Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Resolution or Revolution

It’s that time of year, looking ahead to a new year, a fresh start. It’s time to make our resolutions.

Be honest. What was your immediate reaction when you read that? When I wrote it, I felt a knot in my stomach, my shoulders slumped, I held my breath. (As I wrote in the last post, holding your breath is a sign of stress.) Hmm, this can’t be good.

Frankly, I don’t make resolutions anymore. Anyone who is a resolution veteran will tell you that we don’t often keep them. By the end of January, many of us can’t remember what they were. If we think about them at all, it is usually because we fell short of our goals, and we feel guilty, ashamed, inadequate, weak.

So I am proposing a resolution revolution! Let’s overthrow a system that is not serving us and find one that will.

First, let’s consider why the current system is not working. It seems to me that most resolutions are promises that we think we should make, without much thought about whether they are promises we really want to make. Also, many of our resolutions are really about habits, either bad habits we want to quit, or good habits we want to develop. Habits can rarely be changed based on a single act of will. Finally, we often set up our resolutions as all or nothing goals. We either meet the goal 100% or we fail. Yikes!

So let’s revolutionize our system. Revolution means a turning, a complete change. Let’s turn the system on its axis until it supports us and sets us up for success.

1. Make commitments you really want to make.

Shoulds are not going to work. We have to want it. We have to want it more than we want the status quo. Here’s an example. I lived a good part of my life with some emotional habits that were not good for me. I knew I needed to make some changes, but I was afraid. Then one night I ended up in the emergency room with a pain in my abdomen (picture third chakra) that was so bad I thought I was going to die. The immediate physical suspects were quickly ruled out. They doped me up and scheduled me for a series of tests over the next several weeks. A week later I was back in the ER with the same symptoms. By then I knew that there was no physical cause. This was my cosmic wake up call. I decided right then and there that whatever I had to go through to make some changes in my life was less scary than experiencing that pain again.

Okay, that was a dramatic example. Sometimes we can achieve the same result by reframing the choice (and avoiding the trip to the ER). For example, maybe I don’t want to exercise as much as I want to sit and watch TV. But suppose my choice is between being incapacitated by poor health and being able to take a hike in the beautiful forest when I go to my cabin.

The point is to figure out what you really want and then frame your choice so that what you want is compellingly more desirable than what you have.

2. Focus on habits rather than on a goal.

Let’s be aware of our habits that serve us or hinder us. If we are not making progress on a goal, chances are there are some habits we are not addressing. (Gail Brenner has written a great post on becoming aware of our habits.)

Research shows that it takes about 21 days to change or to develop a habit. A church in Kansas City initiated a program to help the congregation break the toxic habit of complaining. Each member gets a purple plastic bracelet. Each time you catch yourself complaining, you switch the bracelet to the other wrist. The goal is to go 21 days without complaining. (Check out A Complaint Free World)

If we focus on our habits instead of a single goal, we are much more likely to make the changes we need to make to support our efforts instead of sabotaging ourselves. Instead of fixating on losing 50 pounds, we could focus on becoming aware of and changing our lifestyle habits.

As for specific techniques to change or develop habits, I will be writing about that frequently next year as I focus on each of the 10 steps to finding our happy place and staying there. But really, most of us have stopped a bad habit or developed a good one, so we already know how to do this. Think about what steps you went through.

3. Celebrate success.

We tend to focus on our shortcomings rather than our successes. Why is that? I don’t know. At any rate, that is a habit in itself that we can set out to change.

Going back to the complaint free church, part of the program is recognizing that if you beat yourself up every time you have to switch the bracelet to the other wrist, that is a form of complaint. Instead, give yourself credit for every minute you don’t have to switch the bracelet. Be your own cheerleader! Wow, I went five minutes that time! Way to go! The stated goal of being complaint free for 21 days is much less important that the awareness and effort made for 21 days.

