I happen to love making New Year’s resolutions – I love the idea of making a fresh start as I flip the calendar over to a new year. But I know that not everyone shares my passion for personal makeovers; they hate the mid-February let down when they realize that they’re off the diet and haven’t strapped on their running shoes since New Year’s Day.
I’ve been reading a lot of advice on how to make real change in your life, and the best advice seems to trend toward not making resolutions – at least not in the traditional way. When you try to make a change based on what you “should” do (lose weight, get back to the gym, or get organized), you are relying on a very weak system to help you along.
For one thing, what you “should” do may not even be your own idea. Many people form an idea of what’s right based not on what they believe, but what others believe. How much you “ought” to earn, what size you “should” be, how your closet “should” be organized, are influenced by the media, your own comparisons to friends and people around you, Martha Stewart and your mom.
Even if losing weight or organizing spices alphabetically is your very own idea, relying on willpower alone to keep you on track is not very effective. Our brain, evolved as it may be, can only hold on to so many ideas at a time. Psychologists say that every small decision you make in a day (Coffee or tea? These shoes or that pair?) wears down your ability to make good decisions about big things. Your willpower can’t do all the heavy lifting for decisions, any more than a muscle can be expected to hold up a heavy weight for an extended period. There has to be more to keep you motivated.
Psychology professor Peter Herman says that the “false hope” syndrome is also to blame when you try to make a big change. When you believe that losing ten pounds, having perfectly organized cupboards or finishing your degree will make your life better and make you happier, you may be motivated for a while. But when (inevitably) you don’t feel measurably happier, you lose that motivation. You get discouraged and give up when the going gets tough.
Here’s a new idea. Instead of focusing on what you must do, focus on the way you want to feel. Does getting organized make you feel calmer and more prepared every day? Focus on that feeling instead of tasks like keeping up your planner or setting out clothes the night before work. As you make choices during the day, think about whether that choice is getting you closer to that desired feeling or further away. Check in with yourself – is this how you want to feel?
Instead of focusing on what you can’t or shouldn’t eat, focus on feeling lighter and more energized after a meal. You get the idea.
So if this is your year to change the way your work (or change jobs altogether), focus on how you want to feel. Think about your desired state of being at work; you might include words like “creative,” “calm” or “connected and supported by my team.” Here’s a radical idea: you may even find that your desired state of being can be found right where you are. When you let go of what you “should” earn, “should” do for a living, and “should” get back from your boss, you might discover how you want to feel. And the difference between “I should” and “I want to” might just be the difference between discouragement and victory.