The Resolution Project

Ninety-two percent of the time, we don’t end up keeping our New Year’s resolutions. That’s a shame—not just because we don’t experience the outcomes we’ve dreamed about (e.g., losing weight or socking away a certain amount of money) but because we also deny ourselves a lot of happiness on the way to achieving them.

Yes, you read that right. I understand for most people, doing things like slaving away in the gym, cutting calories, and curtailing “fun” spending might not seem like a recipe for joy. But according to multiple experts, working toward a goal does boost your happiness. Here’s what Sonja Lyubomirsky, Ph.D., of the University of California-Riverside has to say: “People who strive for something personally significant, whether it’s learning a new craft, changing careers, or raising moral children, are far happier than those who don’t have strong dreams or aspirations. Find a happy person, and you will find a project.”

Find a happy person, and you will find a project. I tend to agree. Throughout my life, I’ve noticed that projects, whether they’re for work, part of a hobby, or (yes!) even a New Year’s resolution, give you purpose and structure. They keep you from sitting around twiddling your thumbs, which inevitably leads to discontent. And when you accomplish milestones on the way to finishing your project (not to mention crossing the big finish line), your self-esteem and sense of accomplishment grow. And those things are all big contributors to an overall sense of contentment.

That being the case, here are some of my tips to help you stay on track and keep your 2014 resolutions:

Stick to one meaningful resolution. First of all, don’t overcommit. If you divide your attention and energy between multiple goals, you decrease the chances that you’ll follow through on any one of them. Even if there are several things you’d like to accomplish in 2014, I encourage you to narrow down the list (especially if your past resolution track record isn’t so good!). Identify one thing that means a lot to you, then devote your time and energy to accomplishing it.

Sit down now and plan out how you’re going to get there. Big accomplishments don’t just happen—they take thought, planning, and commitment. And most of the time, they’re built on a series of smaller, consecutive achievements. So figure out what baby steps you’ll have to take and which milestones you’ll have to hit before the clock starts ticking on January 1st. Write them down. If you can see exactly where you need to go, you’ll be less likely to stall out or make a wrong turn.

Schedule dates for your milestones. If something is written down on your calendar, it’s more likely to happen. (Face it: Saying, “I’ll get around to it one of these days” isn’t exactly a reliable strategy.) For example, you might say, “By March, I’d like to have lost five pounds,” or, “By May, I’ll have turned in my application for that online master’s program I’ve been eyeing.” These deadlines aren’t meant to be set in stone; they’re just guidelines to keep you on track and prevent you from procrastinating for months at a time!

Expect to slip up… Here’s the truth: Nobody’s perfect. Not me, not you, not anyone. I can tell you that during every project I’ve ever successfully pursued, I’ve still made mistakes, dropped some balls, and backslidden. I’m not saying this to discourage you, but to assure you that when the same thing happens during your resolution project, you haven’t failed outright!

…but don’t let those slip-ups derail you. Remember, tomorrow’s a new day and a new chance. You may have fallen off the wagon on Tuesday, but you can climb back onto it on Wednesday, or Thursday, or even next Friday. Whenever you slip up, spend a little time refamiliarizing yourself with your goal and refocusing on why it’s important. Always remember: Quitting or continuing is your choice.

Reward yourself for small and large victories. Yes, you’ll derive satisfaction from the work of progressing toward your goal, but that doesn’t mean you can’t celebrate small victories along the way! Every time you lose five pounds, or save another hundred dollars, or pass any milestone, reward yourself. Even if it’s just a cup of your favorite tea or a night at the movies, acknowledging your progress will give you the fuel to keep going.

Build a support team. It’s hard to sustain any important work for a year without external support. Tell your friends and family members what you’re doing and ask for their understanding, help, and encouragement. And if you know anyone with the same goal as you, think about becoming accountability partners. If you know your friend is waiting for you at the gym, for instance, you’ll think twice about skipping your workout.

