How You Can Keep Your 2016 Resolutions

Photo by Megan Wycklendt
Photo by Megan Wycklendt
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The Challenge: Failing at resolutions can seem as inevitable as making them.
The Science: Making meaningful, realistic goals leads to lasting success.
The Solution: Redefining your resolutions to account for real-life challenge.

The cool, contrarian thing to do now in certain corners of the wellness world is to reject resolution season completely and to give a big eye-roll to the crowded January gym scene. Instead, many wellness gurus make grand (contradictory?) pronouncements both about the superiority of “long-term practices” and “small manageable commitments” of a day, week, or month rather than a year. This is all good advice, as not everyone is motivated by yearlong, post-holiday promises, but I am also never one to turn my nose up at any opportunity to set positive, life-improving intentions, especially since research shows just setting goals makes you happier. So, I was looking for a new resolution for 2016…

Can I Really go 12 Months Without Shopping?

In 2015, I conducted a #noshoppingyear. Knowing that much as some people mindlessly eat (I can do that too!), my tendency was to mindlessly shop. Whether the occasion was thirty minutes to kill near an Anthropologie, or a REALLY GOOD SALE, or a writing deadline met or running mileage goal achieved, I was too often acquiring tee-shirts, dresses, and spandex either as a “reward” or a distraction. Always a bargain-hunter, I didn’t spend a crazy amount of cash, but this habit generated tension with my husband and was a source of embarrassment for me, since I disliked the out-of-control “rush” I got from acquiring material possessions. THIS IS NOT ME, I would tell myself (but it had become a part of me, and not one I liked.)

So, 12 months after my resolution to stop buying clothes for the year, I FAILED… because I did buy 8 articles of clothing. But, I also SUCCEEDED:

1) The items I bought I pondered, I researched, I touched… they were garments I really loved and that served a purpose, like a new bathing suit for the first vacation during which I wasn’t in some state of (pre/post) pregnancy. Months later, I can list off each one and the occasions when I wore them – because I selected them deliberately, they are a meaningful part of the memory. In 2014, I would not have remembered if I purchased something the week before, not because I bought so much, but because I was not AWAKE!

2) I now find clothes an even greater source of pleasure since I have broken the habit of reflexive, mindless acquisition. For the first couple of months, I unsubscribed from retail emails and avoided stores for fear of temptation. But before long, I relished browsing, observing changing styles, feeling the textures of the materials, and then, on a few (8!) occasions, making choices I was really excited about. The year is technically over and I still love clothes, but so is my penchant for snapping up an armful of garments without a second thought… Here a “failed” resolution was a success! As so many studies have shown, elevating mindfulness in all aspects of life increases overall wellbeing.

Is #NoDaysOff Too Extreme?

This year, I was keen to add a new commitment into my routine. I learned about the #nodaysoff challenge on social media, an effort to get people to move more. At first I hated the idea – no days off? What about rest, recovery, the dangers of extreme over-exercise only perpetuated by our crazy #fitspo culture?! What a terrible idea! Then I dug deeper. The group’s official goal is 15 minutes of activity/day, no matter what- that seemed moderate and reasonable. 

Aware of my own fitness level, I devised my own, individually appropriate, commitment to run at least one mile a day. It’s not much, and the part of me that has completed marathons was embarrassed to say such a modest goal out loud, much less announce it on social media. But I also know that marathon runner was me before kids and a tenure-track job. These days, while I know intellectually that running is great for my body, it is the first thing I talk myself out of, and then one day passes, then another…  and before long, I am dreading the treadmill and beating myself up about how slow I have gotten. Plus, when I get busy I tend to bail on the gym altogether rather than just do the small amount I can do- and honestly, I almost always have 8-10 minutes to go for a run. And two weeks into 2016, I’ve run twenty miles, often on top of my other workouts! And for the first time in seven years of teaching a 6:30 am intenSati class, I have actually been arriving early at the gym to run beforehand. This “small” resolution is proving to be enormously empowering.

I also set this bar because of a challenge I knew was coming, and freaking out about: surgery that will prevent me from exercising for three weeks. Exercise organizes my day and is my meditation, my social life, and my reliable hit of accomplishment in a world in which despite my best efforts, bedtime routines can take two hours and academic journals can ask for ANOTHER round of “revise and resubmit.” Not to mention, when I don’t exercise I tend to eat poorly and be generally less productive. So much of me wanted to just give up and take #alldaysoff!

Redefining Resolutions Leads to Success

Here’s where the redefining – based on powerful research about the power of “mental contrasting” – comes in: knowing I can’t even run a measly mile for weeks and also not wanting to pressure myself to return, I am sticking with, but reframing, #nodaysoff. Until I can work out again, I am eating no refined sugar. Just as snapping up a cute top on sale was once instinctual, so too is reaching for sweets after a meal. My go-to rationale? You guessed it: “I exercise so much, it’s fine…” I repeat these behaviors so much that being a “sweets person” has become part of my self-definition rather than a choice I make with each cookie or cone. This challenge of no exercise is actually an opportunity to heighten my awareness of and refine, my behaviors, since my default excuse will be gone. Rather than feeling derailed by challenge, I am actually newly determined!

What’s Your Commitment?

What is your commitment this year, month, week, or day? Whether you call it a resolution or not, how can you dare to change an instinctual behavior that doesn’t serve you? How can you be realistic about your circumstances – but not resigned to them? 

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Natalia Petrzela

Natalia Petrzela

Natalia Mehlman Petrzela, Ph.D., is Assistant Professor of History at The New School and the author of Classroom Wars: Language, Sex, and the Making of Modern Political Culture (Oxford, 2015). Her latest research is on the history of wellness culture in the United States and she writes a “fitness history” column at Well+Good. She is the co-founder of experiential wellness education program HealthClass2.0, a Premiere Leader of the mind-body practice intenSati, and a host of the Past Present podcast. She holds a BA from Columbia College and a MA and Ph.D. from Stanford University and lives in New York City.
Natalia Petrzela

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