A Mindful Approach to New Years Resolutions

by Mr Ko Teik Yen

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As we bid farewell to 2017 and get set to roll forward onto a brand new year, many of us will be making a few promises to ourselves: Lose five kilos! Exercise more, eat less! Save more money! Be happier! Stress less! Get organised!  

Come February or another festive season, when we’re sitting on the couch surrounded by junk food and laughing with our friends about how rarely we’ve used that new gym membership, it’s easy to wonder why we haven’t lost those kilos or saved any money. Everything looks like it’s back to square one.

If this sounds like you, you’re not alone. Research indicates that only 8% of people actually achieve their New Year’s resolutions! Most fitness resolutions last on average around 8 days. Are we going about this whole resolution thing the wrong way?

New Year’s resolutions are no ordinary goals. They have a far more powerful effect on our psyche because the end of one year and the start of another signify new beginnings, a new chapter, and another chance and hope to achieve the things we’ve always dreamt of. (Or perhaps get rid of a few unhealthy habits.)

Have you ever looked at your list and realized it’s pretty much the same every year? We all yearn for better health, more happiness and improved wellbeing. If only I lost a few kilos, if only I exercised more, if only I give myself more time … then I would be happy. That's does not sound too complicated, right?

No sooner have we set resolutions and announced them on social media platforms, we start finding ourselves looking for reasons to give them up: after a hard day at work, the last thing we want to do is go home and go the the gym; and after a trying week, we  revert to our usual eating habits. We start to postpone our New Year plan…

Where did it go wrong?

Putting pressure on ourselves to achieve our New Years resolutions is counterintuitive. Stress triggers automatic habitual behaviour we have established over years. These behaviours become familiar and feel 'safe'. We retreat into our comfort zone in times of stress and we rarely even notice we are doing it. That's where mindfulness comes in.

How does mindfulness helps?

Mindfulness helps us to develop an awareness of our internal state and the feelings that are driving our behaviour. It allows us the space and time to sit with difficult feelings and make deliberate choices toward more helpful behaviour. Mindfulness trains us to focus on what's really matter and coming back on track every time we slip.

As we seek personal transformation in the year ahead, I offer you a Mindful Approach to New Year’s Resolutions:

1. Consider Your Intentions

The most common resolutions are to lose weight, exercise more, eat less and spend less money. Those are all important and healthy practices. But why are they your intentions? Do you want to feel more calm and peaceful? Save for retirement? Honouring the personal meaning behind an action helps us maintain our resolve.

Ask yourself; so what if I lose that few kilos? So what if I have more money? What exactly that means to you? What does that brings out in you? What you really want? Those are the questions that help you gain a deeper understanding of your intentions.

The acronym SMART for goals setting (Specific, Measureable, Achievable, Realistic, Time-bound) although is widely used, rarely sustainable. It is because it only engages the logical brain and ignoring the human as a whole. I would propose SMARTER, with an additional E for Emotionally Engaging and R for Relevant to your Values. Hence, are your resolutions excite you? And how those resolutions align to your personal values and principles?

2. Focus on Process, Not Results

Resolutions like “lose weight” and “save more money” are completely focused on a result, with no identification of a process for how to get there.

Studies show that when workers — from sales executives to Formula One pit crews — focus on process instead of sales numbers and speed, they actually perform better. Paradoxically, focusing on results makes us less likely to achieve them.

Perhaps resolutions are hard and rigid because those words — determination, firmness — are hard. We are determined to act in a certain way and we need to act 'tough' or else we may be perceived as 'weak'. We have fixed expectations of specific outcomes. But we forget that we are human living in a frantic world, exposed to elements beyond our control and prone to slip-ups and mistakes. We live in a constantly changing and unpredictable environment, which can derail even the most determined and strongest-willed among us.

Hence, the problem with resolutions is that they put us firmly in a rigid and perceived ‘hard effort’ mode: one that is obsessed with outcomes and notions of success and failure. While resolutions are fixed and hard, intentions are flexible. They’re about being mindful of where we place our focus and direct our attention.

