How to Survive Your New Years Resolutions

There was a marked increase in the number of joggers on the road to work this morning. My initial response to this observation was to marvel at the naivety of it and to speculate about how many of them would still be jogging in two or three months’ time. But then I forced myself to silence the cynic in me and allowed myself to me moved by the optimism of the whole thing. After all, I cannot – as I do – profess to value proactivity, yet sneer at those who attempt to take control of their lives.

I used to believe that New Year’s resolutions were pointless: that if – during the course of the year – it became evident that a change in lifestyle was necessary, one should begin developing a strategy immediately, rather than making an ad hoc decision at the beginning of a year, based on guilt and self-loathing.  I think a little differently now.

If we want to be effective in our personal lives, we need to create predetermined points at which to evaluate our performance. If such reflection is vital to the success of any given career; how much more important it ought to be to evaluate the state of the things in life that really matter to us: our health, our relationships, our sense of self. The end of a year is a perfectly logical time to do so.

Sadly, though, too many of this morning’s new joggers – like countless numbers of others, with their own resolutions – will not break the bad habits they identified as problematic. They will end up making the same resolutions next year. And the year after that. The pattern will repeat itself until they feel hopeless, and they slip into shame and possibly self-revulsion. They will tell themselves that maybe they were foolish to believe that they could change, that they had overestimated themselves, and they will settle for less than they should, believing that it is all they deserve.

But it is not the resolutions themselves that are the problem. It is our plans for achieving them that need to be more effective. Human beings are creatures of habit. We resist change. As we try to break our old habits, there will be a part of us that will actively oppose the attempt, and seek to justify a return to what is comfortable and familiar. Understanding this dynamic is crucial to developing a sound strategy for achieving goals.

I hated learning to drive. Every time I wanted to change gear, I consciously had to co-ordinate my foot on the clutch and my hand on the gearstick, while simultaneously watching both the road in front of me and the various rear-view mirrors. It was exhausting, and I got it wrong a lot. But as the months went by, I came to a point – as all drivers do – where the competence became an unconscious rather than a conscious one. The process has been the same for all the things in my life that have brought me great joy. Practising scales on the guitar day after day was awful, but when I learnt to play the theme from The Deer Hunter, it was all worth it; reading chess books is hardly stimulating, but my chess game improved immeasurably and I love the game more for it; keeping up with the latest trends in the educational journals is not always the way I would choose to spend my time, but my job is more rewarding for the effort.  Effecting any sort of improvement in our lives will be like that: initially it requires a conscious and usually painful and tedious process of familiarising ourselves with the new procedures. Many resolutions will end in disappointment not because the resolutions themselves are too ambitious, but because we don’t know how to survive “learning to drive”.

So here are my tips for all of you who find yourselves “jogging”, year after year, becoming progressively more disillusioned with yourself.

First, don’t try to do it by yourself. As long as you are accountable to somebody else – preferably somebody who can act as a mentor, whose proficiency can inspire you – you will be more likely to slog on. I am sure that if those joggers I saw this morning could find a personal trainer to whom they were required to report, who would measure their progress regularly, and encourage them when they felt like giving up, they would come to a point where they could not only be relied on to jog unsupervised, but would actively enjoy it. If you want to give yourself a fighting chance at achieving your goals, get a mentor.

Second, develop a strategy for achieving your goal. The more you know, the more likely you are to succeed. You would never, for example, pay an exorbitant amount for an overseas flight and simply get on the plane and hope for the best. You would plan each day of your vacation so that you could get the most out of your time at the best possible price. Approach your resolution in the same way. Research it. Where would be the best place to jog? What equipment would you need? How do you avoid injury? Don’t just put on an old pair of shorts and dash into the street. We are living in the information age – your phone gives you access to more knowledge than a person a hundred years ago would encounter in her entire life. Use it for something more than uploading selfies and downloading pictures of cats. The less randomly you approach your resolution, the greater the chance that you will keep it up.

Last, pick a date to start and a date for your first progress report. Let your mentor know them. Create accountability. When I run a meeting, I like to come out with two things being clear: the name of the WS (Willing Sucker, who is responsible for getting the job done) and a date for implementation. That way we commit openly to a course of action. Usually, if these are not clarified, the meeting generates innovative and radical ideas, but they remain in the realm of dreams. Resolutions aren’t so different. In this case the WS is you. Now you just need to commit to a date.

My resolution this year is to learn to speak isiZulu. I have come to see that I simply cannot do justice to my job, or indeed respect the country and people I profess to love, if I do not. It is not a thing I must rush. It is too important for that. So I am looking for a suitably qualified teacher (I may have found one, if we can co-ordinate times), and I am looking online for quality supplementary material (which is surprisingly difficult to come by). By February next year, I hope to deliver at least part of my address at a conference in isiZulu. I’ll let you know this time next year how things went.

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