Taking a resolution from “object of desire” to “done deal” may require you to develop previously underdeveloped skills and competencies. It may also force to you to take stock of some little character flaws and blind spots you’d just as soon ignore. The payoff? Bigger success – and deeper satisfaction – than you ever thought possible.
In the rush to compare New Year’s resolutions lists among family and friends, many of us jot down our fantasy goals (Lose 30 pounds! Write the Great American Novel! Stop eating sugar!) without stopping to think about what it might actually take to make good on our aspirations. That’s too bad, because very often the focus of our resolution is really just a personal-development goal in disguise.
We tend to get excited about “What We’re Going to Achieve!” and neglect to evaluate the skills and characteristics required to accomplish our desired objective. And in reality, it’s this territory – “Who We Are Going to Become in the Process!” – that’s the most interesting part of the proposition.
Of course, the goal matters, but the process counts just as much. Most of the external changes we want to achieve, whether it’s losing weight, becoming a better parent or opening a savings account, require certain skills and qualities of character. And the truth is, any resolutions list that doesn’t allow and prepare for significant personal change is probably headed for an obstacle course.
After all, most resolutions represent aspects of our lives where we acknowledge our opportunity for growth. So what if, instead of being surprised and dismayed by the bumps in the road, we anticipated them and used them as fodder for a deeper resolutions process – one that asked first: What will this resolution require of me? And then: How will I develop and demonstrate those skills, qualities and characteristics?
Making a point of recognizing and thinking deeply about our current strengths and weaknesses certainly helps us put together a better resolutions list. But it also ensures that even if we fall off the wagon now and then, we are still in the midst of a learning process, one that virtually guarantees long-term success.
At root, resolutions represent a desire to make intentional change and to transform our lives in ways that connect with our deeper values and potential. They are calls to bring forth our best self – not just a series of desired results. Seen in this way, the resolutions process can deliver much richer outcomes, and more meaningful successes, than the resolutions themselves might ever indicate on the surface.
To make it easy for you, we called on several experts to help us put together a list of the most common skills and qualities of character needed to approach an annual resolutions list. Here’s what we came up with …
Awareness and Self-Compassion
Many of us craft our annual New Year’s resolutions list from the angle of “What’s wrong with me?” A better starting place, says life coach Cheryl Richardson, author of Stand Up for Your Life: Develop the Courage, Confidence and Character to Fulfill Your Greatest Potential (Free Press, 2002), would be to step back and take stock of the skills and competencies we already have.
“I often just ask people point-blank, ‘What’s working in your life?’ because sometimes the simplest questions provide us with the most valuable answers,” Richardson says.
Perhaps you’re disciplined about work or workouts. Or maybe you’ve learned to be more patient with your mate lately. Whatever strides you’ve made, it’s important to acknowledge and celebrate them.
“First of all, it puts you in a better frame of mind,” says Richardson. “Secondly, it helps you uncover the qualities of character and the skills that you’ve already developed in the past year and that you can call upon this year when it comes to tackling the answer to the next question, which is, ‘What’s not working in your life?'”
Without an awareness of why we do the things we do, agrees author and American Zen teacher Cheri Huber, checking off a laundry list of goals won’t amount to much success when it comes to making the positive changes we want to make.
“There’s the personal growth model, which involves reflection and introspection, and then there’s the business model, where you ‘Just Do It’ – and if you don’t, then it’s proof in people’s eyes that something is wrong with you,” Huber says.
Take food issues, for example. Some people want to eat everything they see, Huber notes, while others take great pride in being able to control their appetite and opt for, say, 1,000 sit-ups instead of that morning chocolate smoothie. In both cases, there may be unexamined emotional issues at play, and yet, Huber says, society views the person who is able to control his or her appetite generally as the “right” person and the person not able to control his or her appetite as the “wrong” person. And that may not be to anyone’s advantage.
“We all have different innate abilities and tendencies and orientations to life. I encourage understanding them, drawing upon our strong points and embracing what is difficult for us,” Huber says.
“The person who wants to jump out of bed and do 1,000 sit-ups might find self-discipline easy,” she notes, “but perhaps he or she needs to work on other qualities, like a little self-gentleness, softness and flexibility. And the person who wants to dive into a chocolate smoothie first thing in the morning might be good at embracing pleasure, but perhaps he or she needs to learn how to say ‘no’ and make more-conscious choices part of his or her repertoire of skills and characteristics.”
Instead of trying to power through our resolutions list in a purely goal-oriented mindset, Huber emphasizes, we need to bring awareness and self-compassion to the question, “What is and is not working in your life?” Otherwise, we’ll never stop the self-loathing voices in our heads and the compulsive, coping behaviors they engender. “Always be kinder to yourself than you think you should be,” she counsels. “Kindness is the short path to success.”
It might sound like a no-brainer, but when it comes to achieving any resolution, you need to have a well-thought-out and organized plan of attack (see “Plan for Success”). After all, if you haven’t put some thought into the specifics of how exactly you’re going to become a better public speaker or get out of debt, your chances of success are probably pretty slim.
Life coach Lori Radun, of True to You Life Coaching in Aurora, Ill., suggests people strive for SMART goals – goals that are Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Reasonable and Time-Oriented. By putting together an explicit plan, she says, people are less likely to be blindsided by obstacles that might interfere with their goals. For instance, let’s say that you’ve made a resolution to be more patient with your kids. Putting together a detailed, organized action plan, Radun says, is critical to your success.
“You know that your kids are going to fight, so when they do fight, what are you going to do?” Radun asks. “You can decide in your action plan that you will separate them and put them in their respective rooms before it escalates – and before you lose your temper. Now you know specifically what you are going to do when that obstacle arises, and your emotions won’t cloud your judgment in the heat of the moment.”
