Go big or go home is alright for a two-hour movie in which we can feel all of these life-affirming emotions in one sitting, but have you ever imagined - really thought about - what it means to sustain the level of work and energy required to accomplish what is shown in these movies? The Lord of the Rings is a good example, and only comes to mind because I'm re-reading the series at the moment, and this topic comes up repeatedly in my thoughts while I'm reading. Many people these days have a hard time sitting through even one of the movies, let alone reading the book that it's supposed to be about. Now, think of the time frame that those books cover. I'll make it even easier. The Hobbit, the precursor to the series, was a story about a quest that took a year. That's right. A year. Bilbo didn't return to Bag-End for a year after he left. For a large portion of that time he was walking around or riding a pony (being too small to comfortably sit a horse).
As for The Lord of the Rings (or TLOTR for those who can't be bothered to even spell out the whole title, let alone go on their own quest - which is pretty much everyone), they were traversing some serious terrain. Anyone who has done any hiking in the mountains (which I have actually done - the Rockies in Alberta, if you're wondering) can tell you that doing anything like that for months is not bloody likely. Not even for the sorts of people who are in love with extreme sports. It's downright exhausting to go for a weekend, let alone months. As I read through these books again, and try to imagine myself doing anything like that, I know very well I'd last about a week. I would never have gotten the ring to Mordor, and would end up being partly responsible for the destruction of Middle Earth by Sauron.
Now, don't jump to the conclusion that I'm anti-resolution or anything. As a species I do feel humans are naturally geared toward doing things with anniversary dates in mind. We're a sentimental group, in general, or we wouldn't be celebrating holidays of any sort. Perhaps we wouldn't even have created a calendar. Not everyone is sentimental in that way, of course, but most of us have a soft spot for certain days of the year, be it our own birthdays, our kids' birthdays, religious occasions, or wedding anniversaries. Some of us merely look forward to a day off work.
No, what I'm trying to stress is the difference between a quest and a purpose. It's a difference in sustainability, for one thing. A quest is exhausting, and it's what we tend to set ourselves up for every year. A purpose is permanent. I wholeheartedly agree with the idea that human beings should always try to better themselves. We should strive to be more than what we are. We just shouldn't be striving to be everything we aren't in a single year. Most of us aren't trying to be healthier in general. Most of us are trying not to be fat, or not to be lazy, when we attempt our insane new exercise regime - a regime that's probably both dangerous and counterproductive, especially if you aren't already an athlete. Unlike Frodo, the fate of Middle Earth is not riding on our shoulders, so it matters little in the grand scheme of things if we lose twenty pounds, and usually the only person we disappoint is ourselves.
I know, I know. So what do I suggest? It's all well and good to say something won't work, and talk about all the obstacles, rather than talk about what will work. I'll never have all the answers, but I have learned what works for me, and for most people who have managed to make real changes in their lives. To start, here's a list of suggestion (I'll try to avoid turning it into a lengthy quest of its own):
- Congratulate yourself on everything you accomplished in the current year.
This is a step almost everyone forgets to take in their lives. People focus on everything that's wrong with them and their lives, and forget about all the good things they've managed to do. Did you donate to your favourite charity? Did you take a class in a subject you have an interest in? Did you learn to do something you didn't know how to do before? Are there any goals and dreams that you fulfilled, and that you're forgetting to pat yourself on the back for?
For anyone who is a parent, there are so many things that you've likely done throughout the year that no one is giving you credit for - least of all yourself. If you kept your kids in school, out of jail, off drugs, got them into college, or at the very least kept them at home instead of turning tricks on the street, then I would bet there are plenty of things you're doing right. (Just don't get big-headed about them, because complacency is the nemesis of any parent.)
I suppose this is similar to a gratitude journal, which seems to be all the rage these days, but a gratitude journal appears to be mostly about external things, rather than personal accomplishments, and at a time many are beating themselves up about their choices for the previous year, I think it's necessary that we stop and look at our high points.
- Be honest with yourself about what you'll be able to sustain for the rest of your life.
If quitting smoking is your goal, you certainly don't want to quit for a year and go back to it. If losing weight is your goal, short-term diets do not work and neither do excessive exercise regimes when they cause injury or you burn out in a week. What behaviour can you modify to help you toward your permanent goal, and what are the steps that follow after that first one, in order to lead you there? Can you cut down on one of your daily cigarettes every week? If you can, then you might start out at a pack a day, and you'll be down to none in less than half a year.
