Don't Ditch Your Resolution! Set Slow Goals Using Body Wisdom Instead
I just learned that today, January 17th, is National Ditch Your Resolution Day. Did you know that was even a thing? I sure didn’t.
I mean, we all know that basically, every gym is going to be crowded in January and empty by March. We know that less than half of people who make resolutions don’t accomplish them by the end of the year. In fact, according to U.S. News, 80% of New Year’s Resolutions fail by the second week of February!
But still. The thought that there is a national holiday marking this…”failure” (I hesitate to call it that)...gave me some complicated feelings.
On the one hand, of course it’s disheartening to hear that people are flaking out on their desires. After all, we only get this one life. And as a therapist, I know what unmet needs and desires can do to us.
On the other hand, perhaps there’s a weight lifted or a bit of freedom in having permission to drop that resolution. I can think of a number of reasons why this might be a good thing. Maybe it’s not what you truly want deep down. Maybe you tried to change too much too fast. Maybe it’s not time for you to achieve, achieve, achieve, but time for you to slow down and heal. Just to name a few.
The question of “What do you really want out of life?” comes up a lot in my work as a therapist, both with my one-on-one clients and with my women’s collective and meetup groups. It can be a hard question to answer.
Sometimes we know how we want to feel, but just aren’t sure what needs to change in order to get there. Sometimes we only know something feels missing, but we aren’t sure what. And in this crazy day in age where we’re juggling so much between work and family and social circles, we’re way too accessible to others via cell phones and social media, and we put ourselves last, it’s no wonder it’s hard to hear what we truly want. Let alone make time for the things we say we want.
I’m always impressed with people who know exactly what their resolution will be by January 1st. Especially as a business owner. It seems like people are charging ahead with their business goals by the first week of January. Meanwhile, I need at least a week just to even review the past year before I can decide on the right moves to make next. I want to see all my numbers, consider what felt hard and what felt easy, and where I surprised myself the most. Only then can I begin to think about what I want to accomplish in the next year. Otherwise, I overshoot and am overwhelmed and discouraged with myself.
So, with National Ditch Your Resolutions Day in mind, I’d like to offer you some alternative tips for slow goal setting in 2020:
1. Give yourself the full month to determine what you really want.
Have you ever committed to achieving something and then realized further down the line that it’s not actually bringing you any joy or that your plan for achieving it isn’t realistic? This has happened to me more than once. But there’s an easy solution to this: Don’t commit just yet. Move slowly. Give yourself time to figure out what you actually want.
Yes, I know this goes against the grain. It seems like most people start talking about New Year's resolutions the day after Christmas. If you run a business or have a gym membership, it’s even worse. People wear their ambitious goals on their sleeves. It can make you feel like you’re behind the curve if you haven’t even decided what your goals are halfway into the month. But, guess what? You’re not. Everybody is in such a rush and I want to push back against that a bit.
There are no real shortcuts to anything worth having. And life is short, but it’s not THAT short. Instead of rushing to do more, take your time to do the right thing the right way for you.
You can give yourself one full month to figure out what you truly, deeply want and need. You’ve got 11 full months after that to make real changes that last beyond 2020. Reflect on what went well last year and what needs some revision. What do you really long for? Where is there a void in your life? Where did you get lost or stumble? Where did you surprise yourself?
Based on your answers to those questions, where could your life be improved a little or a lot?
2. Your body tells you what you need all the time. Are you listening?
When you think about something you want to change in your life, what do you feel in your body? Does this thing make you feel lighter or heavier? Is “lighter” and “heavier” even the right language to use when describing what your body is communicating to you? For some, something might feel like having a weight lifted off their shoulders. For some, it might feel like warm or cold sensations. For others, it might make more sense to think of things in terms of what feels energizing or what is draining. What sort of descriptor words make sense for you?
This is really important to get clarity on because when we have a choice to make, our bodies give us clear signals for “yes” and “no." But we can only hear those messages when we know how to pay attention to our bodies’ signals. If you’re out of practice with this, it will likely be easier for you to figure out what “no” feels like. Many people feel this in the pit of their stomach or in between their shoulder blades (but it’s possible to feel it elsewhere). It might feel like your stomach turning sour or a burning sensation or an ache or just a vague sense of dread. Whatever it feels like for you, take note. It will make it easier to notice what a yes feels like by comparison. Sometimes a yes might be simply an absence of those “no” feelings. Other times it might feel more resounding and obvious, like when you’re excited or overjoyed.
It’s also important to make the distinction between emotions and stress. Emotions like anger, sadness, joy, and stress all manifest in our bodies. These things tell us what we need. Sometimes they are eased by one single release and sometimes we need consistent, cumulative changes to restore balance. Have you ever even thought about how your emotions physically feel in your body? We tend to intellectualize emotions or use metaphors to describe them, but these metaphors all have roots in physical sensations. For example, “I was heartbroken” doesn’t mean your actual anatomical heart quit working, but it does come from the physical sensations of sadness which tend to be localized in our chests. As an experiment, try describing these emotional sensations without using metaphor. Does your stomach feel hot when you’re mad? Does your chest feel retracted and small when you’re sad? You might even find that your stance changes. Maybe your shoulders fold forward to shield your heart or your hands clench to anticipate a confrontation.