Take your project’s “temperature” each month. On a monthly basis, it’s a good idea to reexamine your resolution. Make sure this is still something that you want to do and that it’s taking you to a place you still want to go. The truth is, people and circumstances change. It’s completely possible that what made sense on January 1st no longer honors who you are on September 19th! Remember, this is a project that’s supposed to make you happier, not crazier and more stressed. There’s no shame in changing course mid-year if it’s done for your well-being.

Here’s to a productive, happy 2014!

Season of Peace: The Importance of Quiet Time

For many of us, this time of year—now through New Year’s—is very busy. There are parties, get-togethers, year-end events, concerts, receptions, and more. In my mind, there are several reasons for this December social crunch. The first is very simple: It’s fun and fulfilling to celebrate various holidays, as well as the completion of another year. From here on out, though, the reasons for our busyness get a little more complicated.

  • In our society, being busy is a badge of honor. The more booked your schedule is, the thinking goes, the more “in demand” and important you must be.
  • Many of us purposefully fill our lives with endless duties and distractions because the alternative—being alone with ourselves—isn’t attractive. We don’t want to have to think about and process our lives, and we’ve never learned to be comfortably quiet with ourselves.
  • We feel compelled to use our time constructively. For many people, sitting and doing nothing feels downright wrong because we think we can’t afford to fit that kind of indulgence into our busy lives.

I definitely understand these reasons for being and staying busy, no matter what time of year it is. There was a time in my life when I was constantly engaged in some activity or other—when being alone with no distractions was a foreign concept to me. But over the years, I’ve come to realize that “quiet time”—in other words, any sort of peaceful reflection like meditation, prayer, breathing exercises, taking a walk, etc.—isn’t something to be avoided. In fact, it’s something we should all cultivate for the sake of our mindsets, well-being, and personal development. Here are a few reasons why. Quiet time:

  • …strengthens your ability to focus and lengthens your attention span because your concentration isn’t being pulled in ten different directions.
  • …charges your creative juices. Often, you’ll have your best ideas and most imaginative thoughts during your quiet alone time.
  • …helps you connect to your innermost thoughts, intentions, desires, and values as you “converse” with yourself…without the often-distracting opinions of others.
  • …improves your attitude and puts you in better control of your life, because it gives you space and time each day to reconnect to your most important goals and dreams.
  • …can help you decompress and relax at the end of a hectic day. (And those seem to occur quite frequently this time of year!)
  • …can slow down your heart rate and even lower your blood pressure!

Throughout your life—and especially in the midst of busy seasons like the end-of-year social swirl—it’s important to proactively carve out quiet time in order to relieve stress, recenter yourself, and check in to make sure your life is reflecting your values. My best advice is to approach quiet time as though it were any other essential activity (which, in my mind, it is!): Plan ahead of time when you want to do it.

Personally, I meditate in the evenings. I find that taking 20 minutes around 7 p.m. is a wonderful way to process everything that’s happened throughout my day and to clarify my intentions about what I want to accomplish most in the future. I have also talked to many people who say that quiet time at the beginning of the day is helpful in developing a sense of deep-seated peace and a positive attitude that lasts through the day. Here are a few other ways to fit quiet time into your schedule:

  • Turn off the radio during your commute to and from work. This period of time might not be totally distraction-free, but I bet you’ll still be surprised by how peaceful the relative solitude can be.
  • Bundle up and go for a walk. If you bring your mp3 player, make sure the music you play isn’t intrusive. You’ll reap twice the benefits from this activity, because exercise is a form of physical meditation and is itself a great way to boost your brain, creativity, and mood. (In fact, some of my greatest ideas and personal revelations have occurred to me while I was exercising with no other distractions.)
  • Build in a buffer zone before you go to bed. Don’t turn the TV off and immediately crawl under the covers. Instead, dim the lights and meditate, pray, or reflect on the day for a few minutes before getting in bed and going to sleep.
  • Instead of eating in the office break room or watching TV while you down your meal, set up a lunch date with yourself. Use the time to really savor your food and think about whatever occurs to you.

I think you’ll be surprised by the impact the “sound of silence” can have on your mental, emotional, and even physical well-being. So in the midst of accepting social invitations and connecting with your friends and loved ones, set up a few distraction-less dates with yourself. A few minutes alone each day is a small price to pay for increased happiness!

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