If we focus on going for walks or eating healthy meals for lunch, we will probably lose some weight in the process. And we’ll probably enjoy the journey a lot more. If we focus on switching off lights or reducing our energy consumption, we can save more money.

The purpose of a resolution should be the process — the infinite present moments in which transformation will occur — rather than waiting for the single instance of its attainment. With intentions, there's no failure, only temporary set-backs and opportunities to learn and grow.

3. Start taking Action with Baby Steps

If we wait for the conditions to be right – the right frame of mind, the right mood, the right amount of energy and confidence – that day would be very far away.

Our action has to start NOW: with one baby step at the time and as we gained momentum, we will start noticing our mood, our mindset, even our energy levels and confidence will increase over time. It is through our behaviour and action that we EARN this positiveness and confidence, not the other way round.

For example, if I want to lose weight, I would need to exercise more and eat less. It may starts with going for a morning jog: I would start by raising from the bed, brush my teeth, clean my face, make my bed, have a warm drink or light meal, put on the running gear, do some warming up exercise, and taking that first step. And another and another… Every single baby step in this present moment NOW is crucial to kick starts the day.  Actions first. Moods and thoughts will follow. It all starts with one baby step now.

4. Be Gentle to Yourself

No matter what intentions we set for ourselves, there will be days and weeks when we don’t live up to our expectations. Through practicing mindfulness, a fundamental lesson we learn is that we are constantly beginning again — each day, each breath. When we sit down to meditate, we experience a brief moment of awareness. Then our mind starts chattering, planning dinner and worrying about the kids, our works and the next thing on our to-do list. And then with a deep breath, awareness re-emerges.

When the mind wanders, we gently bring our attention back to the breath, without judging or berating ourselves. The moment we notice our mind has wandered is the moment of insight — noticing the action of the mind is the practice itself.

The same goes for resolutions. When we fall short, we can gently and non-judgmentally bring our awareness back to our intention. That’s really the purpose of setting resolutions — bringing a kind awareness to our behaviour, recognizing when we’ve wandered, and beginning again. And again…

5. Consider Resolution Alternatives

If the pressure of New Year’s Resolutions is too much, consider a few alternative ways to set your intentions for the upcoming year:

Make a Visual Board: A visual board compiles images that represent what you want for yourself in the upcoming year. It’s a great way to have a visual reminder of your intentions (I have mine hanging in my office). The images of heart-shaped fruits, running on hillside and glowing candles gently remind me to eat healthy food, move my body, and make time for stillness.

Choose a Word of the Year. Many people have embraced the trend of choosing a word for the year — like breathe, pause, trust, dance, go — that encapsulates the feelings, attitudes, and behaviours they desire in the year ahead. Ior yourself, you can use this word can guide your choices. For example, you can ask if a particular behaviour aligns with your word and your intentions.

In Summary

The reality is thing happens. Things beyond our control can get in the way and despite our biggest efforts, we may not be able to fulfil all our commitment. This does not make us failures — it makes us normal. Research shows it takes up to four months to change a behaviour. So are we really failures and beating ourselves up if we miss the odd gym session or eat the occasional cookie? Mindfulness teaches us acceptance and move on.

Ultimately, New Year’s Resolutions are about growth and improvement. They are about bringing health and joy and ease into our lives. With mindfulness we can bring awareness to our habits and hold ourselves with compassion and kindness as we seek meaningful transformation.

Finally, it's important to recognize that your realization of your New Year's resolutions likely will not happen in an instant. It's not as if you suddenly will lose 10 kilos or instantly land a dream job. Rather, it will take a series of successive moments through every baby steps NOW as you work towards the change that you seek.

Written by:

Ko Teik Yen is a father, author, therapist, teacher, and enthusiast runner. At The Mind Faculty, he teaches Mindfulness for Stress, Anxiety and Well Being as well as for patients with chronic depression. He is the Founding Director and Clinical Hypnotherapist at LCCH Pantai Therapy Centre at Pantai Hospital Kuala Lumpur. He is a fully accredited Mindfulness Teacher with UK Breathworks. When not working, he enjoys running, travelling, reading, and practicing mindfulness meditation with fellow practitioners.