I didn’t even come close to meeting my New Year’s Resolution last year. I just looked and I made it 28 days… kind of. I even skipped a few days up to that point. My goal was to read the Bible. I’ve wanted to read it for a long time and thought this would be a great goal for the year. I did my best to set myself up for success. I bought a Bible that had extra explanations so I could understand it and even bought myself a special day planner and mapped out what I would need to read everyday to complete it within a year. All of this prep work and I made it less than a month. What happened?
Statistics say that by January 8th 25% of resolutions have fallen by the wayside. How are you doing so far? I guess I made it past that point, but not by much. By the end of the year fewer than 10% have been fully kept. What keeps us from reaching our goals? Why do so few make it to the finish line? The year before I rocked my resolution. My goal was to read 40 books in a year and I ended with 53. How could I do so well one year and not the next? I’ve given this much thought and huge light was shed on this after reading David DeSteno’s article, “Gray Matter.”
DeSteno starts out by highlighting what research has shown and what we have believed about success for years– it’s all about willpower, self-control, and grit. These things have served me well over the years. In high school I know this is what led to my academic success. It didn’t come easy to me, but I out studied just about everyone. While many have found great success with this model, DeSteno argues that it’s outdated. “In choosing to rely on rational analysis and willpower to stick to our goals, we’re disadvantaging ourselves. We’re using tools that aren’t only weak; they’re also potentially harmful,” he says in the article. Hmmm. Could this be the reason I failed?
It’s interesting that he brings up that these tools are not only weak, but also potentially harmful. As I look back on the times I have been the most “successful” in my life, I’ve also been the most miserable. The years in my 30s when I saved the most, competed in triathlons, and weighed the least is also when I was very suicidal. The link I can see between my depression and success is that success came at a great cost to me. In order to achieve these results I was incredibly hard on myself. My self-talk was beyond harsh and I constantly berated myself with thoughts of, “I can do better, this isn’t good enough, push harder, quit being a wimp, don’t you dare quit, you’re so fat, etc.” I was so mean.
As I began to recover from clinical depression I worked on my inner thoughts and beliefs. I began to shift my self-talk and the way I related to myself. I became a lot kinder and more loving and my happiness dramatically increased. The more I loved myself the more hope, inspiration, and zest I had for life. I got to the point of not being able to tolerate treating myself the way I used to. I just didn’t want to do that to myself anymore.
Through this journey I began to see my skills of self-control, willpower, and grit be replaced with other skills of gratitude, compassion, and pride. I felt myself slow down in my life and become more present. More of my energy was now focused on others. As I felt more compassion I gave more and more of myself to ease the burdens of others. I wasn’t concerned about what was in it for me, but more so about making a difference for those suffering. The more I served the more gratitude and pride I felt. I more grateful I felt the less I turned to instant fixes of alcohol, sugar, television, and spending. I spent more of my time giving to others than looking to receive something right now for me.
So how does this all relate to goals? I worried as my relationship with myself changed that I was losing my edge. I didn’t buckle down as much and force my way to the goal line. My goal line results began to shift. I wasn’t winning races and competing athletically, but my running practice became more consistent and fulfilling. I dieted less but found myself happier with my body. I made less money but seemed to have more to give.
What was happening was I was actually getting a lot more of what I truly wanted: purpose, contribution, service, joy, love, connection, and pride. I began to feel a deep pride in myself– not in a cocky way but in that I love who I am, how I show up in the world, and the contribution I make on the planet. DeSteno found similar results, “…gratitude and compassion have been tied to better academic performance, a greater willingness to exercise and eat healthy, and lower levels of consumerism, impulsivity and tobacco and alcohol use.”
Perhaps punishing ourselves is not the way to spend less, exercise more, and eat less. What the research now shows is that social emotions of compassion, gratitude, and pride do more to pull us toward the future we really want and create the results we truly desire. The more grateful we are the more self-control we have, when we feel proud about the skills we have we are more willing to wait for rewards and more willing to work harder and longer to solve difficult problems, and when we feel compassion we spend more time helping others.
For me, reading the Bible was more about willpower and grit and clearly that didn’t last long. This year I’m approaching it in a new way. I’ve added daily meditation and gratitude as well as daily Bible reading. Instead of simply getting through it, I am using it to inspire myself to be more patient, kind, generous, and loving. So far the results are off the chart! I’ve achieved more in the first 3 weeks than most of last year… and I’m loving it!