“To create more positive results in your life, replace ‘if only' with ‘next time'.” ~Celestine Chua
Most of us start each year with good intentions. We have a list of things we're going to start or stop doing. The year feels fresh, and it's time to be the person that we've always wanted to be.
At some point in the year the shine wears off and we start to go back to old patterns and behaviors. Some of us even write off the entire year if we've failed at our new years resolutions by the time we hit February, and decide to try again next year. Holding on to the idea that a new year somehow magically makes it possible for us to do better, we postpone change to a later date.
This is a little trick we play on ourselves; it's a way to opt out of truly engaging in our lives. We're effectively cheating ourselves and switching off because it's too hard to keep showing up.
I used to do this every year. I'd set myself impossible goals in January and then as soon as I fell off the wagon, it would be game over.
I'd commit to having no chocolate ever again and then not only eat one but the entire box. I then decided I'd “broken the seal and might as well carry on eating,” I then declared that resolution out of date and postponed it to the following year.
I'd commit to going to the gym three times per week when I know in my heart that I am not a gym person, and then spend the first six weeks of the year finding reasons and ways to talk myself out of it.
I'd obsess about maintaining daily writing streaks because I knew I felt better when I journaled every day, but as soon as I missed a day I'd give up and not touch it until I bought yet another brand new journal to write in for the next year.
My intentions would often fall outside of my circle of influence—for example, deciding that I was going to improve my relationship with my sister by myself, without even talking to her about it so that the onus was on me. Of course, as soon as we had an argument I'd give up because it was “too hard.”
I was always so hard on myself, expecting that somehow I'd magically become this healthy eating, exercise obsessed, creative and brilliant being just by deciding to do so on the first day of the year.
Worse still, I wouldn't acknowledge that I was probably already a creative and brilliant being, who just needed to unlock these qualities from within herself, because I was too busy scolding myself for not maintaining a streak or meeting impossible goals.
Sound familiar? How do we break this cycle?
1. Set kinder, more manageable intentions.
I've found that if I want to be healthier, I need to choose a small goal that's aligned with that rather than something so big it feels too hard to do. So my intention this month, for example, is to do three minutes of meditation every day, or as many days as I can manage.
The length of time is small so it feels achievable. More importantly, it's not about having a streak, but about showing up as many days as I can, even if I miss a day or two here or there.
2. Review regularly and gently.
I then check in every week and reflect on how it's going with my intentions. I'll celebrate the three or four times I managed to actually commit to them, and gently look at how I might be able to increase that number. What's getting in the way of me meditating seven days a week? Am I rushing too much in the morning? How could I improve that situation? Or do I feel comfortable with the amount I'm doing and can I celebrate that it's working?
3. Find a cheer squad.
I've noticed if I've told somebody else that I'm going to do something there's a little more gentle pressure to actually do it. It's not that the other person would be judgmental if I didn't, but that I've verbalized and created this intention outside of myself—and I know that there's a cheer squad or cheerleader waiting to tell me what a great job I did.
4. Become a cheerleader.
By the same token, supporting other people with their intentions and goals has brought me more focus on my own. Every time members of my online community check in with me to tell me about how they are doing with their intentions so I can cheer them on, it's a gentle and kind reminder that I also have my own to progress and share with them.
5. Have a plan for when things go wrong.
One of the main reasons we give up on things is that we don't have a plan for when things go wrong. If I come home late because of a hard day and I haven't already planned a healthy meal that's easy to make (or already prepared), then it's almost a guarantee that I won't have the energy to think about it and will order a pizza. If I haven't planned for the possibility of this sort of thing happening, I'm not even equipped to deal with it.
The beauty of this is you learn as you go along. Sometimes things happen that you're not prepared for and you act out of alignment with your intentions, but then you can look at why it happened (review regularly and gently) and try to put a plan in place for next time.
There will always be some scenarios you haven't considered, but the pool will get smaller and you'll be more prepared to stay true to yourself through adversity or temptation when you have plans in place.
I now have emergency meals in my freezer for when I get home and feel too tired to think about what to eat. Obviously, if I really want a pizza, I still order one, but it's this intentionality of making the choice and being prepared that allows me to feel good about that decision.
6. Remember why you are doing this.
If it starts to get stressful, then you're making it too hard. Sometimes I get stressed about not having had time to fit in my meditation practice (mostly because I've made the mistake of leaving it until later in the day rather than doing it first thing). Getting stressed about something that is meant to make you less stressed doesn't make any sense.
If your goal is to be less stressed and you don't have time to do the twenty-minute meditation you planned, why not breathe long and deep for one minute or thirty seconds? That counts. If your goal was to go to the gym and workout for an hour but the day got away from you, why not do five minutes of jumping jacks and running on the spot? That counts.
If you remember your why, you'll find a workaround that motivates and keeps you going.
One way you can do this is to ask yourself the question: What would this look like if it was easy?
Give yourself permission to break this annual cycle. Be gentler with yourself and just show up and do your best. Surround yourself with people who will cheerlead, and commit to learning every time things don't go to plan. It's not about whether this is your year. It's about the fact that this is your life. Go get it with kindness in your heart.