Podcast 084: New Year’s resolutions

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This is podcast 84 and it’s about new year’s resolutions. Of course it is! It’s January 4 and if you made any resolutions, the holidays are definitely over and you have to face putting them into action.

If you didn’t make any resolutions, or think they are complete baloney, listen in anyway. I know lots of people who hate resolutions, mainly because they think resolutions are a great way to set yourself up for flopping. They entice you to set unreachable goals and just become depressing when the goal gets no closer. They make you feel crummy whenever you fall off the particular wagon you’ve resolved to stay on. That makes a lot of sense.

Even the word resolution is kind of heavy. I prefer to set intentions. Intentions have a little wiggle room built in. You can fail one day and set your intention again the next day and keep moving forward.

Intention is a more positive word too. Being positive about what you intend is crucial. I recently read a new york times article by David DeSteno, who’s written a book called Emotional Success. In a nutshell, he writes that feelings of gratitude, compassion and pride will get you much farther than sheer grit and willpower.

One thing those emotions have in common is that they are directed outward, often toward other people. The connection they bring to others is the main reason they are so effective. This is why it’s so helpful to have someone to be accountable to when you are trying to develop a new habit.

DeSteno comes down a little hard on willpower though. In past podcasts I’ve mentioned Kelly McGonigal’s work on willpower. I took her class a few years ago and I recommend her book, the Willpower Instinct. A lot of what I got from it is that we develop strategies to increase our willpower and, not surprisingly, many of these strategies involve positive emotions. It’s really not a matter of bearing down and sacrificing yourself for a goal.

The image of a successful person being one who can valiantly resist temptation just isn’t accurate. It’s not the resisting, it’s the focusing on something else that the person values more highly, making the decision a no-brainer.

McGonigal and I both recommend starting small with goals that you take action on every day. Making progress every day, or almost every day, gives you a win that you can be proud of and that begets more wins. If you’re losing more than winning, you need to choose a different action, or make it smaller. Don’t keep pushing and chastising yourself.

The every day part is also important and I’ve written quite a bit about that. Doing something everyday ultimately becomes a habit. When it’s a habit, you don’t have to think about it so much, if at all. That means no agonizing, no decision point where you’re going to succeed or fail each time.

If every day doesn’t make sense for whatever you’re doing, make it regular in some other way. Every Friday. Every time you (fill in the blank). Whenever (fill in the blank) happens. That’s when you do that thing. This is the technique of attaching your good new habit to something you are already used to doing and that you don’t resist doing.

Similarly, attaching your new habit to something community oriented works well. That brings in the social element that’s so important for us humans. Feeling that you are part of something bigger than yourself, feeling that you are doing something along with others who support you merely by being there too.

For me, there’s the anti-laziness aspect of a community event. I like to dance. The dances I go to are on my calendar. They will occur without me having to plan them. When I go, I dance with people I know and like who look forward to seeing me and vice versa. So there’s that positive accountability, which is a big draw.

There are two ideas you can try. First is the small action. Pick one little thing you can do to further your goal. This can be a discrete task or a recurring one. Just make it small enough to be do-able. If at first you don’t succeed, try again by changing the action.

Second, find a way to take action regularly. Every day works, especially if you do it at the same time everyday because there should be some kind of trigger like eating breakfast, getting in the car, checking your email. Or find a regular place to put it into your weekly calendar, teaming it up with something else you regularly do, or relying on the external accountability of a class or activity you’ve signed up for.

What you can do now: Pick one of those strategies and try it out. Don’t worry that it’s too small or too easy. This isn’t supposed to be hard or make you suffer.