(For more tips on how to craft an organized action plan, see Jinny Ditzler’s “Draft Your Plan” in last year’s “Resolutions Workshop,” available in the January/February 2006 archives.)
Another key skill most resolutions require of us is the ability to set boundaries, especially with naysayers who might sabotage our success, says Radun. Negative people are those who reinforce our self-limiting beliefs, she says, and they can include anyone from acquaintances to your loved ones – friends, mates, parents or siblings.
“Oftentimes, these are the people who care for you, but they let their own fears get in the way,” Radun says. “Say you want to suddenly change careers from nursing to law, and your mom always taught you to play it safe. When you share your desires, your mom might react with fear and discourage the change: ‘What are you talking about? You’re going to go back to school? You have two kids!'”
The challenge? To learn how to draw appropriate boundaries between your desires and your naysayers’ opinions. “The person who wants to change careers will have to stand up and say, ‘If you don’t have anything positive to say, Mom, I don’t want to hear it,'” Radun says.
We also need to draw healthy boundaries around our own time and energy, notes Richardson. Let’s say you’ve done a great job in the past year working on your marriage, she offers, but you feel that you haven’t spent enough time with your close friends. Often, the underlying skill or characteristic required here is simply setting clearer priorities for your own time and developing the ability to say “no.”
“Maybe you don’t have any other free time because you’re always volunteering or you’re constantly staying late at work instead,” Richardson says. “Boundaries are something to work on, as is dealing with the guilt of putting self-care first. Women especially need to learn to make peace with the guilt of putting their needs first because it’s something that, traditionally, they haven’t done.”
Whatever resolution you’ve made – to stop smoking, to improve your cardiovascular fitness, to stop taking back that rotten boyfriend – chances are you’re going to require a healthy dose of discipline to follow through.
Discipline is an essential quality of character when it comes to working on our resolutions. And when it comes to living our daily lives, Richardson says, we have abundant opportunities to practice it.
“Discipline is about training the mind,” she says. “Some-times, when I’m out running and I’m feeling really tired, I’ll train myself to just focus on the five feet in front of me. By doing this, I’m disciplining my mind to follow my lead instead of me following its lead. This same discipline allows me to sit still when I’m meditating and everything inside of me says, ‘Oh, you need to return a phone call or do the laundry.'”
Another trick to mastering the quality of discipline? Richardson suggests putting up little heart stickers all over the house, and every time you see a sticker, ask yourself, “What am I thinking right now? Is it positive or negative?”
“If it’s negative,” she says, “teach yourself to focus on something positive instead. It’s an easy way to begin disciplining the mind in more productive directions.”
Learning From Your Setbacks
Brilliant planning notwithstanding, it’s unlikely that every last aspect of your resolution will go off without a hitch. This, too, must become part of the plan. Most experts regard setbacks not as failures, but as critical parts of the learning and refinement process.
“If you’re on a diet and you decide to splurge on a big piece of cake,” says Radun, “it’s not about that being a bad choice; it’s about understanding why you happen to be making that choice.” Perhaps you realize that you were seeking out comfort at that moment, she says, and, if so, that’s important feedback, because you can start to brainstorm other paths toward comfort that don’t involve food.
Whether or not you meet your goal, the important thing is that you are making strides toward it and processing your journey. Far from being a one-time shot at perfection, each resolution represents a process of assessment, commitment, feedback and follow-through (again, see “Plan for Success”). This process is cyclical and continuous, and the only failure is when you abandon the larger journey of personal development.
Although our culture trains us to look toward external goals, outcomes and stimuli, says Richardson, it’s important to place those goals within a whole-life perspective and operate from the inside out rather than the outside in.
“The great thing about focusing on the skills and inner qualities of character you need to accomplish a resolution, instead of just focusing on the resolution itself,” says Richardson, “is that those qualities, such as discipline or courage or patience, are going to spill over into a whole bunch of other areas of your life.”
More Skills and Characteristics
Courage and Risk-Taking
As Mark Twain famously said, “Courage is resistance to fear, mastery of fear — not absence of fear.” Important words to heed when it comes to facing up to our resolutions, many of which might require us to first face up to our innermost anxieties. Perhaps we’ve resolved to reach out to people and make new friends, or maybe we’ve decided that we really are going to take that improv class this year. Whatever the case, says life coach Lori Radun, we need to master the skill of processing our fear in order to control it.
“Talk about your fears — what are you most afraid is going to happen if you, for example, try to make a new friend? And if your worst nightmare actually happens, then what are you going to do?” Radun says. “It’s about walking yourself through the fear and seeing that you really could survive and not fall apart if the worst thing happened — and most of the time the worst thing isn’t going to happen anyway.”
Echoing Twain, Radun points out, “Having courage doesn’t mean you don’t feel fear, having courage means you push through the fear.”
To work up the courage to achieve any resolution, life coach and author Cheryl Richardson suggests starting small by wearing a bold color or taking the lead on a project at work or driving a different way home — anything, she says, that falls outside your comfort zone.
Just about everybody could benefit from learning a little patience when it comes to resolutions, says Richardson, because there is so much impatience surrounding when goals are going to be met. The key is not to expect overnight success, she says, and learning to take pleasure in the journey toward your goal and worrying less about the goal itself. Training yourself to be patience and to persevere is really important, she adds, because by just stopping and taking a deep breath, you stop engaging the body’s fight-or-flight system.
“You actually begin to train your physiology to slow down, which is really important when it comes to learning patience,” Richardson explains. “When you’re anxious about something unimportant, your body is giving you erroneous information that there is danger, when really it may just be getting your buttons pushed. So developing patience teaches you how to process and breathe through that period.”