January is a month when many of us resolve to identify and implement more positive living habits. At a New Year’s Eve gathering, our family took turns sharing our “resolutions”. The responses seemed to involve the typical goals: live more in the present, eat nutritious foods and exercise, do well in school, and even get more sleep (this from our teenager who seemed to be a ways away from accomplishing his resolution, if holiday break was any indication). As with other years and other resolutions, it struck me how easy it is to identify these intentions and how difficult it is to actually succeed in accomplishing them. How can we turn brief bursts of improvement into daily changes that become ways of life? The answer will be a little bit different for everyone, but there are some general ideas that may benefit all of us.
For starters, pay attention to the dialogue you have inside your own mind. The way we say things to ourselves makes a difference in the likelihood that we will achieve our objectives. I realize that when I say the phrase “I should” to myself, I am already less likely to follow through on what I would like to do. I have been saying “I should” clean out an upstairs closet for a few years now, and it still sits as cluttered and unorganized as ever. The word “should” conjures up a feeling of obligation: most of the tasks that involve the word “should” are not on our fun list. We “should” do our homework, we “should” make a dentist appointment, and we “should” finish that report for our boss on time. Obligation words zap half the fun out of tasks before we even start pulling clothes from the closet to sort through. I am starting to replace “should” with “will”, “going to”, or even “get to”, in order to remind myself of the positives associated with the task I want to complete.
It also helps tremendously to balance the time spent thinking with the time spent acting. I naturally gravitate toward contemplation and this means that identifying my goal is typically only the start of the process for me. I am very good at also detailing the rationale behind my idea, barriers I expect to encounter, problems I have had in the past, and rationale why someone else would be better at doing it than I would. My best chances for success come when I recognize the need to think less and do more. One example of this is when I strive to cook more healthy meals at our house. Suddenly, I get concerned about pleasing all family members. I remember the time when I made a lemon chicken recipe which turned out so badly that we ordered unhealthy pizza and I compare myself to the friends who share pictures of dishes that look worthy of the cover of Food Network magazine. All that thinking completely derails me from my mission and I am so much better if I focus on acting: picking a recipe, buying the ingredients, and making the meal. I can actually laugh at the memory of the “Lemon Chicken Disaster”, and more often than not, my family truly enjoys trying something new and more nutritious.
If we let go of our focus on completely controlling the outcomes, we also give ourselves a better chance to make positive changes. One of the most popular resolutions involves eating more healthy foods and adding regular physical activity into our routine. Despite our commitment and follow-through, these efforts may not land us on the cover of a swimsuit magazine. Yet, there is absolutely no doubt that these actions will lead to a healthier body and mind, however that translates specifically for us. This approach highlights the fact that the ultimate outcome is not up to us, only our commitment and daily positive actions are within our direct control. We focus on the knowledge that steps in the right direction will always lead us closer to our identified goal. No matter how much we work out and build up that strength, pressuring ourselves less to achieve one exact outcome can often be a welcome weight off even the most muscular shoulders.
My resolution this year is to spend five minutes each day in meditation. As often happens for many of us at the beginning of the year, I start out full of optimism and vigor, and after a few weeks it becomes harder and harder to carve out even that short time frame for mindful moments each day. Instead of letting my intentions slip away, I try to think less and act more, and focus on the process instead of worrying about achieving the perfect outcome.
You did not stumble upon this blog by accident! Take this opportunity to reaffirm the resolutions most important to you and create your own mantra that will help you turn those resolutions into new and better ways of living.
Laura B. joined Empathia in 2000 as an EAP Counselor. Laura has a bachelor’s degree in Sociology from Northwestern University and a master’s degree in Social Work from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, with a concentration in marriage and family therapy. Prior to joining Empathia, she worked as a case manager with chronically mentally ill adults readjusting to life in the community. Laura enjoys reading, attending kids’ activities and spending time with family.