Can you walk for 10 minutes every day, or perhaps 20 minutes three times a week? Can you get rid of the sugar-filled drinks in your diet? Either of those two things can make a huge impact on both your health and your weight (one does not necessarily impact the other, by the way). If you lost a pound every two weeks, rather than the 5 or 10 pounds a week so many fad diets promote, you will have lost 26 pounds in a year, and it will be weight that stays off - fat that will continue to come off next year and the year after, until you're at a more svelte size. Getting rid of the refined sugar in your diet will have an amazing impact on your health and any future possibility of diabetes as well.
- Make actual plans, not lists.
If your goal is to travel more, book the bloody vacation already. If you can't afford it, find out exactly how much it's going to cost you to get there and do what you want when you're there, decide when you want to take your trip, divide up the amount you need by the number of months you have until then - or, conversely, figure out how much you can save every month and divide that into your total cost, to see when it is you'll realistically be able to go.
I already gave examples for quitting smoking, losing weight, and getting healthier. I can't list every possibility, but you get the idea. Decide what you really want out of life. Find out exactly what it will take to get there. Then make a plan to make it happen. The thing is, if you're not willing to go through with your plans, then chances are good that these things are nowhere near as important to your life as you seem to think they are, which leads me to my next point.
- Make sure you really know what you want.
You need to be certain that the things you're putting on your list are truly things you want, and not just things you're throwing on there because you think you should want them. Are you actually unhealthy? Do you truly need to lose weight, or do you feel you should because one jerk told you that you'd be really pretty if you lost a little bit of weight? Are you happy and comfortable with your current furniture, or have you decided you need to replace it because of what people might think when they walk in the door?
This is one of the few things I think Dr. Phil is spot-on about, when it comes to the reason many people have such a hard time changing - usually there's a payoff when you can't force yourself to change. There's some reason, deep down, that makes you resist that change. Sometimes it's something as simple as a fear of change, and the comfort we have in a life that's like an old pair of slippers.
Sometimes, though, there's a damn good reason you're sabotaging your own efforts - maybe some part of you knows that you will not be happy with the new & improved life you're trying to force yourself into. Maybe you've been told all your life that you're talented at something, and that you should really do something with it, but deep down you know you would never be happy turning your hobby into a job. I was like that with my artwork. I was on the verge of signing a contract to show at a gallery in Edmonton, and I walked away from it. Partially because I knew it would keep me in a city I wasn't happy living in, and partially because I knew I would end up hating doing the artwork itself. It wasn't my passion.
- Learn to be happy with everything you already have.
Now, that may sound a lot like settling, but it's not quite the same thing. The difference may be subtle, but it's important. So many of us live our lives chasing after things, and even as we're grasping them we've got our eyes on something else. Yes, it's wonderful to have goals, and achieving a worthwhile goal is an amazing feeling. Once we have, however, we're often left with a feeling of emptiness if we can't immediately come up with a new goal. Granted, most of us have more than one dream in our lives, so we're always chasing after one thing or another, which means we're unlikely to feel empty for very long - it's mostly the rich kids that end up with the permanent sense of emptiness that comes with having no purpose in life.
Some of us may never reach an 'important' milestone in our lives, or we'll have occasional disappointments or unattainable dreams. Sometimes we set the bar so high we never even start working towards our dreams. Yet, if we are content with our everyday life, disappointments can be cushioned a great deal. Being happy with the life we're currently living can also help us to separate out the things we really want, from what we think we should want. That means focusing on the things that are working, and that we enjoy. That will mean different things for different people, but we should all stop to appreciate what we have that is already worthwhile.
- Don't put off your happiness until you've reached your goals.
I don't agree with the notion of living as if you were going to die tomorrow, because I think it leads to the idea that we have to cram everything into a short period of time, and we're right back where we started - new year's resolutions that don't work because they're basically insane. If you've spent the last 20 years living a certain way, that isn't going to change in a single year. I'm sorry, but that's just the way it is. However, I also don't think we should be punishing ourselves, and living less of a life just because we 'should' have done a certain thing by now.
I don't care how fat you think you are - buy yourself some decent clothes. Believe me when I tell you that you're going to feel a whole lot better about yourself if you're wearing something that's comfortable, and that you know makes you look your best (assuming outward appearances matter at all to you - a weird thing for me to talk about, since I rarely change out of my pajamas). Even if you haven't quit smoking, that doesn't mean you can't start lifting weights, if that's what you want to do.