One of my favorite stories is about Father Keating who started a practice called centering prayer. The idea is to choose a focus word, or centering word, that we can use when we find our mind wandering to call our attention back to our contemplative union with the divine. (It’s like using the word “thinking” in Buddhist mindfulness meditation.) Once, after a prayer session, a frustrated nun came up to the priest and complained, “I feel terrible! I must have had to say my centering word 1000 times.” Father Keating didn’t miss a beat. “That’s wonderful!” he exclaimed. “That’s 1000 times you were connected to God.”

So join with me this year and become a resolution revolutionary!


  1. Galen, this is a fabulous contribution to the Personal Development Campfire. I'm happy you could join us. I think you nailed the reasons why resolutions fail, and you have some great suggestions for the resolution revolution. (I think we were both on the same wavelength with that idea.)

    Making commitments that we really want is key. Sure we all want to be thinner, but if we haven't started exercising and eating better by now, why should we think we'll be successful in the new year. We all know we don't really want to exercise more even if we do want to be thinner.

    One year I made a resolution to read more. I really wanted to read some good books. I made a plan and started with classic literature. That worked great, and it reacquainted me with a love of reading.

    I've been thinking about doing that complaint bracelet thing. I'm not going to make it a resolution, but it might be something I tackle next year.

  2. I'm joining your revolution, Galen! In fact I stopped making New Year's resolutions several years ago, when I resolved (ha!) to organise myself better the WHOLE year round, rather than just paying lip-service to it for a few days/weeks in January.

    Count me in!

  3. Hi Galen,
    This is a great post with tons of common-sense wisdom. Thanks so much for mentioning my post. I appreciate that you found it useful.

    I've never made resolutions, but I have been very committed to being honest about what isn't serving me and looking into it to see how to let it go.

    And I love that you included celebration. It's an essential part of habit change.

  4. If I did a bracelet thing related to a habit, good or bad, I'd get dizzy from having to move it so often. I seem to be allergic to routines and habits... well, at least good ones!! Even focusing on the ultimate benefit or result hasn't helped nor the focus on praising myself for x number of days, hours, minutes in a row. However, I continue to try and sometimes something sticks. Unfortunately, it hasn't been the exercise which I so desperately need to keep the acheys away, the mood up, and the weight down.

  5. Great ideas. I especially like the Celebrate Success part.

    We need to be good to ourselves. I tend to expect too much of myself and not take the time to celebrate the moments when I have accomplished something special.

  6. I really like this post. As usual you give me things to think about. Your posts are good for making you look inside yourself and see what you can do for you. I love the idea of Cheer-leading for yourself as well.

  7. Galen Pearl: I have so much to say, but it will pale in comparison to your post. Your momentum is admirable, and everyone should take heed. I'll save my comments for a time when momentum in one of my friends seems to be stalled. You will not hear a negative comment from me. Great post!

  8. Hi Galen,

    I think you are spot on about why resolutions fail for many people and how they feel about it. But what I love about your article is how you have suggested ways to revolutionize our resolutions instead.

    1. Make commitments you really want to make

    It is true that we will be likelier to achieve something that we really want to achieve. If we do not want it, we are not likely to achieve it. The reason that we need such driving force is due to the great inertia that we have to overcome in changing the status quo. Our habits are comfortable and familiar even if they are not good for us. So to change our habits, we have to be committed to do so.

    2. Focus on habits rather than on a goal

    This is an excellent point. By changing our negative habits, we will reach our goals more naturally. After all if there is a change we want to make, we must be doing something wrong. It does not make sense to want to lose 50 pounds and still lead an unhealthy lifestyle. By focusing on habits and thus the root of the problem, we will reach our goals naturally.

    Thank you for sharing this post! :)

    Irving aka the Vizier

  9. I honestly loved this post! What excellent points you have brought to light. Thank you also for stopping by my blog today Daily Reflection and leaving such a thoughtful comment!

  10. JJ, I'm interested in all the things you didn't say! Intriguing!

    Therese, If sometimes something sticks, that's really all any of us can hope for. The most important "resolution" anyone can make is to care for our own spirits in whatever way works best for us.

    Thanks to everyone for your thoughtful comments.


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