• Zach

Why my New Years Resolution is failing


At the start of January, I set myself two New Years Resolutions, and I am struggling.  But I think I know why, and how that can help all of us make positive changes within our own lives stick and become permanent.   This July, I'm moving to China (unless I get stuck from Corona).  I was there this December and quickly realized that, unlike the UAE where English is everywhere, in China, I would REALLY need to be able to speak at least rudimentary Mandarin, if I didn't want to be clueless and frustrated a great deal of time.  That meant I needed to start building some vocabulary and grammar knowledge.  Fortunately, there are Apps for that!  I made a resolution to do at least 10-15 minutes of Chinese every day, and started with enthusiasm.   Also, I've really gotten into meditation and Buddhism lately, so another resolution was to meditate every day and learn something about Buddhism every day as well.  I would watch Youtube videos and read books for the informative part, then try to translate those practices into my daily life through meditation and exercises.   I'm also a person who tries to arrange his life so that it's as simple as possible.  I'm an unmarried guy with no kids or pets.  I should have plenty of time to accomplish these daily resolutions.  And for the most part, I have.  I've done my Chinese and meditation almost every day.  But I've noticed something.   Every day, the will to do it gets harder and harder to find.  I can see my own resolve fading.   This doesn't make me a bad person.  It makes me normal.  According to a US News & World report, 80% of New Years Resolutions fail.  For me, I can see why it's happening.  Learning Chinese and meditation, as much as I know they will help me, are slow processes.  I get a little better each day, but not really in a noticeable manner, it's like losing weight that way.  The Chinese especially is hard because I can't use it right now, and I don't need it right now.  I will in 6 months, but that's Future Zach's problem.  So instead, each of these daily actions seems to be crowded out by more immediate needs.   Often, on a hard day of teaching, that immediate need is not to do anything too active with my brain.  My day often starts at 7:00 when I arrive to school and there are kids in my room who need to talk or need help, and I go pretty full-bore until 4:30 or 5:00 with after school activities, grading, and planning.  If there's a big assignment that's just been turned in, sometimes that gets repeated during the weekends as well.  It's highly mentally taxing work, and it leaves my brain pretty exhausted.   When we're exhausted, our willpower drops precipitously.  There's science behind that as well, although it's a controversial.   In a research study published by the National Academy of Sciences in 2011, they found that the more decisions you make, the less willpower you have.  Or the more tired you are, again, the less willpower you have.  You've seen this with the old, and true idea, that it's not good to go to the grocery store when you're hungry, because you don't have the willpower to resist all the unhealthy but delicious food around you.  That's why the candy bars are at the checkout counter, they know that you've just made a whole bunch of decisions and have little willpower to resist a treat at that point.   All this is why my willpower is fading for my resolutions.  They're just one more thing to do after a long and tiring day.  Sometimes I even start to resent them, even though I know they're good for me.   To contrast that, I have been very successful in making some radical lifestyle changes in the last year.  I completely changed my diet from eating whatever was in front of me to eating a much healthier whole food plant based diet, and that was much easier than 10 minutes of Chinese and 20 minutes of meditation.  I've also taken to exercising much more, about 5-7 times a week, and that also was easy.  Another habit that was easy for me to adopt was to track my spending by putting in the purchase to a Spending Tracker app, which I've done religiously for 4 years now.  To me, this contrast is fascinating.  Why should such big changes be easier than little ones?  Let's break it down a little and see what lessons we can learn from this.   The diet switch doesn't take any more time and effort.  Before, I had to shop, cook, and eat.  Or go out to eat, or order food.  Now I do the same, just with healthier food.  I learned some good information about nutrition, saw the benefit in my own life in terms of weight loss and other awesome health benefits, and that powers me to do better.  And it's not hard, it doesn't take extra willpower.  The lesson we can learn from this is that some lifestyle changes can be much easier if they don't add any extra burden to our lives, if we merely swap one unhealthy behavior out for a healthier one.   The exercise switch is one that is really hard for a lot of people, and one that I am quite frankly surprised I've been able to keep up without much effort.  The thing that has helped me was finding an activity, yoga, that I can see immediate benefit from in terms of feeling good while I do it, as well as medium term benefits in terms of flexibility and strength that makes all my daily actions easier, and the knowledge that there are significant long term benefits as well, with lower cortisol levels, weight control, and elderly mobility.  I really want to be a sprightly 80 year old!   I also found that I love walking on the beach and playing frisbee, both low impact activities that burn calories, get me out of the house and into the sunshine, and are fun!  Half the ideas I have for these columns come from those walks on the beach.  Another chunk come from when I'm doing yoga or frisbee. It's amazing how physical movement can allow ideas time and space to come to the surface.   Tracking my spending is just a matter of habit stacking.  Habit stacking is where you add one desired habit to something you already do.  For me, that's whenever I pay for something, I get out my phone and enter the purchase in the Spending Tracker app.  It takes literally 10 seconds and I am done with it before I leave the counter.  Again, it doesn't take extra time or willpower.   So, what can we take from this?  How can we be more successful with our New Year's Resolutions?  Here are some tips:

  1.  Find ones that can be direct one-to-one swaps that don't take extra effort or willpower.

  2.  Choose resolutions that provide immediate, short term, and long term benefit, not just ones that are going to work out in the distant future.

  3. Habit stack on top of something you're already doing. 

If I can use these tips on my resolutions, they won't feel like such a burden and I'll be more likely to do them.  I'll let you know how it turns out! 


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Currently in Dubai, UAE