A couple of years ago I adopted a puppy. He weighed about three pounds and was shivering in my arms, and when I was asked whether I would take him in, it seemed like a small thing to say yes.
I hear everyone who’s ever adopted a puppy laughing.
Tiny things matter most. Sometimes one word, spoken or not spoken, changes a life, or one small decision creates an avalanche of good or evil.
I think that’s why I stopped making New Year’s resolutions. The big changes in my life have happened in other ways – usually when I said yes to something without knowing what I was doing.
But other reasons, too. I think I stopped also because I’d disappointed myself too many times. Much like other kinds of plans, resolutions too often seem to buckle under the weight of everyday life.
It starts to seem that whatever will happen will happen with or without my resolutions – and whatever won’t, won’t. So why bother with resolutions? At some point I took a “que sera sera” attitude.
But there’s something about starting a shiny new year that renews hope. Maybe it’s just because the days are getting longer. A new year feels like waking up in the morning and being given a second chance (or third or fourth or fifty-sixth) and wanting to make the most of it.
According to the Internet, the top 10 New Year’s resolutions are:
- Exercise more
- Lose weight
- Get organized
- Learn a new skill or hobby
- Live life to the fullest
- Save more money/spend less money
- Quit smoking
- Spend more time with family and friends
- Travel more
- Read more
So it’s tragic that less than half of people keep their New Year’s resolutions. What a wonderful world it would be if we all made resolutions like the ones on that list, and kept them.
The impulse to make resolutions and better ourselves has been around for a long time – apparently the tradition is rooted in an ancient Babylonian practice. At the beginning of their New Year – which was in March, not January – they had a big festival and made promises to the gods that they would pay back their debts and return anything they had borrowed.
Making a promise to a god probably made it easier for them to keep their promises. No one wants to let the gods down.
It’s a little harder for us, I think, having only ourselves to keep us accountable.
So in the spirit of building a better world, I’ll pass along some more practical tips for succeeding with resolutions. They might come in handy, if you’re doing New Year’s resolutions this year:
- Make sure to choose goals that actually motivate you. Make them positive, not negative. In other words, instead of “lose weight,” make your goal to fit into that pair of pants. Make it something you really, deeply want.
- Make changes gradually – build up small changes. Use the snowball effect. People want change to happen slowly so it doesn’t create upheaval. And it turns out that’s exactly the way experts advise to do it.
- Prioritize your goals, and don’t try to make too many changes at once. One good thing at a time, maybe two or three if they’re not too big. Successes will build on each other.
- State a specific goal (not just lose weight, but lose 20 pounds). And set a deadline.
- Break big goals down into smaller ones, like monthly or weekly targets. Focus on the smaller goals, not the big one. Micro-goals work even better.
- Use the tiny principle. Instead of committing to walk for 30 minutes a day, commit to walking five. That’s always doable, and once you’re out on the sidewalk, it’s very likely you’ll stay out longer. Plus you get the dopamine hit of achievement without too much effort, and that will motivate you to keep at it.
- Write the resolutions down, and tell other people.
- Use reminders or a time management app – but keep the system as simple as possible.
- Don’t try to be perfect. Just keep getting back on track whenever you fall off. Consistency matters, not perfection.
- Celebrate all achievements, big and small. Have a list so you can check things off it. Our brains love checking things off checklists, and the little dopamine hits will boost your motivation.
There’s a lot of talk about how people hate change, but I don’t think that’s true. I think people want positive change.
I think we all want it to be not just a new year, but a new kind of year. Not the same old thing over and over, disappointment after disappointment, same old same old without anything getting better.
It’s also true that change is hard. Going outside your comfort zone is by definition uncomfortable, and that’s where you’ve got to be to make change happen.
What got you here won’t get you there. And if you’re feeling nice and comfortable, that’s a sure sign of no change happening.
But since tiny things matter most, going outside your comfort zone doesn’t have to be very far – just right at the edge will be enough to make a difference.
Resolve to lose one pound, not twenty. Walk five minutes, not thirty. Don’t make plans to go to Paris, just watch Paris at Midnight. Be kind to yourself. Don’t set yourself up for more failure and disappointment.
But you might be surprised how one small thing leads to another, and pretty soon your life has changed for the better.
As anyone who has adopted a puppy can tell you.
Patricia Sanders lived in Globe from 2004 to 2008 and at Reevis Mountain School, in the Tonto National Forest, from 2008 to 2014. She has been a writer and editor for GMT since 2015. She currently lives on Santa Maria island in the Azores.