The Right Kind of New Year’s Resolution

The phrase New Year’s Resolution means making a firm decision to do or not to do something in the coming calendar year. There are many reasons that this is a terrible idea.

The Pesky Problem of Not Being Able to Predict the Future

I mentioned in the post “Joy From the World” that several years ago we gave up the traditional Christmas morning rituals in favor of taking a peaceful hike in Forest Park. We resolved to do that again this year.

The weather had other ideas. The combination of snow, freezing rain, and temperatures modulating on both sides of freezing made the roads icy through melt and re-freeze, the trails were likely hazardous, and sticking to our resolution was foolhardy.

If our decision had been firm, we could have gotten into our car, slid down our driveway, skidded and spun through the unplowed streets, and possibly made it up the long and winding hill to our destination. Or we could do what most people do with their New Year’s Resolution. Blow it off.

A problem built into making a firm decision about what we will do in the coming year is that we don’t know whether it will be a good or a bad idea.    

Another Resolution

Given our uncertainty about what will unfold, I feel much better about starting 2018 with another definition of resolution, the action of solving a problem.

One of my favorite reads of 2017 was Designing Your Life: How to Build a Well-Lived Joyful Life by Bill Burnett and Dave Evans. It takes a design approach to solving “wicked” problems. And overcoming  depression and achieving well-being is a very wicked problem.

“They’re called wicked not because they are evil or fundamentally bad, but because they are resistant to resolution… Somewhere, in some area of your life, you are stuck.”

When designers find themselves stuck, they engage in the action of solving a problem.

Be Curious

Resolutions frequently prescribe answers without asking the right questions. I might resolve to lose twenty pounds, exercise every day, quit smoking, start taking antidepressants, etc.

A resolution to be curious starts with investigation.

Which of my eating or life style habits contribute to weight gain?

What are some reasons I’m not currently exercising every day?    

What daily activities have I come to associate with lighting up a cigarette?

Is my depression simply a biological chemical imbalance or do I engage in behaviors that cause it?

Try Stuff

The more fixed our plan is to carry out our resolution, the more easily derailed we’ll be if our initial approach doesn’t work. A designer tries stuff to gain information.

What happens to my weight if I stop eating after 8:00 p.m. for a few days?

If I have a pack a day smoking habit, what happens if I carry fewer cigarettes with me?

What happens if I take the stairs instead of the elevator at work?

What happens to my depression if I change my daily news habit?

Reframe Problems

By making firm decisions to change specific things about ourselves, we may overlook the real problem we’re trying to address.

My weight is within the healthy range for people of my height and sex, but my body type makes me feel unattractive.

I have a tendency to be a people pleaser and say yes to so many things that it leaves no time for exercise.

I don’t love smoking, but I enjoy sneaking outside with my co-workers to take a smoke break.

I judge others harshly when they make mistakes and assume that others judge me just as harshly.

Know It’s a Process

Because resolutions to do or not do something are pass/fail, we give them up once we’ve judged ourselves to have insufficient willpower.

When we fail during the action of solving a problem, it’s not a personal failure but a signal that we might not know as much about the problem as we thought we did. It might be time to…

Ask for Help

The easiest kind of resolution to break is one we don’t share with others.

Asking for help can be as simple as enlisting an accountability buddy to remind us of our resolution when we start to break it. But, it can be even more beneficial to ask for help at the beginning of the process.

Get into the habit of talking to people who have already faced the problem that you’re facing. Ask what worked for them and what didn’t. Ask what their challenges were. Share what your particular challenges are and see if that spurs some suggestions.

Identify Dysfunctional Beliefs

To paraphrase one of the dysfunctional beliefs identified in Designing Your Life:

Dysfunctional Belief: I have to find the one right idea for my New Year’s Resolution.

Reframe: I need a lot of ideas so that I can explore any number of ways to make 2018 an awesome year!

Two Minute Exercise

If you’ve made a resolution about your work situation, here’s a quick quiz to take to determine whether you have an actionable problem or a gravity problem.

Are You Feeling Stuck?

Author: Bruce Cantwell

Writer, journalist and long-time mindfulness practitioner.