A Kinder, More Sustainable Approach to New Year’s Resolutions

A few years ago, my doctor cornered me about the smoking habit I’d held onto since college. “It’s more addictive than heroin, you know. It’s really bad for you, you know.” I knew. Alas, guilting one’s captive into giving up smoking does about as much good as shaming a heroin user into getting clean. But this year, I did quit smoking — nearly nine months after I made a New Year’s resolution to do so.

One failure can kill a person’s motivation to stick with a New Year’s resolution. Smoke one cigarette, or miss one training ride and the ruse is up: You’re not the new, better person you wanted to be this year, you’re just the same schlub you were last year.

To stop smoking, I had to imagine myself as a non-smoker. Like, really imagine, super-duper hard. I visualized sprinting faster and making touchdown catches at ultimate Frisbee. I dreamt about bike commuting more without getting so winded and waking up in the morning with only normal, non-smoker terrible breath.

It takes a lot of work to believe something about yourself that isn’t quite true yet, and not just because it’s technically a lie. As a perfectionist, moderate to severe self-flagellation is the very fuel that has driven me to perform for most of my life: “If it’s not perfect, it’s not worth doing.” Or, more bluntly stated, “If I don’t perform to perfection, I’m worthless.” I was genuinely concerned that if I stopped guilting myself about my smoking habit, I would also lose the motivation to give it up. The budding belief that I deserve to be healthy and happy didn’t carry the same urgency as, “Everyone thinks you’re gross because you smoke. Oh, and you’re giving yourself cancer.”

Photo: Bradley Bleck
Photo: Bradley Bleck

I stopped focusing on quitting smoking altogether for a while and practiced using kinder ways to motivate myself. That belief that I deserved to be a person who feels awesome all the time turned out to be a much more sustainable source of motivation, particularly because it can’t be shaken by a slip-up. Resisting the temptation to smoke feels like a present to myself along with a little imaginary note that says, “You can do this! You’re are worth it!” When I have caved, I’ve simply moved on without ruminating on the failure.

Bicyclist and Spokane Falls Community College English instructor Bradley Bleck uses a similar strategy for his annual bicycling mileage goal. He’d exceeded his goal of 4,000 miles for 2016 by early December. This year, he’ll bump it up a few hundred miles. Between commuting to work, training for a few races in the summer, and riding for fun, it’s more pleasure than pain to meet his goals. Though he aims for 1,000 miles every three months, he expects the seasons to be a bit lopsided.

“For my goals, I just decide on what seems doable, based on the commuting I do and the time I get to ride in the summer,” Bleck says. “Winter is always a slow start, and then things pick up in the spring and accelerate in the summer and then taper off in the fall.” The number offers an extra nudge to get out there, but his real agenda is getting exercise while avoiding the gym. “It keeps me sane through regular exercise. I get to wave and say hi to people on my commute, and I feel more connected, despite the occasional jerk,” he says. Even if he doesn’t meet his goal, he doesn’t sweat it too much. “I just see how close I can get,” he says. “Now, if it was about losing weight, which never seems to happen because I can’t seem to eat less, then it would be a ‘failure’ of sorts. But I just plug away, see how it goes, and feel a sense of accomplishment if I make it.”

Or sometimes, he glances at his Strava and notices how many rides he’s taken, that he’s climbed more than 200,000 feet in a year’s time, or that he’s spent hundreds of hours on his bike, enjoying the outdoors. “I guess it’s the cliché of the journey rather than the destination,” he says. “If I don’t make it, I start over next year.” //

Erika Prins Simonds wrote about preserving mental health during winter months in December. Read more of her writing at erikaprins.com.

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