I know my advice goes against the advice of many so-called experts (usually the authors of trendy books, based on new fads), who tell you to reward yourself for achieving your goals, but achieving a goal is hugely satisfactory in and of itself. If it's not, then why were you chasing that 'dream' in the first place? If you refuse to allow yourself any happiness whatsoever, because you haven't (so far) followed through on your own aspirations, you're going to be feeling very miserable pretty much constantly - a state of mind that is not the least bit conducive to achieving goals. We have to feel positive if we're going to push ourselves to keep moving toward a dream. Negative reinforcement is not the way to go. The happier you feel, the more energy you'll have to put toward whatever dreams you've chosen to fulfill.
- It's okay to fall off the wagon. Don't forget to give yourself credit for the work you've already done!
Almost everyone falls off the wagon on their trip toward fulfilling a dream. Almost everyone who falls off gives up the first time, and falls right back into their old patterns. They completely throw away everything they've done for one little mistake. I've seen it with alcoholics, drug and nicotine addicts, people trying to lose weight, you name it.
Let's say you've been working out according to your plan, and then one day you don't. Think about it logically. Will that single day matter ten years from now when you've turned exercise into a lifelong habit? No. It will only matter if you use it as an excuse to forget the whole thing. I know a little about that myself. It's very easy to talk yourself into letting it go, because it's easier not to exercise than it is to push yourself into doing it consistently. In part we get down on ourselves for our failure to be perfect, and in part we take the easy road.
Try to remember that there were x number of days where you did do what you were supposed to do, and forgive yourself right away for any slip-ups. Otherwise you'll be too mad at yourself to get back to doing whatever it is you want to do.
You can't fix everything all at once, even when you're doing it slowly. If there's one way that an annual resolution can help out, it's that you can tack on one additional item you'd like to work on. What do you really want to improve this year? Make a decision, and work on that. Pretend there's nothing else on your list. An added benefit is that it provides you with a massive amount of energy and focus - all on one thing.
Trust me, you do not want to be quitting smoking, removing sugar from your diet, suddenly starting to eat a lot of vegetables and less meat, exercising every day, moving to a new apartment, working on a novel, and quitting your job all in the first week of January. (Especially if you have debt left over from Christmas - a topic for another blog post.) Actually, the amount of stress that each one of those things can put on you is something that needs to be spaced out over a period of years in most cases.
I've seen the lists that people make. Not only are they planning to make those changes in a single year, but they often want to make them starting on January first. It can't be done. It's not just that it shouldn't be done, but that it can't be. Any change in diet can cause a major reaction in your body. You do not want to hear about my efforts to become vegan - let's just say my body reacts badly to large amounts of vegetables. Sudden cessation of smoking causes major stress in the body. Most of the changes that people want to make will have an impact on body chemistry. All of them at once are actually dangerous.
If you're worried about 'explaining' things to other people, here's a tip: Just say, "This year I'm really concentrating on ____." If you say something is your priority or focus, it gives the correct impression that you're not wasting energy on anything that isn't a priority. It might be enough to shut up a busybody, though I very much doubt it. It's not really any of their business anyway.
The truly remarkable thing I've discovered about dreams and goals, is that they often come true when we're not forcing them to happen. I was not actually planning to go back to school this year, though I've wanted to for a long time. I just sort of fell into it when the time was right. When I quit smoking a number of years ago, I had been cutting back for a long time. I was down to one cigarette a day, possibly two. I ran out of money and couldn't buy another pack for a couple of days, but then when I could go buy them I just shrugged my shoulders and said, "Why bother?" I like to tell people I quit out of sheer laziness. I walked away from a variety of drugs throughout my life, usually because I was content to move on. All of our dreams and goals will start happening for us when we're ready to make them happen, and not a minute sooner. Otherwise something inside us will always keep it from happening. This is why change can only come from within. No one can force another person to make permanent changes. We can't quit smoking because it's what our spouse wants. It has to be what we want for ourselves. Deep inside I think we all know what will make us happy, and until something is a key to our happiness we have no reason to change it.
That being said, I wish all of you a great new year. Do whatever makes you happy, as long as you're not hurting anyone else. My love and best wishes to all of you!