The start of a new year is, of course, the perfect time for a fresh start. There’s the metaphorical power, plus the numerical ease of counting days and months of success from Jan 1. But balanced against the celebratory excess and indulgence of the holiday season, New Year’s resolutions can, sadly, tend towards abstinence.
This year I’ll stop smoking. This year I’ll lose weight. This year I’ll quit Diet Coke. This year I’ll be the better, purer, stronger version of myself.
Better and stronger is awesome, but here’s a proposition: Get there without having to tell yourself “no”.
(All you aspiring smoking-quitters, hang tight, this can work for even you, too.)
Deprivation is nasty stuff. It’s woven into the Puritan work ethic that’s woven into so much of Western culture – the idea that abstinence is virtue, that willpower is spiritual strength. Sure, there are bad things in life, and it’s best to stay away from them, but an ethic of deprivation is a slippery slope to a life of empty asceticism.
Deprivation is also often a recipe for nasty relapses. Willpower, to the extent that it exists, is a finite resource. When you assign yourself a new zone of self-control, unless you’re doing work to replenish your mental energy, you will run out of “strength”. Think of a rubber band pulled and pulled until it snaps. That snap is your slip, and the tighter you’ve pulled yourself, the more it’s going to hurt. (If you’ve ever gone on a restrictive diet and, after hours or weeks, found yourself bingeing in a way you never would have before the diet, you know this feeling well.)
OK, so: How can you achieve your goals without telling yourself “no”? Most of the time, it’s a simple flip:
- Stop eating junk food. → Eat more vegetables.
- Lose weight. → Do Couch to 5k or go to yoga class once a week.
- Stop overcommitting socially. → Reserve one night a week to stay in.
- Quit Diet Coke → Drink more water.
- Stop looking at Twitter in bed. → Read a book for 10 minutes before bed every night. (Or: Start using Freedom.)
They aren’t one-to-one matches – you can eat junk food and vegetables, and running won’t necessarily make you lose weight. But these positively framed resolutions get at the core value you’re trying to develop in yourself by focusing on adding a new habit instead of subtracting an old one, whether it’s fitness, peacefulness or hydration.
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Even if your resolution is truly, at its heart, about stopping a bad behaviour, it’s hugely useful to couple stopping the bad thing with the addition of a new, positive habit – a yes in addition to the no. Otherwise, you’ll find yourself at your 3PM smoke break just looking around with nothing to do and an awful craving. It’s easier to replace a habit than to erase one. Think about where, when and how your old habit happened, and be prepared with a replacement – a thing you will do to replace the thing you won’t.
Remember that resolutions of any kind take energy to turn into long-lasting and secure patterns. Be gentle with yourself, and you’ll be able to do great things.