It’s that time of year, when people all across the world establish for themselves new year’s resolutions which often get broken. I thought I would share with you some thoughts about establishing resolutions which I saw. A couple of paragraphs from this article stuck out to me. Here they are:
Abandon your new year resolutions – today
If you’ve made any new year resolutions, steal a march on the rest of the world by abandoning them today, rather than waiting a week or two for the moment when everyone else’s will inevitably collapse in a quagmire of failed hopes, self-reproach and packets of Pringles. The lure of making a “complete fresh start” can be hard to resist, and gleaming-eyed self-help gurus pander to that urge. In fact, aiming for across-the-board change – to get fitter, eat better, spend more time with the family and less time playing Angry Birds, all at the same time – is exactly the wrong way to change habits. Willpower is a unitary, depletable resource, which means investing energy in any one such goal will leave less remaining for the others, so your resolutions will, in effect, be fighting each other. Far better to aim for one new habit every couple of months or, better yet, to manipulate your surroundings so as to harness the power of inertia, so you needn’t spend your precious reserves of willpower at all. (It’s infinitely easier to watch less television when you don’t have one, or to use your credit card less when it’s locked in a cupboard.) Making things automatic, not consciously and continually striving hard to be better, is the key here, as Alfred North Whitehead recognised back in 1911: “It is a profoundly erroneous truism… that we should cultivate the habit of thinking of what we are doing,” he wrote. “The precise opposite is the case. Civilisation advances by extending the number of important operations which we can perform without thinking about them.”
Overhaul your information diet (but don’t starve)
We’ve been worrying about information overload for millennia. “The abundance of books is distraction,” complained Seneca, who never had to worry about his Facebook privacy options (although he was ordered to commit ritual suicide by bleeding himself to death, so it’s swings and roundabouts). But it’s been a year of unprecedentedly panicky pronouncements on what round-the-clock digital connectedness might be doing to our brains – matched only by the ferocity with which the internet’s defenders fight back. Yet as one team of neuroscientists pointed out, writing in the journal Neuron, we’ve been talking in misleading generalities. “Technology” isn’t good or bad for us, per se; neither is “the web”. Just as television can have positive or negative effects – Dora The Explorer seems to aid children’s literacy and numeracy, a study has suggested, while Teletubbies seems not to – what may well matter more is what we’re consuming online. The medium isn’t the only message.
The best way to impose some quality control on your digital life isn’t to quit Twitter, Facebook and the rest in a fit of renunciation, but to break the spell they cast. Email, social networking and blogs all resemble Pavlovian conditioning experiments on animals: we click compulsively because there might or might not be a reward – a new email, a new blog post – waiting for us. If you can schedule your email checking or web surfing to specific times of day, that uncertainty will vanish: new stuff will have accumulated, so there will almost always be a “reward” in store, and the compulsiveness should fade. Or use software such as the Firefox add-in Leechblock , which limit you to fixed-time visits to the sites you’re most addicted to. Can you, as the blogger Paul Roetzer suggests, make it a habit to unplug for four hours a day? Three? Two? What matters most isn’t the amount of time, but who’s calling the shots: the ceaseless data stream, or you. Decide when to be connected, then decide to disconnect. Alternative metaphor: it’s a one-on-one fistfight between you and Mark Zuckerberg for control of your brain. Make sure you win.
Reject positive thinking
These are troubled times for the leading proponents of positive thinking (though presumably they’re not feeling glum about it). The social critic Barbara Ehrenreich struck a chord, in her book Smile Or Die, when she argued that our current financial crises may be at least partly attributable to a blindly optimistic, failure-is-impossible ethos in the financial services industry. A Canadian study suggested positive affirmations – such as “I am a lovable person!” – actually have a negative effect on the moods of people with low self-esteem, who you might have thought would benefit from them the most. Meanwhile, the high-profile guru James Arthur Ray, a star of the movie version of The Secret, awaits trial on manslaughter charges in connection with the deaths of three participants in an October 2009 “sweat lodge” ceremony.
