or to my idea that I need to get up at 5:30 a.m. just because people I admire do. For now, I’ve consciously chosen the latter, as it better supports my health in my current situation, which helps me live my purpose. The more you understand the forces that oppose the change you want to make, the more likely you will be to transcend those forces in a way that best serves your purpose.
Being vs. Doing
So, what to do instead? I offer up that a better question to ask is instead, who to be? When you focus on who you want to be, you can make the best decisions in each moment and support your forward progression towards what you want in powerful, yet forgiving ways. You can take baby steps, jump over puddles, or run a marathon. Some folks like to create intentions for the new year. You can use an intention in the same way—as a powerful, and flexible guide for your actions.
After all, for me, the self-criticism that arises when I don’t fulfill a New Year’s resolution only makes me want to take action less. When I start to feel bad or guilty about not doing something, I avoid doing it even more. So rather than beating myself up for not following through on a resolution of what I think I want to or should do, I learn to stay present and find ways to keep moving in the direction I want to go.
For example, New Year’s resolutions often center around health, wellness, and fitness. It’s easy to see that being healthy supports your purpose. How are you supposed to fulfill your purpose if you’re sick? Yet those changes often seem to be some of the toughest to make. So instead of resolving to go to the gym every day, you can zero in on being a healthy person, recognizing that health involves more than just working out.
When you concentrate on who you want to be, you are able to scale your actions to meet what’s happening in that moment rather than forcing yourself to do something that is not what you need and that might actually be detrimental instead. If I want to be a healthy person, what would a healthy person do in this situation? Sometimes the answer might be hit the gym. Sometimes the answer might be rest. Sometimes it might be go make a smoothie. Sometimes it might be treat yourself with a little chocolate.
See…there’s that chocolate thing of mine again. ;-)
As long as you are honest with yourself, focusing on an intention or who you want to be won’t turn into an excuse not to do what you need to do to make the changes you want to make. Sure, when faced with whether to go burn some calories or not, you can ask what would a healthy person do and then choose to rest when you’re feeling lazy. Do that too often, however, and it will start to affect your mental health, as well as your physical wellbeing. The accountability is built in to how you feel. If you’re feeling guilty, you’re probably not choosing your actions based on who you want to be. If you’re feeling good about making some progress rather than none, then you probably are. When you approach change by choosing who you want to be, you take responsibility for your progress. You determine the pace. You empower yourself.
So where do you start? The ancient yogic texts tell us that we can use meditation to overcome the obstacles of backsliding, inertia, laziness, lack of perseverance. I’ve created a meditation to help you honor the past year and what your current way offers you, release what’s not working, consider your dharma, and choose who you want to be in the new year as your guide.
Speak Your Truth
What’s your purpose in this life at this moment and do your New Year’s resolutions support your purpose?
What competing commitments are preventing you from making the changes you want to make?
How can looking at who you want to be instead of what you want to do help you keep taking scaled, consistent action?