January is a rough month for habitual gym-goers. Like clockwork, hordes of newcomers flood fitness centers armed with a New Year’s resolution, often misusing equipment and ignoring common gym etiquette.
But this stretch of chaos doesn’t last much longer than January. By February, some newcomers successfully integrate themselves into the normal rhythms of gym life and become indistinguishable from longtime vets. Most, however, retreat back to their old ways and abandon their fitness oaths and the gym altogether, at least until the alcohol and calorie-laden holiday season next December.
Sadly, New Year’s resolutions have become something of a joke in popular culture, a moment of determined change that is pursued for about three days and then abandoned forever. Many still make these promises to themselves but do so silently, and only timidly admit them to friends and family if confronted.
In our cynical culture, everyone’s first instinct is to dismiss the possibility that our friends or colleagues are capable of sustained change and personal growth. Admitting that you have resolved to change is opening yourself up to vulnerability, and most do not want to be vulnerable.
But besides a general lack of authentic support, many New Year’s resolutions fail for another reason: they are way too specific and demanding, leaving no room for lapses and therefore are too easy to abandon at the slightest instance of backsliding.
Let’s examine some common NYR’s that fall into this trap and therefore are easy to surrender.
- Quitting (Cigarettes/Booze/Netflix Binges): An obvious and popular resolution is to cut out a bad habit for the coming year. Deep down, most of us know what vices are bad for us or negatively affect our lives. It is natural to want to eliminate these bad habits from our lives, and the New Year seems like a great time to do so. The problem is that these habits are deeply engrained and require a herculean amount of willpower to stop, especially if physical addiction is a component. Unfortunately, the coming of a new year does not activate a hidden wellspring of hitherto unknown willpower deep within us. So if and when a relapse occurs and another cigarette is smoked or weekend wasted in front of the TV, we get discouraged. Another relapse often leads to a complete abandonment of the NYR and the problem is shelved for another time, our old ways embraced.
- Going to the Gym/Keeping a Diet Every day: The flipside of cutting out a bad habit is forcing oneself to make a hardline lifestyle change by adding a positive new one. This is seen most frequently in the form of fitness oaths that tend to include rigid goals (lose 20lbs, run a marathon) that are hard to achieve. The problem, once again, is that the New Year does not bequeath you willpower that you never had before. Further, the realities of slow, unsteady progress and the disappointment of skipping workouts soon leads to discouragement and eventual abandonment of the program.
Both resolutions-eliminating a bad habit or picking up a new one-require a huge amount of initial dedication, enforce rigid goals that are tough to meet, and are discouraging if you make any sort of lapse. That’s why we catch our mom, who completely swore off carbs for her NYR, eating a bagel by Martin Luther King Day, or our wanna-be teetotaler roommate ashamedly buying a 12-pack for the Super Bowl.
A different way to look at a NYR is to pick one of area of your life you want to focus for the coming year and consciously work the whole year on improving that area. This path requires more contemplation and allows for gradual lifestyle changes, with tolerable periods of give-and-take. If a resolution is more abstract and less goal oriented, then a rocky start at first is less discouraging, not achieving immediate success is expected, and you are geared toward long-term change. Here are a few example “areas of focus” that you could resolve to work on as a longterm projects throughout the coming year.
- Appearance: Resolving to work on your appearance throughout the course of the year includes making fitness and dieting part of your life, but does not hold you to any concrete objectives. In addition to working out, you would pay more attention to the type of clothing you wear (does it fit right? Should I wear these holey sweatpants outside?), experiment with different hairstyles, get a skincare routine going, all kinds of stuff. Since the goal is appearance in general, you have many areas to improve your life, from physique to the cleanliness of your living-area.
- Sociability: Resolving to go on four dates by the end of January is a lot of pressure and involves a lot of factors out of your control. Instead, practice saying “yes” to social obligations you might be tempted to avoid, sign up for dating websites, browse local clubs and intramural leagues. Focusing on sociability throughout the year comes down to a lot of day-to-day choices and allows you to gradually get in the habit of being more outgoing. Initial setbacks are fine and you’ll find yourself wanting to be social as the months go on.
- New Hobby: Pick something that has always interested you or seemed appealing to you, but you’ve never devoted the necessary time and resources to get it off the ground. Whether it be literature, cooking, photography, model-shipbuilding, whatever, finally give it the fair shot. If you have Christmas money or a holiday bonus, invest it in the starter materials you’ll need. Do some research after work on the basics. Then get at it at whatever pace you are comfortable with. Maybe you’ll find the hobby isn’t for you after all, or maybe it will become an awesome new part of your life. Use your New Year resolution to investigate it either way, so at least you can say you tried. And besides, who thought NYR’s could be fun?
The more abstract, big picture approach to a New Year’s resolution isn’t for everybody. But if you’ve consistently found yourself signing up for a gym with a goal of “getting a six pack,” and then quietly cancelling your membership in March, it’s worth giving a new approach a shot. Let us know if it works!