According to practitioners of the increasingly popular approach of “acceptance and commitment therapy”, one of several philosophies opposed to conventional positive thinking, neither positive thinking nor negative thinking is a particularly useful goal: a better plan is to learn to fixate less on the whole matter of cultivating this or that mental state. That’s reflected in the timeless and exceedingly effective anti-procrastination mantra that “motivation follows action”, not the other way around. Wait until you feel like doing something, and you could be waiting for ever. “Inspiration is for amateurs,” the artist Chuck Close is fond of saying. “I just get to work.”
Meanwhile, I also came across another list for new year’s. This one is from Chief Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks.
Count Your Blessings & Begin to Change Your Life
Credo – the Times – December 2008
Have you made your New Year resolutions? If not, try the following. Each is potentially life changing.
1. Give thanks. Once a day take quiet time to feel gratitude for what you have, not impatience for what you don’t have. This alone will bring you halfway to happiness. We already have most of the ingredients of a happy life. It’s just that we tend to take these for granted and focus on unmet wants, unfulfilled desires. Giving thanks is better than shopping – and cheaper too.
2. Praise. Catch someone doing something right and say so. Most people, most of the time, are unappreciated. Being recognised, thanked and congratulated by someone else is one of the most empowering things that can happen to us. So don’t wait for someone to do it for you: do it for someone else. You will make their day, and that will help make yours.
3. Spend time with your family. Make sure that there is at least one time a week when you sit down to have a meal together with no distractions – no television, no phone, no email, just being together, talking together, celebrating one another’s company. Happy marriages and healthy families need dedicated time.
4. Discover meaning. Take time out, once in a while, to ask, ‘Why am I here? What do I hope to achieve? How best can I use my gifts? What would I wish to be said about me when I am no longer here?’ Finding meaning is essential to a fulfilled life – and how can you find it if you never look? If you don’t know where you want to be, you will never get there however fast you run.
5. Live your values. Most of us believe in high ideals, but we act on them only sporadically. The best thing to do is to establish habits that get us to enact those ideals daily. This is called ritual, and it’s what religions remember but ethicists often forget.
6. Forgive. This is the emotional equivalent of losing excess weight. Life is too short to bear a grudge or seek revenge. Forgiving someone is good for them but even better for you. The bad has happened. It won’t be made better by your dwelling on it. Let it go. Move on.
7. Keep learning. I learned this from Florence in Newcastle, whom I last met the day she celebrated her 105th birthday. She was still full of energy and fun. What’s the secret? I asked her. ‘Never be afraid to learn something new’, she said. Then I realised that if you are willing to learn, you can be 105 and still young. If you are not, you can be 25 and already old.
8. Learn to listen. Often in conversation we spend half our time thinking of what we want to say next instead of paying attention to what the other person is saying. Listening is one of the greatest gifts we can give to someone else. It means that we are open to them, that we take them seriously, that we accept graciously their gift of words.
9. Create moments of silence in the soul. Liberate yourself, if only five minutes daily, from the tyranny of technology, the mobile phone, the laptop and all the other electronic intruders, and just inhale the heady air of existence, the joy of being.
10. Transform suffering. When bad things happen to you, use them to sensitise you to the pain of others. The greatest people I know – people who survived tragedy and became stronger as a result – did not ask, ‘Who did this to me?’ Instead they asked, ‘What does this allow me to do that I could not have done before?’ They refused to become victims of circumstance. They became, instead, agents of hope.
Most of these are, of course, integral elements of a religious life, which may be why so many surveys have shown that those who practice a religious faith tend to live longer, have lower levels of stress and report higher degrees of wellbeing than others. This is not accidental. The great religions are our richest treasuries of wisdom when it comes to the question of how best to live a life.
I agree with both of their approaches to making resolutions and working on change. One needs attainable, doable goals that also provide a sense of meaning. I know we all struggle with this as we want to do everything at once and end up not doing anything at all. As such, I wish you all good luck in keeping to your resolutions for this year.
Life’s too full of blessings to waste time and attention on artificial substitutes. Live, give, forgive, celebrate and praise: these are still the best ways of making a blessing over life, thereby turning life into a blessing.
Addendum: See this op-ed by George Will on another approach to being unable to keep one’s resolutions.