How To Keep Your New Year's Resolution From Dying
One month in. Now’s about the time where a lot of us are hanging on to the ledge of our new year’s resolutions while the antagonist in our story (who, interestingly enough, is also us) is standing on our fingers hoping we’ll let go.
How did this happen? Just four weeks ago society’s collective oomph had everyone spewing goals and themes for the new year like leaflets out of a plane.
There was weight to be lost, books to be written, companies to launch, art to make, and selves to be taken seriously.
I’ve been there. We’ve all been there, scaling the mountain to a “new me” via a fresh routine, a blank google doc, or a chic leather gym bag because this time it’s going to be different. But then come February, the clouds have rolled in and we’re stuck somewhere up this rockface without a plan, a snack, or our verve.
And if we’re not careful, by St. Patrick’s Day, a lot of our hopes will be just a winter’s blip.
Why? Why is it so hard to consistently do the thing we say we want to do?
For one, the manufactured zest we drum up on January 1st is not enough to spark a real shift in our lives quite like a job loss, a break up, a new move, a new baby, or a new house would.
And second, there’s a paradox hiding in plain sight when we try something new. It’s so deliciously simple, but so devilishly complex.
We dream of nouns, but we live in verbs.
Let me explain. (The below is an excerpt from the Demand Curve newsletter which was shared with me by Ash Ambirge.)
Are you a coffee drinker? 🙋
Or do you drink coffee? ☕️
In a series of experiments, psychologists found that people’s self-perceptions hinge on a simple part of speech. Nouns.
Noun: “I’m a Mac user.”
Verb: “I use a Mac a lot.”
Guess which one reveals a stronger preference for Macs?
The noun does.
We care deeply about our identity and how we’re perceived. Signaling our identity—this is who I am—is more important to us than this is a thing I do.
It’s why people are more attracted to sentences like: “Ready to finally become an author?” vs “Ready to start writing a book?”
Think about it. When you say you want to “write a book,” what you mean is you want to have written a book. You don’t actually want to joust with a blinking cursor as you plug gaps in your story. You want to walk into a room and have people clap. You want to imagine how you’d feel seeing your book in someone’s hand, or on sale on Amazon. You want to be called “an author.”
You don’t want to do, you want to have. You want to be.
You don’t want to start a podcast, you want to have a podcast.
You don’t want to physically be running a marathon, you want a runner’s medal.
You don’t want to learn to speak Spanish, you want to be bilingual.
You don’t want to lose X pounds, you want to feel confident and sexy. You want to be alluring again.
But, (you all knew a “but” was coming, right?) while we might want to identify as nouns—an adventurer, artist, author, baker, podcaster, marathoner, or as someone who’s fit, bilingual, mindful, laid back, or interesting—the only way that could even be possible is by enacting some new verbs, repeatedly.
That’s what you’ve been trying to do for the last month, but now that the fresh-start high of a new Julian calendar has worn off, you find yourself basking in the messy unpredictability of “to” in the statement “A to Z,” because “to” represents the endless swamp of verbs you’ll tackle—most of which you hadn’t even thought about needing to do—before you’ll even see a glimmer of what G might look like (let alone Z!).
This is the part our ego hates. You promised me self-confidence and adoration with this goal, not discomfort, vulnerability, and a feeling of being ill-prepared. I don’t want to do this.”
If you’ve ever uttered the phrase “I want to write a book,” you know how hard actually writing the story is, not to mention the armada of verbs waiting downstream, ready to sink your dinghy when you finally arrive. Verbs like:
Edit the story
Pitch the story
Hire an editor
Decide to self-publish or not
Find a designer
Get a publicist
Market the book
Own Your Verbs
When you think about it, your entire life is one verb handing the baton of your existence to the next verb. If time has passed, your experience of that time can be expressed as a verb. You are either sitting, standing, sleeping, thinking, scrolling, reading, listening, driving, etc., every second of every day.
Life is a battle for your verbs. The one you choose to do in any given moment is the one you’ve prioritized based on what you value, consciously or subconsciously.
This tug-of-war is in full force on that ledge, because imagining the daisy-chained verbal minefield you’d have to traverse to get to the “new you” is enough to paralyze you. In that indecision, other verbs will fill the void. The ones that are going to feel valuable when you are overwhelmed and in emotional retreat are ones that are comfortable and comforting.
Your “old you” wants you back doing what you used to. Your lizard brain wants you to be less daring. Your imposter wants you to do something simpler. Your neurosis wants you not meditating. Advertisers and apps and businesses want to distract you and lure you to do the verb they want you to do.
That is why it’s so tempting to let go of your ledge and plunge into a friendly sea of verbs like: scrolling, chilling, browsing, eating, drinking, watching, smoking, or whatever easy verbs are for you.
Well, damnit, don’t do that. You didn’t make it this far up your crag for nothing. You have to find a way to own your verbs, the itty bitty ones, even when you don’t feel motivated. (My Ready. Set. Finish alumni know all about "verb owning.")
Here’s what we’re gonna do.
First celebrate all the verbs you’ve done up until this point. My friend Aaron recently referred to this phenomenon as “stacking good days.” (Scroll halfway down his article to see that bit.) If we’re not celebrating mini wins, and only holding out joy for our magical “Z” in the sky, we’re going to be miserable bastards on a path to nowhere.
That’s why the second thing we have to do is not look up the mountain right now.
Stop worrying about “the book.”
Forget about the marathon.
Don’t get on the scale everyday.
Instead, own the next verb in front of your face, no matter how small.
Having trouble going for a run today? Don’t focus on the run. First, stand up off the couch. That little verb can then domino into another verb: walk to your bedroom. Change into your running clothes. And now, by doing those three verbs, you’ve jump started your run or at least a 30-minute walk outside. Either way, get moving.
Focus solely on your repeatable actions. Keep it simple. It’s not about “writing a book,” it’s about choosing to write instead of reading email. And if you have nothing to write, but you’ve carved the time for it, it’s choosing to sit and stare at your Google doc for 30 minutes instead of retreating to Instagram.
Our goals were never really about the noun, anyway. They are about prioritizing something in life that isn’t sexy, that isn’t guaranteed, so we can grow in confidence and understanding of who we are and what we’re capable of.
It’s about having a willingness to inconvenience yourself.
That’s what you’re doing all the way up on that ledge in the first place! You’re trying to break patterns and form a new shell that you can point at with pride. That’s not easy to do, especially when using a random day on a calendar to start this new metamorphosis.
If you can prioritize your important verbs for even 1 hour a day for the next 60 days, I’m telling you, slowly, almost imperceptibly your noun (or at least a noun) will start to take shape in your mind or body when you’re not even looking for it.
You won’t reach a summit, you will discover one.
It might not be what you had dreamed up on Jan 1, but it will be a bonafide new you.
Maybe you realize you don’t want to write a book, but you enjoy writing essays, or maybe it was just about creating an outlet to write for yourself. Maybe it wasn’t a marathon but a sprint triathlon that was more your jam. Maybe it wasn’t about the weight but how you feel when you eat healthier. Maybe it wasn't about finding zen, but about finding a few minutes everyday to show gratitude.
Either way, you’ll be someone who scratched out some verbs for enough days in a row until they became a habit you start to identify with.
New year’s resolutions are not about doing more things, they are about being more intentional; and intentionality is expressed in the verbs you prioritize.
It’s a lot easier to find confidence on that ledge if you don’t obsess about the summit you haven’t reached yet.
Just own your verbs. A noun (and your new identity) will follow.
If you want some more goal-getting goodies, listen to Maya Shankar's great podcast episode: Reach your 2023 Goals with these...Slight Changes!