How meditation practice can help us keep our New Year’s resolutions
Don’t be one of the 80% who quit by early February
80% of New Year’s resolutions are abandoned by the second week in February.** Why?
Some decisions are one-shot deals. I press send; I accept a proposal; I hang up the phone. Compare these to New Year’s resolutions: I’ll eat less junk, I’ll cut back on screen time; I’ll exercise regularly. These are promises to maintain an ongoing practice, repeating or avoiding certain behaviors over and over again. They require creating new habits.
Ignoring this difference, we tend to treat our New Year’s resolutions as one-shot deals: We decide we’re going to change but we don’t plan to do it. The problem is that we can’t create new habits in an instant — and that’s why I expect that 80% of the new people currently crowding my YMCA will be gone within the next weeks. We acquire new habits through practicing — and we have to keep practicing to make those habits stick.
In figuring out how to stick to New Year’s resolutions, lesson from meditation practice help me. The most basic Buddhist type of meditation is to simply sit and pay attention to the breath, knowing that we’ll be distracted again and again. Each time it happens, gently direct the attention back to the breath and continue practicing.
Keeping New Year’s resolutions is the same sort of thing. It requires a constant reaffirmation of our commitment, remaking the decision again and again. This is why AA hands out sobriety chips and focuses on the mantra ‘one day at the time.’ To create and maintain a habit, practice over and over again. It does get easier with time. But things are in flux, situations change and we change. There are constant temptations and some days we are weak. We’ll win some and we’ll lose some.
We can increase our chances of success: Don’t keep junk food in the house; have healthy snacks on hand; find a gym buddy; pick an exercise program that excites you; schedule workouts in advance; and don’t schedule them at times when you usually are exhausted.
Despite all that, backsliding happens. Yesterday’s success provides momentum, but it doesn’t guarantee that today will be a success too. Some days, you won’t do what you set out to do. The good news is that failures aren’t permanent either. Just try again. And again. And again.
We’re often too dramatic about failure. A friend of mine used to make the same New Year’s resolution each year: Go to the gym six days a week. Predictably, she’d miss a few workouts in the second or third week, figure that she’d broken her resolution and then give up altogether. Another lesson from meditation practice gets us out of that all-or-nothing mindset: We’ll fail all the time and it isn’t a big deal.
Again and again, focus on the breath,
again and again, you drift off and start thinking instead;
again and again, just notice what happened and turn back to the breath.
Try treating New Year’s resolutions in the same way: You drifted off. Pause and then notice what happened and why. Reflect for a moment. Perhaps you need to tweak the resolution? (Six days a week at the gym is a lot!) Or perhaps figure out how to deal with an unexpected obstacle? Then, simply continue your practice.