All of this helps us to get more fluent in this useful feedback that we can use to make better choices.
3. Check in with your body’s signals consistently.
This also means that you have to give yourself time each day to feel, especially if this is something you don’t feel automatically dialed into (which, in this modern world, is most of us). It takes practice. This can mean different things depending on what works for you and what you have time for. For some, journaling or meditation practice is helpful. For others, this is too much of a time commitment. You can try setting a timer on your phone to remind you to check in with your physical body and that might be enough. You can do a body scan while laying in bed before dozing off or in the morning before getting out of bed. Whatever you decide to do, do it often. Sometimes what our bodies are telling us is obvious, and sometimes it’s not. Being a good listener takes practice.
You can also try checking in with your body after you’ve made a choice. Here’s an obvious example: if you’re trying to eat healthier, try letting yourself give in to a craving. Let yourself enjoy it while you’re eating it. But then, afterwards, check in with your body and notice how you feel. Maybe you feel more energized (helpful if you’re battling a mid-day slump, but not so helpful if you’re a late-night snacker who won’t be able to fall asleep now). Maybe you feel bloated, dehydrated, and crampy. Maybe your skin gets itchy or hot. Maybe you have no physical symptoms at all and only recall the joy of eating that snack (You lucky duck, you!). Whatever you notice, pay attention to whether they are good or not-so-good signals. Use these signals to inform your decision-making next time.
Or, if you’re having a hard time making a decision about something, try this old trick: Flip a coin. OK, hear me out on this. No, I’m not suggesting you hand over your agency to the whims of a copper penny and gravity. But, I think this is a really useful experiment because often I think we really do have deeply hidden preferences around a choice, and flipping a coin can help us to uncover them. When the coin lands, one of two things will happen. Either you’ll get heads or tails and you’ll feel content with that. Or, you’ll get heads or tails and you’ll feel some amount of disappointment or resistance to that answer. And when that happens, there you go. That resistance is telling you something about your desires. And hey, it’s kind of nice to know that pennies still have value, right?
4. Forgive yourself for what you “should’ve done” sooner.
We are more likely to stick with a new goal if we focus on the positive, not the punishment. Forgive yourself for not beginning a goal sooner. Forgive yourself when you slip up or slack off. And if you fall off the wagon completely, there’s no need to shame yourself for your perceived failure.
Failure isn’t a license to be complacent. On the contrary, it gives you permission to begin anew. It wipes the slate clean and asks, do you want to start the process of recommitment again? (Yes, this means you’ll need to check in with how you feel all over again!)
If you forgave yourself first, how would you choose differently? How does your goal-setting and action-taking change when you act out of self-love, rather than self-punishment? How will the entire process feel different? How will the reward feel different?
5. Move forward by making tiny, incremental changes.
We all know lasting change doesn’t happen overnight, but we all want to feel like we are moving forward.
It can feel like a balancing act sometimes. We might get impatient and try a crash diet for example, but we know we’ll inevitably slip back into our old ways and then there goes our “progress." (Ever notice how that show, The Biggest Loser, never has reunion episodes featuring contestants who kept the weight off? I’m no medical doctor, but I have a sneaking suspicion there’s a reason for that.)
We know that too much change too fast is, well, too much. It’s hard to maintain. It’s not flexible. It’s not realistic. We might find ourselves even rebelling against the changes, whatever those changes may be (this isn’t just about diet and weight loss).
But the flip side is that small changes can seem discouragingly insignificant. It can be hard to see the forest for the trees. We can lose motivation because it just doesn’t seem like anything is happening. ….Until it does.
In her book, Second Firsts: Live, Laugh, and Love Again, Christina Rasmussen talks about making small changes. In fact, she recommends only changing things by 5%. Anything more than that and you can trigger a fight, flight, or freeze response in your nervous system. The reality is change--ANY change--is a stressor and can cause a stress response in the body. Our bodies don’t differentiate between safe stress and the danger zone very well. So, often it responds to dietary changes, an ambitious new work project, and being chased by a hungry bear in the exact same way.
Our bodies’ main goal every minute of every day is to seek balance. Sometimes when one thing is lopsided, another system will overcompensate to find that balance. So the way we don’t freak our systems out is by making small changes that we can adjust to relatively easily. Even through the change, that balance is easily maintained. Then, once that change feels easy-breezy, we can add another 5% change on top of that. Real lasting change that feels right and good comes from repeating this process over and over gradually.
This also means that listening to our bodies will continue to be important with every step. Because if a change is too big, our bodies will whisper or scream to let us know.
This year, let’s defy the resolution odds by making slow, thoughtful, small, incremental changes toward the life we want to live. Doesn’t this sound like a better way to go?
Is your crazy busy life filling you up?
(Or weighting you down?)
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