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Unbedazzle those New Year’s resolutions

Zig Ziglar, the well-known motivational speaker, once said: “If you aim at nothing, you will hit it every time.” You can agree with this, right? And it is usually the dominant thought behind the dreaded, or highly anticipated, New Year’s resolutions.

I don’t have anything against New Year’s resolutions because they’ve been good to me, but I’ve just had to sit through so many soul-sucking conversations with wailing individuals who swear never to fall for them again only to make another list the next year — which invariably ends up in the bottom of an ant-infested shoe box or the trash by mid-March.

Can you remember the last time you created a shimmering list of compelling resolutions for a brand new year? It starts out with the same hope carried by a young child gleefully ripping open a Christmas present, only to find it wasn’t the gift they had expected. Or a parent opening a shoddily wrapped gift from their six year old, only to find it’s one of their own colognes, running on empty — what else did they expect?

To bring us all back to earth, here are three important things to understand about these glittery resolutions:

1.  They are based on good intentions: although you’ve watched yourself slip off the wagon for a good three years straight, here you are trying again.

These resolutions are set after careful consideration of the year that is coming to an end, the lessons gained, mistakes made and hopes for a redirected future narrative. 

The truth is that we set these with the intention to better ourselves and even change the trajectory of our lives, which is a commendable attempt from every angle.

2.     You’re fighting against your brain: our brains are designed primarily to protect us, so each and every time we step into new terrain, we’ll be reminded of how things didn’t work the last time and how these goals and targets are a complete waste of time.

Not only this, but because we often don’t know (and haven’t clearly articulated) how we’re going to achieve these goals, our brains fill these “gaps” with data from previous experiences, which often leads to us repeating how we’ve gone about achieving our goals in the past.

Neuroscience specialist, Dr Joe Dispenza says we recycle about 90% of our thoughts daily (we think the same things we thought yesterday), thus generating the same feelings, which lead to the exact same decisions; a feedback loop. Your brain doesn’t see this as sabotage, but efficiency!

3.    You’re doomed from the start (calm down, hear me out): the part of your brain that controls executive functions (neocortex, especially your prefrontal cortex) reasons that a change needs to be made, decides that you are going to make that change, leads to the drafting of the needed plans and even fires you up to get your ass into gear.

Here’s the bad news: the part of your brain that enforces the rituals and behaviours to get you there is not the prefrontal cortex exclusively. It involves the limbic brain, that regulates your emotions and feelings, including your threat responsiveness for those days when these goals seem more harmful than beneficial.

Lastly, but most importantly, religiously carrying out the rituals (turned habits) that get you to your goals, largely involves the part of the brain known as the cerebellum where more than half of your brain’s neurons are found. When behaviours are so automatic that you hardly have to think about doing them, then that’s your cerebellum at play.

Now, although we have the purest of intentions when we sit on the 31st of December, bright eyed and bushy tailed with our new notebooks and glossy pens, or our favourite devices, we’re picking a fight with our brains and are doomed to fail, because we expect the planning, reasoning part of our brains to get the work done, and willpower is nowhere near enough to get you there. 

So here’s my suggestion: screw resolutions 

How about focusing on decluttering instead? 

We often spend so much time telling ourselves to change, that we miss the point: unless we really understand why we need to change, there’s no way we’re putting cerebellum-level skin in the game. So this year, instead of shooting forward, take a quick look back at where you missed the mark.

Get your last New Year’s resolutions list out and comb through it with the following questions:

•    Did the goal compel me to change? Be honest here. When we look at our goals, they rarely create a sense of urgency or excitement within us to put in the work.

When we find a way to represent our goals that is compelling to us, it evokes that sense of excitement and goes to what Simon Sinek calls our “why” — the reason we’ve set the goal in the first place. So, many people choose to represent their goals in the form of a vision board, a poem, a sculpture, an image, a song etc. They choose something they can refer to on a continuous basis — what would be compelling for you?

•    Did I have an environment that supported this goal? Do you want to give up ice cream, but your drive to and from work is lined with ice cream parlours? Or are the books you want to read from every day right on the top shelf?

These sorts of environments present what’s called “friction”, which makes it that much more challenging for us to reach our goals. Your environment also involves the people around you — did they, by virtue of their presence or contribution, support or impede the fruition of your goals?

•    In what way did I break this goal up into smaller chunks that could be slipped into my daily “to-do” lists? When our goals are too large, they fall into what’s called our “region of rejection” and we perceive them to involve too much effort, so we seldom bother.

When we set our goals, they must be represented in easy-to-manage bites that not only make us believe we can achieve them, but also compel us because we have made it so easy and with as little “friction” as possible.

The great thing about ticking achievable/non-intimidating items off a to-do list, is that it facilitates the firing of the reward chemical in your brain, which feels amazing and reinforces that you are capable and can smash those goals.

Run that list of questions on each of your goals and then write all those insights down. Once you’ve done that, you can choose whether or not you wish to set a list of ambitious New Year’s Resolutions for the coming year or not, but you’ll now have something you didn’t have before — awareness.

It’s better to take full awareness into the coming year, than a big cheesy smile and will power that will only last halfway through February. 

All the best!


  • By day, Zanele Njapha, aka, 'The UnLearning Lady’, is an international transitions facilitator and futurist at the strategic insights firm TomorrowToday Global. She is the host of the podcast Future-Fit Fridays, conversing with global experts on the future of work. By night, she dances, cooks and writes poetry

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