Three mindful steps to make successful new year’s resolutions

Photo: Alex Iby / Unsplash

Year after year, you make new year’s resolutions, only to see them wither away after a few months, sometimes just a few weeks. It is as if you had tried an organ transplant, and your organism had rejected the transplanted organ as foreign.

Keep this analogy in mind to think about a different way to approach making resolutions. You are making a transplant; it needs to be as compatible as possible with your organism.

All too often, the resolutions people make are like dictatorial orders: You have to suddenly break away from old habits to become somebody very different. So there is friction between who you are and what you want to be. To pursue the analogy, the transplant feels foreign, and will not take. There is a solution. It is to spend some time laying the groundwork for more compatibility between the new habit and the rest of you.

Mindful change vs. mindless change

What we’re talking about here is mindfulness vs. mindlessness: You are engaging with the situation as opposed to trying to force things without paying attention to how you feel (a la Just.Do.It.).

In other words, you need to change your relationship to your goal. I am not talking about a mind game where you are trying to trick yourself. It would not work, simply because you’d know it’s a trick. You need to experience your motivation in real time. And, of course, you cannot fake authenticity.

Mindful change requires that you engage with reality. You notice what is happening inside and outside, creatively interacting with all aspects of the situation. The following describes a 3-step process for mindful change. In this process, you progressively engage with the difficulty as each step strengthens your ability to change effectively.

Step 1: Contemplate

It all starts with a pause. I am not talking about a mindless break where nothing happens. By stopping and paying attention, we make space for a new perspective on things as opposed to blindly continuing in default mode. A mindful pause is a gateway to Beginner’s Mind (“In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, but in the expert’s there are few,” said Suzuki).

This first step is a moment of contemplation. You’re spending some time thinking about your goal concretely: Visualizing what you want in a way that makes it feel concrete — feeling the benefits that accrue from it. For instance, let’s say your goal is to exercise more. Let your mind wander into what it must feel like to be pleasantly tired from physical exertion, and how good it feels to be stronger and healthier.

The word “contemplation” connotes calm, even serenity. While the pause is active, this is not a frantic activity — contemplation proceeds from a place of relaxed awareness. And the reality of your situation may very well be that you are far from serene, or even moderately calm, as you enter into this process. You may very well be experiencing a sense of pressure, or a sense of fear, as you try to make this significant change.

Being authentic means that you are not going to be pretending you are any calmer than you are. You acknowledge whatever agitation there is. You try to find some relative calm in the eye of the storm: A sense that, while it might be better to be calm, it’s pretty cool to be able to notice how activated you are.

Step 2: Observe

That first step was taking place in a protected space, a sort of cocoon, where it was safe to contemplate change as well as your activation. Now, you are going one step further: You are bringing this attitude of relaxed awareness outside of the cocoon. But you’re not trying actually to make any changes. Your focus is just on observing.

What do I mean by “observing?” You are now paying attention to things related to your goal in the real world. You are not focusing on memories or ideas about it, as you were doing in the first step. For instance: If your goal is about eating or drinking, you pay attention to moments throughout the day when you are eating or drinking; or having the urge to eat or drink. You pay attention to what is happening inside, physically, emotionally, as you do so. Why? Having the intention to notice physical sensations and emotions helps you focus your attention. So you are more engaged in the process of observing: Mindful vs. mindless!

You are not just observing what you do. You also notice instances of it happening with other people — real people as well as characters on TV or books or elsewhere. In doing so, you are getting the positive, motivating images of what you want. You are also getting motivated by experiencing, at a gut level, why you don’t like what you want to change.

Let’s say your goal is to exercise more. Then you observe your activity, or lack thereof, in the same spirit. You notice what it feels like, physically and emotionally, when you are inactive. You observe what it is like when you move, ever so slightly. And you also notice other people, as mentioned above.

Step 3: Find an opening

The process I am describing here is incremental. You go little by little. So, in this third step, you don’t suddenly shift to the ‘Just Do It’ mode. You certainly don’t get into a disconnected way, where all that counts is what you do, regardless of what you feel. Remember: Mindful vs. Mindless.

So you still have an attitude of gentle curiosity. You’re observing the world with that attitude, as you were on Step Two. But, now, this curiosity has more of a focus. You are looking for a way to put into practice what you’ve learned about yourself. You explore where there might be a welcoming opportunity to take a small step toward the changes you want to make.

We’re not talking here about predetermined goals (e.g., “I must run 2 miles, three times a week”). There will be a time for specifics, and for accountability, but this will come later. Right now, you are priming the pump. You are getting in touch with the core of your motivation. You are learning more about yourself and what is in the way of preventing you from changing what you want to change. You cannot set realistic goals until you have accurate information. At this stage, you are exploring and developing the platform from which you can set realistic, sustainable objectives.

So you have this attitude of gentle curiosity, for instance, as you notice your bus approaching: What an excellent opportunity to step up your pace! And you do just that (and see what it feels like physically and emotionally). Or: you don’t step up your speed (and notice what it feels like physically and emotionally).

It’s not only luck. You can also put in more intentionality at this stage, as is appropriate. The key is ‘appropriate.’ You are not forcing abstract goals on yourself. You are using the learnings from the previous two steps to find a way to go a little beyond your comfort zone, just far enough to go ahead, but not so far that it’s too much.

Still using the example of the goal to do more exercise: You look for a small step in the right direction, and this step depends on what your starting point is. It might involve going to the gym for a short and relatively mild workout (if you already have a gym membership). Or you might first need to be getting a gym membership if you don’t have one. You might first need to be scouting for a gym if you don’t know of one. You take a small step that brings you a little bit closer to the goal (and, of course, you notice what it feels like physically and emotionally).

In all these three steps: Integrate

This is not a separate step. It is very much part of what you do throughout the three steps described above.

Integrating experience means making it your own. Just like digesting food is making it an integral part of you. In this case, this simply means paying conscious attention to what you have been doing, and putting it into words so that you own it in your left brain as well as your right brain.

So, at each step, take a moment to reflect on what you have been observing and doing and learning. You may even want to write it down and document your journey of mindful change. In any case, the point is not so much the written document, as it is your putting conscious attention into this process.

How long is each step?

You have to find the right balance between what would be just paying lip service to this process, and using the process as an excuse for inaction.

Depending on how daunting the change you envision, you could spend a day on each of the three steps, and probably no more than a week on each.

In any case, it’s good to remember that completing these steps does not mean that you have accomplished your goal. It just means you have put yourself on the right track to establish a sustainable practice that will lead you to achieve your goals.

A mindful practice

The process I am describing here involves shifting your focus. Instead of obsessing about the end result, you put your attention on establishing a sustainable practice.

As you go through the three steps, your goal is no longer an abstraction, a “should,” that you impose on yourself. You are not forcing change, but negotiating it. Your focus is on gaining a better understanding of yourself, of what your goal means to you, and of realistic ways to go about it.

You are developing a mindful practice, i.e., an environment that is conducive to producing the results you want. As you do so, you are naturally more motivated, and better able to set sustainable goals.