The process of making New Year’s resolutions speaks to me. I like the excuse to reflect on the time that’s passed and to think about the year ahead. It helps that my birthday falls at the end of December, giving each January an extra layer of potential above and beyond the new number on the calendar.
As a self-diagnosed resolution junkie, I’ve learned that the best ones are both small and measurable. Nevertheless, it’s tempting to choose lofty goals that sound like positive changes. Take the ubiquitous word “mindful,” for example. People everywhere are promising to eat mindfully, shop mindfully, parent mindfully and more. A term like “mindful” quickly becomes a feel-good buzzword to the point of meaninglessness when the promises attached to it lack any discernible milestones.
Similarly, so many of us make the same resolutions year after year. We will eat better, work out more, keep the house organized, force the kids to follow through with their chores, stop buying clothes we don’t need, volunteer more (or less in some cases), and be better spouses and friends. To name a few.
Those resolutions fail because they’re too big and too nebulous to succeed. What does it take to become a better friend? It could entail, for example, picking up the phone instead of only relying on texts. Another positive step is making sure to initiate plans instead of always waiting for friends to ask. Both ideas are specific and therefore doable improvements. However, I still argue that guaranteed success in this case would likely require even more clear-cut habit changes. How about resolving to call a different friend each week instead of texting and emailing? Or every other week? Even a phone conversation with someone different once a month would strengthen a friendship if it’s one more call than zero. “Small and specific,” that’s my motto.
What’s more hopeless about some resolutions is that they do not always represent what would add happiness, purpose, or meaning to our lives. This is where taking the time to reflect before making a resolution could turn the rote act of New Year’s goal setting into a life-changing exercise, or at least a year-changing one.
Maybe we’re already eating as “mindfully” as we can realistically maintain. Maybe the house is organized enough. Maybe the kids help as much as they can between their activities and homework. Instead of making big promises to myself like I used to in the past (I’ve spent half of my life promising and failing to completely cut out sugar), I now ask myself what small change could improve the year ahead.
My most recent experience with a small habit altering my life more than a big, nebulous intention began during the Jewish new year (Rosh Hashanah) in the fall of 2012. (Yes, this resolution junkie gets two opportunities in a year to implement new behaviors.) That year I had vowed to stop using my cell phone on the Jewish Sabbath, which begins at sundown on Friday and ends at sundown on Saturday.
“I’m being mindful about how much time I’m using my iPhone” was a nice thing to say, but by January 2013, I had made little progress. Twenty-four hours without my phone was more than I was ready to do. Furthermore, what I truly needed was a way to spend less time on my phone every day instead of focusing all of my efforts on one long stretch.
To fix that problem, I identified the two places where forbidding any family cell phone use would vastly improve our lives: the bedrooms and any table where a meal was involved.
These two seemingly minor changes fundamentally altered my year. Charging my phone in the kitchen instead of the bedroom eliminated any late night and early morning texting, emailing, and glancing at Facebook. I’ve read more at night, talked to my husband more, and found myself dressed faster in the morning. And without my phone on the table during meals, I’ve felt like a less distracted wife, mom, and friend. I’ve certainly felt less rude.
My 2014 resolutions are not terribly exciting, which is why I know they’ll work. Because I want more time to write, I’ve resolved to add one more early morning writing session to my schedule. Because I want to continue feeling less attached to my phone and more focused on the people I care about, I’ve resolved to maintain the phone-free boundaries from this year. And because I know that overly-ambitious resolutions generally fail, I’m finally done making grandiose promises to cut out sugar. Nobody likes a liar anyway.
My older two kids (nine and seven) said at Rosh Hashanah that they would work on getting along. I suspect that their promises haven’t worked so far because I forced that goal on them rather than encouraging them to think about their own hopes for the year. They also never identified small ways they could work harder to avoid fighting. I tried not to make the same mistake for this second chance to get it right. I admit that I forced them to recommit to their promise to get along. (Maybe I’ll add less helicoptering to next year’s list for myself.) But together we came up with a few concrete ideas of how each one could be kinder to the other, and therefore fight less. We’ll see how it goes!
What small change are you making this year? Have your kids come up with resolutions too?
Illustration by Christine Juneau