On New Year’s Resolutions (or: what I learned about how to get what you want)

For the past few days I’ve been thinking about the whole topic of New Year’s Resolutions after reading Jeff Goins’s blog post on the topic (entitled ‘Why You Shouldn’t Bother With Resolutions This Year’ – it’s a blog aimed at writers, but the post is worth a read as it can apply to any resolution one might make), where he argues that one should focus on something far better than simply making resolutions: having resolve.

IMG_8735 (Rome, Italy. One place we’d always wanted to visit, and finally got to in 2013.)

New Year’s Resolutions have almost become a bit of a running joke: no sooner does anyone make one (whether it’s to get fit, lose weight, start a business, drink less, eat more healthily, write a book, give up smoking), you know that many people will – and probably already have – failed theirs just a few days into the new year itself. Is there any point to making any? Why do we bother? Should we bother? 

On New Year’s Day 2013, I had made absolutely no New Year’s Resolutions at all. As pessimistic as it sounds, I didn’t see the point of declaring I was going to do or achieve some lofty goal or target only to fall far short yet again. Nevertheless, it wasn’t far into January before I started to make some resolutions, if only because it was very hard to keep repeating to everyone that I had made absolutely no resolutions for the year. In other words – yes, I gave in to peer pressure to make New Year’s Resolutions… with mixed results.

I completely failed to meet some of my main resolutions for 2013 – no surprises there, I tried to console myself, but that didn’t make me feel any better about it. But I was stunned to find that I actually DID manage to do some of them. What made me successful at some resolutions and not others? What makes any of us successful at any resolutions we make to change our lives?

IMG_5417 (Driving up to the top of a sand dune in the Arabian Desert, Qatar – a rough ride.)

To answer that, I made a list of the things I had resolved to do in 2013 back in late January / early February (being half-Chinese, I told myself that failing to make New Year’s Resolutions by the Gregorian calendar new year was no big deal – there was always Chinese New Year to make one’s New Year’s Resolutions :-) ) and how I fared:

1) Blog once a week during 2013: FAILED. As you can see, I posted to this blog a grand total of 11 times during 2013 – and even when I readjusted my aim to only blog twice a month (having decided that perhaps blogging once a week was too high a goal to start with, especially for someone who wasn’t in the habit of blogging at all), I still failed at that. The five-month gap between posts in the latter half of the year stands as testament to that.

2) Write a book by the time I turn 32: FAILED. Suffice to say, I turned 32 in the autumn and still don’t have a finished book to hand – published or otherwise.

3) Travel more in 2013 than in 2012: SUCCEEDED. I would say this was probably the only resolution of ours in 2013 that was a massive and resounding success. We travelled to the following countries and places within those countries:

  • Qatar: Doha, the capital city, to visit and stay with a friend; and the Arabian Desert;
  • China: Beijing, to visit relatives, and Shanghai, one of my former places of residence – with day trips to the small (and historically significant) cities of Hangzhou and Suzhou – plus a brief visit to a friend in Hong Kong;
  • USA: Chicago, where my husband was posted for work for a fortnight, and I followed him out there with my laptop – a good internet/Wi-Fi connection and being able to make all my business calls via Skype meant I could do all my UK-based freelance journalism work remotely from the US;
  • Canada: Montréal, to attend a family wedding; we also managed to drop in on another friend while we were there;
  • Italy: Rome and of course the Vatican City – we had some travel reward points that needed using up before they expired, so we booked this mini-break to use them;
  • Scotland: Edinburgh, to visit a friend who had just moved to the city.

IMG_6602 (Hangzhou, China – some 80km outside of Shanghai. There’s a famous Chinese saying: ‘In Heaven, there is paradise; on Earth, there is Hangzhou and Suzhou.’)

So, I think it’s fair to say travelling to 11 cities in 6 countries counts as meeting that particular New Year’s Resolution (in 2012, we went to New York in the US, Zürich in Switzerland, Tasiilaq in Greenland and Reykjavik in Iceland). Funny thing is that at the start of 2013, only our visits to Qatar, China and Canada were the ones we resolved to do – the others only came about when the opportunity to do them arose (especially the cheap/discounted trips to Rome and Edinburgh), and we seized those opportunities when they turned up.

Travelling as much as we did was very enjoyable, but also very exhausting – and while I don’t regret the amazing experiences we had for a minute, travelling as much as we did (constantly getting on and off planes, recovering from jetlag, organising visas or planning what to do for each trip) was so disruptive that it was almost impossible to get anything else done that we’d wanted to do in those months. I suspect that was the reason why some of my other New Year’s Resolutions didn’t (couldn’t) get done.

