Choose your words carefully

Time

To resolve or not to resolve, that is the question. It’s the one we ask ourselves each January as the annual invitation to start over rolls around. In the media, there’s the usual flurry of “How to make resolutions that last”-type articles (the kind of stuff I love to read), along with the expected slew of “Why making resolutions is a waste of time” pieces (not my cup of tea). Personally, I feel resolution-making as an expression of the will to self-improvement is never to be discouraged: the simple act of voicing a desire to change and then attempting to do so is a massive step forward. For me, failure to keep a resolution does not indicate that making resolutions is futile; rather it suggests that the resolution was perhaps the wrong one for you, or it was made for the wrong reasons, or – crucially – it was badly worded.

Specific and committed

The way in which we word and specify our intentions is crucial to their longevity. The difference between “I’m going to be healthier in 2015” and “I’m going to jog for 10 minutes twice a week in 2015” is huge. The first is vague and contains no real action, the second is specific and involves a solid commitment. Which is more likely to be kept?

Now, you’d think that, self-improvement info junkie that I am, I’d be able to sidestep these kinds of mental potholes. Think again. This New Year, I caught myself making a whopper of a rookie error as I sat down to set some intentions for 2015. There I was with a nice list of all the things I wanted to find more time for over the year – yoga, new coaching clients, promoting my work as a writer – when I noticed that every item on that list was – mentally – preceded by the words “I will find more time to…” See the fatal flaw? Answers on a postcard to the woman who’s still looking through her chest of drawers to find where she left that bit of spare time she just knows she put somewhere for safekeeping.

Stop searching, start creating

What was I thinking? You don’t find time for anything. Time is not a crumpled fiver you come across down the side of the sofa, nor is it something you discover left over at the end of a long day. Time is finite; no-one gets any more than 24 hours in a day.

The minute I changed the word “find” to “make”, my perspective on my resolutions changed. I am going to have to make time to prospect for clients, clear space in my diary for that extra yoga class, and – whisper it – make the choice between crashing on the sofa like an extra from The Walking Dead and getting out the laptop to write. Finding time is about trying to cram even more into the day, snatching five minutes here and there. Making time is about saying no to activities that aren’t priority, crafting your schedule to work towards your objectives, and making conscious decisions about where you put your energy at any given moment – which sometimes means giving up things that aren’t useful and don’t serve you.

A sense of agency

It all comes down to a feeling of agency, really. Making time puts me firmly in the driver’s seat of my life, relying on myself to make the decisions that get me where I want to be. Finding time – just like finding a forgotten banknote – relies to a large extent on luck and good fortune. And my goals are a little too important to me to leave them in the lap of the gods. Aren’t yours?

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Turn over a new leaf in 2011

A new year, a new chapter of life to be written. Choose your words wisely and make your new year’s resolutions work for you.

I am, and always have been, a notebook junkie. A handbag-friendly size, a pretty cover, and all those clean white sheets waiting to be filled are a writer’s nirvana. Something about those empty pages strikes a note of hope and promise – they represent a new set of ideas, new journal entries, a new chapter in my scribblings. Knowing that, you shouldn’t be surprised to learn that I also love the turn of the year. The change in date from 31st December 2010 to 1st January 2011 is like a beautiful new notebook for me, and this year, the date is particularly delicious, isn’t it? 1/1/11. Doesn’t that just make you want to clean the house, detox your liver, and – yep, you knew where I was going with this – make some resolutions?

But wait, hold it, back up a second! You don’t start a new notebook when the old one isn’t yet filled up, do you? So why be in a rush to jump into making worthy resolutions without properly rounding out 2010? There’s not much point setting new objectives without first taking stock of where you are now and how far you’ve come since last January. While many advocate taking a look at the ups and the downs of the past year, I’m afraid that doesn’t suit me at all. I find that most people are only too keenly aware of anything that hasn’t gone well and that ending the year listing only the positive points of 2010 is much better for the soul. Think hard about all the great things that happened this year – did you learn a new skill, take a trip, change jobs, meet new people? Don’t just count the big achievements, think of the smaller, daily victories as well – managing to stick to an exercise regime, finding time for a phone date with a far-flung friend, remembering birthdays… We’ll happily kick ourselves for forgetting to send a card in time, but how often do we pat ourselves on the back for getting that sort of thing right? Celebrating the joys of 2010, however big or small, is guaranteed to put you in the right frame of mind to contemplate objectives for 2011.

Strengthening your resolve

I happen to enjoy making resolutions. I find setting an objective or deciding to make a change wholly invigorating and motivating. However, I am aware that I am very much in the minority on this issue. It seems that many people find the post-Christmas push to Improve Oneself a heavy burden and see it as a thinly-veiled excuse for self-punishment after festive excess. Who can blame them? It’s the middle of winter, we’re all tired after the party season, we’re facing three of the bleakest months of the year, and it’s now that we decide to start depriving ourselves of pleasures and forcing our bodies to the gym. A recipe for disaster.

Don’t should on yourself

The main problem with most resolutions is that they are all too often the result of people shoulding on themselves. I’ll wait while you re-read that sentence. Yes, people should on themselves. Instead of identifying a resolution that will truly boost happiness, all too often we jump on the insidious bandwagon of “I really should be healthier” or “I should shape up a bit”. These resolutions come from a negative place and generally take a negative verb form – I will not drink, I will not eat chocolate. I’m not saying these resolutions aren’t fundamentally good ones – of course we all need to take care of our physical health, but maybe we can do it in a way that doesn’t damage our mental health!

Start as you mean to go on

This year, how about making positive resolutions based on what you want to do? If better health is your goal, make it more about your decision to favour positive choices than a battle to resist unhealthy options. Think “I choose to eat a fresh, nutritious salad this evening”, rather than “I can only eat salad, and I mustn’t have dessert”. If changing jobs is your aim, say, “I want to spend an hour working on my CV this weekend” rather than “I have to update my CV”. Think as much about the phrasing of the goal as the goal itself.

Another way of self-motivating is by setting an intention for the year, rather than an objective. Your resolution could simply be a one-word theme for 2011. “Healthy”, for example – health-consciousness will inform all my choices for the year. Or “give” – I will become more generous in 2011. Of course, a one-word intention has to be translated into actions, but once you have the theme, the rest comes quite naturally. In any situation, you might ask, “What’s the generous thing to do here?” You may react with generosity to a news item by sending some money to a charity, or by donating some time to relief work. When faced with a difficult colleague, you might give him the benefit of the doubt, choosing to believe he’s just having a bad day, rather than jumping to conclusions about his inherent and unchangeable evilness.

Don’t blot your copybook

Resolutions are supposed to be tools for self-improvement, not sticks with which to beat yourself. Make sure that the intentions you set yourself for 2011 serve you, bringing you closer to goals that will increase your happiness and prompting life-affirming decisions. Think of the new year as a beautiful leather-bound notebook with heavy cream pages and a sewn-in place marker. Make sure you write in it with the best pen you can find, using your nicest handwriting, and make sure that whatever you write is kind, loving and positive. Live the year on purpose.