As 2020 commences, and we have the inevitable resolutions that come along with a new year, I’d like to share some strategies that have been useful for me in sticking with the changes I wish to make in the new year.
The first strategy is a simple and obvious one: choose attainable goals. Small, bite size things you can do that you will actually succeed at. Failed resolutions out number successful ones, but there are simple ways around that.
Firstly, it’s helpful to apply resolutions targeted to specific goals, such as towards your health, exercise, study, sleep, or behavior. As well, I like doing things that include numbers, because when you count (such as minutes or repetitions) you can see if you’ve reached your goal.
For example, for a resolution towards health or diet, you could make a simple resolution to drink one glass of water first thing in the morning before doing anything else. That small addition has been shown to lead to greater dietary improvements by behavioral economist Dan Ariely.
If you have a hard time practicing yoga regularly, make a resolution to do five sun salutations five days per week. If some days you do more, that’s great. But set a minimum bar, not a maximum, and stick to the minimum. Who knows, over time, your minimum might expand naturally.
If you don’t practice yoga but do other exercise and have a hard time sticking with it, make a simple plan. For example, with cardiovascular exercise, you don’t need to do a whole lot for it to be effective. Try 25 jumping jacks, 25 pushups, 25 squats, and perhaps 25 seconds of mountain climbers five days per week and you’ll be pretty well situated. Or choose a reasonable amount of just a few exercises that you can do regularly.
My particular desire this year is to read more and finish the books I start. I’ve made a resolution to read 25 pages per day. So far so good. I started in December (a little early) and have finished five books since then and am feeling pretty good about myself for that!
If you want to start or keep a meditation habit going, you can use the idea in some of the yoga texts that moments of concentration added together equal meditation. Each time you bring your mind to concentrate on one breath, or one mantra, it equals one moment of concentration. So, if you are looking to start or keep up with a meditation practice, you could start by trying to do 25 moments of concentration on either each breath, or on a mantra. It takes several minutes to do so, and if you do it in a relaxed manner, pausing slightly between each moment of concentration to remind yourself what you are doing, your mind can stay relatively thought free during that practice. An easy mantra to use is the So’ham mantra, inhaling the sound “so” and exhaling the sound “ham”. This is a contraction of “sah” and “aham,” which means, in Sanskrit, “I am That.”
By repeating any of your resolutions on a regular basis, your activity gets wired into your brain through neuroplasticity, and that becomes a new pattern of behavior for you. If you can keep any of your resolutions up for at least five to six weeks, they start to become automatic as they become a part of you, and thus are easier to maintain.
Another way to look at resolutions is through the Sanskrit word sankalpa, which means a resolve (like a resolution), an intent, a vow or determination to perform a ritual or observance, or a conception or idea formed in the mind or heart. Remembering why we formed the resolutions that we do, on a regular basis, can sometimes be the best support we can find within us for actually sticking to them. It can keep us going when we start to lose steam.
If you look at a resolution as a vow, we can also find vows as the foundational practices of Ashtanga Yoga, the five yamas, which were described by Maharishi Patanjali as the maha vratas, “great vows.” These can be observed (to a certain degree) by anyone, anywhere, born at any time, who is desirous of spiritual liberation… or if not desirous of that, then perhaps of just trying to be a good person. Here is a great commentary on the great vows.