4) Hiring someone to practise Mandarin Chinese with me once a week: SUCCEEDED. My spoken and written language skills are far from fluent, but they are definitely better than they were – and it really helped hiring a lady tutoring Mandarin on the side who turned out to be a good teacher, starting each of our weekly lessons with a few minutes of conversation in Mandarin (badly, in my case), working through her textbook and testing that I know how to write certain characters.

IMG_6481 (Night-time view over the Bund and the river in the smog, Shanghai, China.)

Of course there have been weeks that I missed – mainly because I was out of the country so much – but we’ve always managed to have at least one lesson a month in 2013. I’m probably not improving as fast as I should do, but it’s better than doing nothing at all – which is what I had done for the previous 9 years since moving back to the UK from Shanghai, meaning that by the time I started having weekly Mandarin lessons, I’d almost completely lost what little grasp of the language I used to have. My tutor and I now text each other in Chinese to arrange each lesson – something I could never do before – and it really feels like a victory to know I can actually read and understand more each time than before, even if it’s just one word more than before. Every tiny win is still a win.

5) Set up and launch a new blog for writers: FAILED. Miserably so. Especially with the amount I was travelling this year. I planned this out at the beginning of the year, approached the project with gusto and enthusiasm, bought the web domain, wrote some of the copy for the website, even designed the logo and branding – and then lost momentum considerably as the year wore on. I’m still in the middle of writing the free non-fiction e-book for its subscribers.

The worst of it was that this had actually been my main aim, and my main goal, for the year – it was the ‘big project’ I may even have alluded to in some of my posts during 2013. It has still yet to launch, which is something I feel quite ashamed about – even though I try not to, because guilt and shame have not proved particularly helpful in this case. As mentioned above, I strongly suspect the sheer amount we were travelling – a big project in itself – didn’t leave too much room for any other big, year-long projects (like this one) that demanded a lot more time and attention than even I expected it would.

IMG_7254 (Cloud Gate, or ‘The Bean’, from the side. Millennium Park, Chicago, USA.)

6) Complete NaNoWriMo in November 2013 by finishing a completely original novel: FAILED/SUCCEEDED. There are reasons why it could be looked at in both ways. I succeeded because I managed to ‘win’ NaNoWriMo by their rules, i.e. writing 50,000 words of fiction during the month of November and validating it before midnight local time on the 30th. I ‘failed’ because, even though I managed to hit the minimum target of 50,000 words, I did not come anywhere close to finishing a novel – nowhere near being able to write ‘THE END’ on my work – and it wasn’t what you’d call ‘completely original’ either, as my final 50,000-word fiction featured characters I’d previously used in another work.

There was also the problem that halfway during the month, my original ‘novel’ crashed and burned in a really bad way, and after struggling on with it for a week (and having a bit of a breakdown over it), I realised I had no choice but to scrap the whole thing and start all over again – on the 22nd November, with just 8 days to reach the 50,000 word target… which I managed to do after sending out various SOS messages on the NaNoWriMo forums and Twitter begging for help. I would not have got through it without (a) some bright spark’s suggestion to rattle out the 50,000 words largely by writing in a ‘stream of consciousness’ style – think Jack Kerouac’s On The Road – and (b) the overwhelming support and cheering of the NaNoWriMo community in general.

Final tally: of 6 New Year’s Resolutions for 2013, I completely failed at 3, succeeded at 2, and had one that could really be viewed either way.

In short, 2013 was, for me, a year of more failures than successes. 

So why did I feel – come the end of December – that my 2013 was a resounding success, and something I am really really happy I had? (It wasn’t just the travelling – although I’ll admit it’s a part of it.)

IMG_8222 (Montréal, Québec, Canada. View over the city from the top of Mont-Royal.)

Well, I’ll tell you: it’s because I finally started to figure out what would work for me. And what worked for me was not making grandly ambitious resolutions that I had no hope of sticking to. It wasn’t being vague about them either (what does ‘I want to get fitter’ actually mean? How much fitter? What does ‘fitter’ mean to you? I’m not knocking your resolution ‘to get fitter’, it is of course a very good one, but… do you see what I mean?)

It was this: to take extremely small steps in a process that would gradually get me towards what I wanted, and either having support from others for it (whether that was just one other person – like my Mandarin tutor, or my husband – or a whole community, like in NaNoWriMo), or being publicly accountable for what I’ve committed to doing. There is something to be said for making goals smaller and more manageable, and that is the way I hope to meet my larger goals for the year.

It was, as Jeff Goins says in his blog post (the one I referred to at the beginning of this post), committing to a process – and committing to doing one tiny step at a time within that process – to get you where you need to go. To get you what you want.

As he says, to resolve to commit to how you’re going to get what you want, not simply making a resolution of what you want. And remove the possibility that you can’t do it – you are doing it, no excuses; so find a way to do it rather than crying off the task. If it’s really that important to you, you’ll find a way.

