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Resolutions for Realists

I was today years old when I finally learned where the name of the month of January comes from. January, it seems, was named after the Roman god Janus, god of beginnings and transitions. Janus was supposed to have two faces, one facing forward and one facing backward, so he could study the past as he looked toward the future.

Cognitive scientists say it’s easier to start new things – fitness plans, diets, positive habits, big projects – at the beginning of a year or a month. I think that must be because we feel less alone then. The whole world is starting something new every January 1 – a new year – so we might as well start something, too.

Julia Cameron, the author, says, “When we are afraid to begin, it is always because we are afraid we are alone.”

But at the start of the New Year, when practically everyone is making new resolutions, we have lots of company: millions of other people who are also beginning new projects, diets, fitness plans, and habits. Lots of people to give and get support with, or bemoan with when things go off track.

So, like most everyone else, I’ll make New Year’s resolutions again this year. I haven’t decided what they’ll be yet, but I’ve been thinking a lot about how to actually make them happen, once I do decide.

James Clear, the author of Atomic Habits, offers lots of hints for staying on track, and I highly recommend his book to anyone who wants to make tiny changes in their lives that will add up to what Clear calls “remarkable results.” 

Clear suggests things like habit stacks – using a current habit to create a new one. For example, “As soon as I finish my first cup of coffee, I will….” Finish the sentence with whatever you’re aiming to make a daily habit: write for five minutes, do ten squats, list three things you’re grateful for, etc. 

The new habit doesn’t have to be big, and it’s probably best if it’s small, according to the experts – even if you eventually plan to aim higher. A small new habit will feel easy and quick to complete, so you’ll have no reason to resist doing it. 

In time, as you establish the habit and start to feel the rewards, you’ll naturally move on to doing more and bigger things.

One of my favorite hints from Clear’s book is to connect a new habit or plan to your sense of identity – who you believe you are.

“True behavior change is identity change,” Clear says. 

“You might start a habit because of motivation, but the only reason you’ll stick with it is because it becomes part of your identity.”

In other words, if you want to make going to the gym a regular part of your life, you need to start thinking of yourself as an athlete, and if you want to learn an instrument, you need to start seeing yourself as a musician.

It works – at least, it worked for me. I put up a sign in my kitchen: “I AM A GOOD HOUSEKEEPER.” Every time I looked at it, I felt an urge to grab a rag or a broom.

But I think it goes in the other direction, too. I think you wouldn’t want to learn an instrument, for example, if you didn’t already feel a little bit like a musician inside yourself. You wouldn’t want to create a habit of going to the gym every day if you didn’t have a tiny athlete in your soul already – at least enough to care about getting more fit.

I probably wouldn’t have put up that sign in my kitchen if I didn’t already have an inner neat freak, if only a little baby one.

So I think starting new things – new habits, projects, or goals – is partly a matter of noticing parts of ourselves that might have been quiet or neglected so far, and deciding it’s time to let them expand.

Julia Cameron says, “Our dreams come true when we are true to them” – meaning when we act on them. Creativity is an act of faith, she suggests – and so is just plain living. 

An “act” because you need to actually do things, and “of faith” because results are never guaranteed.

I see New Year’s goals and plans the same way – as acts of faith in the future and in yourself.

No matter how many years past you’ve promised yourself to make changes, you always get another chance, and you always have the possibility of making it happen this time. Words of wisdom and encouragement from people like James Clear and Julia Cameron can help.

Next year, when January comes around, we’ll all be like Janus again, looking back at what we did in 2024 while also looking forward to imagine what 2025 could hold.

I still haven’t written my list of resolutions for this year, but I did just decide on one. It’s pretty humble: in 2024, to take at least one thing on my resolutions list, and actually make it happen.

Are you with me?

Here’s to making a change in the New Year – even if it’s just keeping the kitchen floor swept. Because if I can become a decent housekeeper, anything is possible.

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