Many of us make new year resolutions with much gusto, only to see them fizzle out within the first week itself. And the interesting thing is, I don’t think it’s because we lack willpower. Most of us have plenty of it.
Often, the reason is quite simple: either you’ve made too big a resolution straight up (for example, I will never smoke or drink again) or you’ve made too many new resolutions. I’ll exercise 5 days per week, plus, I’ll learn how to paint, and I’ll meditate every day. I will also sleep on time and not binge-watch Netflix etc.
Rather than making resolutions per se, I’d like to offer you a different approach that makes the best use of two of your most valuable assets: mindfulness and motivation. If you are motivated and you are mindful of sticking to your discipline, half the job is done.
Before I spell out the details for you, here’s a little anecdote, slightly paraphrased from Die Empty by Todd Henry. 1
A man asked a group of people, “What do you think is the most valuable land in the world?”
Several people threw out guesses, such as Manhattan, the oil fields of the Middle East, and the gold mines of South Africa, before the questioner indicated that they were way off track.
He paused for a moment, and said, “You’re all wrong. The most valuable land in the world is the graveyard. In the graveyard are buried all of the unwritten novels, never-launched businesses, un-reconciled relationships, and all of the other things that people thought, ‘I’ll get around to that tomorrow.’ One day, however, their tomorrow ran out.”
Todd reminds us to not die full of our best work, that we must empty ourselves by doing everything creative or wonderful we always wanted to do with our lives. He writes beautifully:
How much work did you do today that you will be proud of tomorrow? I don’t mean just how you handled the big things, but also how you addressed the little, seemingly insignificant ones. Did you make progress on what matters most to you, or did you allow the buzz, busyness, and expectations of others to squelch your passion and focus?
Every day, when we put our tired head on the pillow to slip into the world of sleep and dreams, if we could take a moment and reflect back on the day gone by and ask ourselves, “How much work did I do today that I will be proud of tomorrow?” chances are, our actions tomorrow will look very different. This simple question will make you pause and understand how you used your time today.
Whether it’s a new habit you wish to form or an old one you want to drop, if you want to keep your new year resolutions or be more productive with your time, here are three key points to remember:
1. Enthusiasm over optimism
Try not to bite off more than you can chew. Even with the biggest mouth, no one has more than thirty-two teeth, if you see what I mean. There are only 24 hours in a day. It is important to be reasonable with the expectations you set for yourself for new resolutions. This is one of the most common mistakes we make when working on self-transformation: setting unrealistic expectations out of wild optimism.
Optimism pays but being insanely optimistic is often a recipe for disaster. For, when we are unreasonably hopeful, we tend to focus more on how things may turn out (the outcome) and not how we must shape them (our actions). Enthusiasm is necessary, it keeps you focused on the action, it helps you remain motivated and curious. Overly enthusiastic, sure, but overly optimistic, think again.
So often you’ll hear things like, “You can do it, just set aside 20 minutes, or 10 min etc.” Don’t fall for that temptation. Examine the current demands on your time and be reasonable about how much you can really devote to anything new. It helps to remember that everything adds up. If you are serious about finding the time to work on things that are important to you, learn to say no. Try and say “no” to everything non-essential, non-core.
It will save you a lot of time, believe me. I politely turn down 98% of all speaking invitations. Even then, I struggle to find a few spare moments. (I know it’s neither healthy nor sustainable and I’m fast making amends. After a long and tiring day, I’m writing this post at midnight.) If you wish to produce quality, you will need to put in the time. There’s no other way that I know of.
2. Important things first
Build your day around the things that matter to you. This is just about the only way to ensure that you will get them done. And, it’s not the same as eating the frog first. Because I’m not saying get the most difficult action item out of the way before anything else (although that surely helps). Instead, I’m referring to creating your daily schedule around the essentials. That is, what are the top two or three things you must do every day. Whether that’s exercising, devoting time to learning a new language, writing your dream book or anything else at all.
Let’s say you always wanted to write a book but just can’t seem to get to it. Well, tell yourself that at x am or pm every day, you will sit down to write, and you won’t get up until you have written 500 or n number of words. Base your other activities around this one. When the clock strikes that time, sit down, turn off your phone, disconnect from the world and start writing. You can take any example, the philosophy remains the same. Write down not only what you must do on a daily basis but at what time you will do it and for how long.
Ideally, your time allocation should be mindfully done in between important and urgent things. In doing urgent things, we often postpone and neglect the important ones. Avoid this trap by resolutely setting time for not just what is essential to living (urgent) but to life too (important).
3. One day at a time
There’s an old story about a man lamenting that he always wanted to learn to play the piano, but could never find the time because of his other responsibilities.
“Why don’t you start now?” asked his friend.
“Are you kidding?” he retorted. “I’m fifty years old! It’ll take me five years to learn to play well. I’d be fifty-five by the time I become even remotely proficient as a pianist.”
His friend paused, then inquired “So, how old will you be in five years if you don’t learn to play the piano?” 2
This is perhaps the most important point. Often, our dreams are big and we aspire for the highest, the best. In doing so, we tend to underestimate how long it’ll actually take us to reach our goal. The journey appears long and daunting. Just remember, if you won’t do it, it won’t get done. And if you want to do it, do the best you can with whatever time and resources you have at hand, bearing in mind that what may seem like a little effort today will matter when you do a bit more tomorrow. It stacks up real fast.
Nothing will happen if you don’t act.
The young Mulla Nasrudin was making faces at other children in his school. With his wide array of contortions, he was scaring some and amusing others until a teacher saw what he was up to.
“Nasrudin!” she bellowed. “Stop this! When I was a kid like you, I was told if I made ugly faces, it would freeze, and I would stay like that.”
Mulla immediately relaxed his face, and said, “Well, madam, you can’t say that you weren’t warned.”
Now, you can’t say that you didn’t know how to live your life fully or how to make the best use of your time. I’ve shared with you the easiest way, to the best of my knowledge.
Say no to everything that’s not relevant to your journey. Anything that’s not in line with your priorities, say no. Just say no.
Be reasonable, prioritize and take a step at a time. And see your new year resolutions come through.
|↟1||This story, as stated in the book, was first written in The Accidental Creative by the same author. I have quoted it nearly verbatim with only minor changes.|
|↟2||I had heard a story like this earlier, but I couldn’t recall when and where. Only recently, I came across it again in the same book I quoted earlier, Die Empty, by Todd Henry. So, I’ve quoted it as-is here and I’m happy that I could share the source with you.|