Another thing that I found worked for me was: instead of making New Year’s Resolutions, make resolutions over a shorter timeframe. Make monthly resolutions. Make fortnightly or even weekly resolutions. Make mini-resolutions, rather than full-on huge New Year’s Resolutions. It’s much easier to commit to doing tiny steps, one at a time, within a process during a shorter timeframe – it’s hard to see or conceive, at the beginning of January, how the rest of the year will pan out.

IMG_9175 (Edinburgh Castle, Scotland. Built one brick at a time.)

For example, this month – the month of January 2014 – I committed to doing Jeff Goins’s ‘My 500 Words’ writing challenge, where you write 500 words a day every day for the month of January. The challenge includes blog posts (so this blog post today is going to count towards my 500 words for today i.e. Day 5), but doesn’t include emails; it also doesn’t have to all be part of the same body of work (thus making it an easier challenge than NaNoWriMo, where all 50,000 words have to be part of the same work of fiction; and unlike NaNoWriMo, if you miss a day, you simply start over the next day and write your 500 words – there’s no need to catch up on your word count).

For me, 500 words isn’t very much – I can usually rattle out 500 words of rambling rubbish on my laptop in 15 minutes – but it’s one of the ‘baby steps’ in a process to get me where I need to go. And for me this month, that ‘where I need to go’ is to (a) stick to a writing habit for at least one month and (b) either finish, or get close to finishing, one book-length work (‘book-length’ in this case being at least 40,000 words. I told you I was setting smaller and more manageable goals for myself 😀 ).

Instead of making resolutions, try these things instead…

In summary, here’s what worked for me, and I hope these work for you this year, too:

  1. Instead of a New Year’s Resolution – where you’ve got the whole year to keep (or not keep) your resolution – make a ‘January Resolution’, or a mini-resolution, for a smaller amount of time. Make a resolution for this month instead of the entire 2014, or a resolution for the next 6 weeks, or even a resolution for this week.
  2. Make your mini-resolution specific, and make it a process you can easily break it down into. For example, instead of ‘eat more healthily’, think about what that means to you. Does that mean eating more green vegetables every day (and how many more portions of green vegetables, and which green vegetables specifically)? Does it mean cutting down on sugar (and what exactly does ‘cutting down’ on sugar mean to you – forgoing sugar in your morning coffee? Cutting out that afternoon chocolate bar?) or even cutting out sugar entirely? Does it mean not ordering pizza every Saturday night?
  3. Don’t try to achieve some huge goal all at once. Just take the very tiniest, baby steps in a process. If you’re not someone who goes to the gym at all, resolving to go three times a week is unlikely to be something you stick to in the long-term. How about starting with once a week, or even once a month?
  4. Commit to doing those tiny baby steps – don’t give yourself any excuse not to do them. For me, the baby steps I’m doing this month are the daily ‘baby steps’ of writing 500 words a day, on anything, every day. I really want this habit to stick for January at least, even if I go back to writing very irregularly afterwards (next month I’ll try to come up with another manageable goal). Yesterday I had a splitting headache, and really wanted to give myself a day off, but I forced myself to knock out 512 words – and I am glad I did. The day before I had lots of errands to run around London, but I managed to find 15–20 minutes in a coffee shop where I bashed out 646 words, simply by giving myself no excuses not to do it; simply by forcing myself to get it done despite a busy and hectic day. If you’re a budding writer looking to develop a daily writing habit and 500 words a day is too much for you, how about 200 words instead? Or even a hundred?
  5. If you miss a day, or break your mini-resolution, forgive yourself and start again the next day. It happens to all of us – emergencies crop up and your newly-created good habit fails one day despite your best intentions. Just start again.
  6. Don’t take on too much at once – be realistic, and keep it small and simple. It was simply not realistic for me to be travelling as much as I did, writing and finishing a book by my 32nd birthday, setting up a brand new blog and writing an e-book for that, learning a new language and posting on this blog once a week on top of my freelance writing job. All those things demanded a lot of time, money and energy, and simply left me feeling overwhelmed, exhausted and occasionally like a failure. I would have been much better off focusing on just the travelling, language learning and NaNoWriMo and forgoing the rest. My expectations of myself in 2013 were set way too high. (Not to mention I didn’t have a plan for how on earth I was going to achieve the resolutions I broke, which was another reason I didn’t keep them.)

This was pretty much how I achieved the things I did in 2013, as well as why I failed the things I did in 2013.

TL;DR version: Make mini-resolutions instead of New Year’s Resolutions. Make it specific and broken down into an easy process of baby steps. Commit to doing each baby step (or make each baby step your mini-resolution). Don’t take on too much at once. Be kind to yourself: forgive yourself if you break your mini-resolution, and just start over with it.

I hope this helps. Thanks for reading, and happy 2014!

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