The year of baby steps over lofty goals

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I resolve to eat whatever the hell I’d like, thank you very much. Nathan Dumlao via Unsplash

If you shoot for the stars, you may simply crash and burn

New Year’s resolutions. Clean slates. Fresh starts. New year, new me. We have heard all these before, all based on the idea that with the turning of the calendar, or rather with the breaking out of a new calendar, we should make major changes to our lives, hobbies, and goals. We all have made them at some point in our lives, and if conventional wisdom is to be believed, only a few of us last until February. Yet most of us persist on making resolutions yearly. There is one thing that baffles me about this process. If these are good habits or goals to have, why do we put them off for months? Life is short enough without wasting months not working on things we ourselves decide are important to us.

Maybe the crucial insight is that we romanticize the major sea of lifestyles changes somewhere out there, over the little tweaks in habit we can make every day. On December 31, I can eat an entire extra-large pizza, extra pepperoni, washed down with coke. But, on January 1, I will be eating vegan and organic, and drink only cold brew tea.

Something I read about this really struck home the other day and might be a much better way to handle desired lifestyle changes. We are all, to some extent, resistant to change. Well, perhaps that is an oversimplification, because we also do not function well in a stagnant environment. There is a sweet spot where we need some predictable structure with enough opportunities at the frontier to try new experiences. Daily disruptions and chaos would mean we cannot focus and get routine work done, but as someone who was once stuck in a dead-end career doing the same thing every day, too much routine can also be a bad thing. Doing the same thing over and over and expecting something different, as they say, is the definition of insanity.

Returning to New Year’s resolutions and why we often fail at them – perhaps the problem is that we are convinced that on the other side of midnight on December 31 there is some magic land where all our less desired character traits disappear. In this magical tomorrow, we do not crave sugar or junk food, even though we binged on fast food and pop every single day in December. We wake up at 5 am and go for a run, never mind that we have not seen the world before noon in years or ran anywhere unless being chased by a rabid dog. We read for three hours every day, making our way through the world classics, while the reality in December is that we spent six hours scrolling social media.

This is the basis for the two major reasons why we fail. For one, we are trying to change too much too soon. Secondly, we are sending our own mind mixed messages. Is the change we want desirable? If not, why are we doing it at all? If yes, why are we waiting to do it?

Then comes the secondary reason: how we view ourselves. When we take too much work on and then crash and burn in less than a month, we chalk it up to being one more thing we did not manage to execute well or see through to the end. Over time, this cements a certain perception we have of ourselves. Not very different from how many of us feel that we are “not good at math” or “not a reader.” What would be far closer to the truth is that we did not spend enough time on math to be good at it, or never pushed ourselves to read more. I am doubtful that people are born with some genetic propensity for being good at math or preferring reading over watching television. These are learned habits that take time to build and if we try too much too soon, we fall short. We never finish that difficult book, or we flunk that math class that we did not have the right background for. With enough failures, we eventually associate feelings of
unpleasantness with the task and stop trying.

On the other hand, we could take a page out of the books of successful coaches. Most good coaches tell us that beginners at any craft need a few small wins to start building a positive self-image. Towards this end, they will often get beginners to take on very small challenges. There is going to be a huge gap between the challenges they are facing now and the level at which they are expected to perform as athletes. Crushing these small challenges will give them the confidence to take on progressively harder ones, until one day they are playing at the highest level available – until one day we finish that thousand-page book or find ourselves in a graduate program in math. Our brains, or minds if you will, enjoy incremental challenges they can ace. They shy away from impossible tasks which seem to be doomed for failure.

This new year, I am not making grand resolutions. In fact, I am not making any resolutions at all. I am just trying to do a little better. I am reading for ten more minutes every day. I am getting the small pizza, and just water is fine, thanks. When the weather outside does not feel like it’s stabbing me in the eyes, I am taking one more walk than I currently do. If I can do that for enough days, weeks, and months, then I will sit down and think about what more I could do. There is nothing magical about the new year. But there can be something magical about steady, consistent work on the things I value and want to be better at. For those setting grander goals, may you have an easier time with them that I ever did. Happy 2022, everyone!

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