Traditionally, the beginning of the year is a great time that brings with it a great sense of promise, a ready-for-anything joie de vivre that lets you wake up with a spring in your step and a conviction to make the year a better one than the last. Two weeks into a new year, however, is perhaps an even greater time — because everywhere you look, you'll see New Year's resolutions starting to fall apart, leaving people feeling emptier than whatever promise they had initially committed to. The friend who had just signed up for gym classes starts reaching into Famous Amos cookie jars. The disgruntled colleague who was deadset on leaving for greener pastures hasn't updated their resumé. The list goes on.
'Tis the season of procrastination and excuses.
“The New Year” has always been that ever-distant thing people hid behind for all their procrastinations the year before. Like putting things off till the following Monday because we’d have a whole week to get it done, we’re equally guilty of saying variations of, “Let’s not worry about this just yet; we’ll handle it when the new year comes around because we’ll have a whole year to work on it.”
It seems like the phrase "New Year's resolution" has come to adopt an alternative meaning — setting oneself up for blatant failure. So if these New Year's resolutions often go unfulfilled, why then do we keep making them?
Well, as it turns out, we can't help it.
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"Traditionally the New Year is seen as a time to reflect and set up our aspirations and resolutions for the coming year and a good coach will help you nail down those objectives and, more importantly, make them happen," says the 46-year-old life coach Andrew Stead.
In psychology, there is a term called "fresh start mindset". It is marked by an individual's uncanny hope for a better future — be it trying a new mullet hairstyle, moving to a new home, or broader societal issues such as social class mobility, and investing in reintegration programmes for ex-offenders and education for at-risk teenagers. These are all manifestations of the fresh start mindset. It is also something that drives thousands of optimists to New York's Times Square or Singapore's Marina Bay Sands to stand in line for eight hours before ringing in the new year.
A countdown is what the psychology community calls a "temporal landmark" (an event that helps people to categorise their life, like birthdays) and it is a powerful force of change.
When the countdown occurs, it acts as the barricade between the old you from 2018 and the brand spanking new you in 2019. Like it or not, you've subconsciously become a blank slate and ready for a fresh start — committing to a healthier diet, getting to work on time, spending time with your family, and so on.
A more worthwhile question to ask then is why we often find ourselves throwing in the towel on our resolutions.
According to Hong Kong-based life coach Andrew Stead, it is because we're making disconnected resolutions. "Many of us find our goals failing from time to time and I attribute this to a dislocation between our conscious and unconscious brain," wrote the 46-year-old over email. "I believe this mismatch between what we wish to achieve outwardly, consciously and our deeper, inner, often unconscious and hidden needs, is most often the cause of failure, distress, and unhappiness." Simply put, we're failing because we're not making the right resolutions.
COMO Shambhala Estate
A reflection chair in the premises of the COMO Shambhala Estate in Bali provides solitude, time, and space for guests to reconnect with themselves.
The way to making the right resolutions is to first understand that there are two of you — the waking you and the dormant you. This is a popular psychology theory that's popularised by Sigmund Freud. According to him, the human mind is like an iceberg — the tip of the iceberg is the conscious mind, the submerged chunk is divided into the preconscious and unconscious mind (a store of all your past, childhood, memories and experiences). Like it or not, the submerged chunk influences your behaviour and decision-making process as well.
Stead proposes that resolutions are most commonly written by the conscious mind. Instead, we should be tapping into the unconscious mind to come up with effective goals so they are genuinely aligned with what the entirety of mind desires.
How do we differentiate the conscious from the unconscious? How do we access the unconscious mind?
The conscious mind is straightforward. In fact, it's at work right now — as you're reading this and you're thinking of the resolutions you made last week. The unconscious mind, however, is not as simple. It surfaces when you're dreaming in your sleep, or when you're listening to Spotify or reading and you find yourself drifting off and zoning out. Yet, it ends the moment you snap back into "reality".
Some ways to observe what is going on in your unconscious mind includes hypnosis and deep meditation. Other ways to receive messages from the unconscious includes your gut feeling, emotions, dreams, imagination, phobias, and unknowing personal habits. These messages may not come in the form of words but images and sounds. While you may want to lose weight, images of food on Facebook may have had an effect on your unconscious mind.
It's no easy feat, but analysing your quotidian behaviours and habits might offer you a glimpse of the unconscious. A helpful framework is, perhaps, journalist Charles Duhigg's book, "The Power of Habit". In there, he breaks down every unconscious habit into three steps: the cue which triggers your mind desire something, the action trajectory, and the final reward your brain receives.
Say my resolution is to drink less beer this year. Soon after, I come across an image on Instagram of my friends having a fun at girls' night out and start feeling pangs of FOMO (the trigger). The next time someone invites me out for drinks, I'd probably forgo whatever conviction to drink less and join them (action). At the end of the night, I'd feel elated, belonged, and secure (reward). If this pattern reoccurs, it then becomes obvious that my unconscious mind craves belonging and validation from social activities.
A more appropriate resolution suddenly becomes clear: to seek out and engage in healthier social activities.
Journalling is key here but the eventual set of data will help you to understand what your unconscious mind desires. It's only then that you can nip the problem in the bud and set accurate resolutions.
When the resolutions have been set, there are some common obstacles to achieving resolutions (or any goal) that you should avoid.
First, the deluge of information on the internet is a bane. "There's too much information and we have too little time," says Stead. "Pop 'weight loss' or 'get fit' into Amazon and you literally have hundreds of thousands of options to help you along the way!" The sheer amount of information and opinions can prove to be overwhelming or discouraging.
If you do find a good book or website to help you achieve your goals, "most of that information is theoretical or technical knowledge, rather than practical," says Stead. The lack of a viable action plan is the next stumbling block. And where there is a detailed action plan, a lack of "a team or network around us to support our achievements or give us a boost when we're struggling" may prove to be another deal breaker.
Ultimately, making and, more importantly, keeping to resolutions isn't at all difficult if you look at it differently. Tapping into your subconscious, identifying your issues and desires, and committing to the slow but neccesary grind to changing your lifestyle is far more effective than whatever sweeping statements that tend to fall apart quicker than you can say, "high-fat, low-carbohydrate, gluten-free, organic-only diet."
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