Yoda famously told Luke Skywalker, "Try not! Do or do not. There is no try." Expectation of action, rather than thinking about action—not a bad thing. But over the years, I've come to believe in something more flexible for those of us who do not respond well to rigid and global resolutions. And virtually every article on "resolutions" cites 80% failure rate. That tells us a couple of things:
it's not the desires, longings, or plans that are at fault, but the language, and therefore quality, of the resolutions. It also tells us that if we are not Jedi—and even more, not fictional characters in a movie—it is quite possible that 'trying' is a pretty decent thing to do. Because we are human. And rigid and other-worldly expectations often fail us (that's right—I blame the type of expectation, not the human).
But...There's a Lot We Can Do
This does not mean we cannot dream and do. We can.
But there may be more effective ways to handle our own expectations, hopes and dreams, and plans for ourselves. These suggestions are based on my own life experience, beliefs, and knowledge, and apply to every day of the year, not only the first of January. They have increased my persistence and productivity as a writer, and perhaps they may be helpful to you.
It's common for me to check in with myself about my needs, longings, passions, plans, and more. I expect to work each day in some way. I enjoy challenges and use new experiences to open and surprise my brain, discovering new creative journeys that often lead back to a better place with a work-in-progress. In these difficult and challenging times, I've called on a strength much more frequently that feeds emotional resilience, and flows from it, as well—flexibility.
How We Tend to Respond to Restriction
I learned forty years ago that one major external non-creative 'resolution'-related activity, dieting, has an up to 95% failure rate, causing survivors to regain all of the weight they'd lost, and more. As I gently and slowly learned to discover my physiological hunger and feed myself in what is now commonly called an 'intuitive' way (in response to physiological hunger), I discovered that other unsuccessful attitudes toward life struggles with similar language and inflexibility.
Resolutions that fail tend to fall into this framework:
1. Vows and promises
2. Huge and global goals
3. Externally-related expectations
Research indicates that changing the language we use to describe our life experiences changes our emotions and therefore our actions. I'd like to suggest a substantial, heartfelt effort to change the substance, not just the sound, of the resolution.
The Science of Positive Psychology
Martin Seligman, founder of Positive Psychology, an international, research-based theory and practice, wrote LEARNED OPTIMISM in the early nineties, in which he drew from cognitive psychotherapy to encourage the practice of creating new pathways in our brains by changing the content of the language we each use to explain our life experiences. At the same time, neuroscience research began to share research that demonstrated the plasticity of the human brain.
Reframing Your ‘Explanatory Style’
Underlying the research on positive emotions is a framework that identifies characteristics of 'pessimistic' and 'optimistic' language we use when "explaining" to ourselves our life experiences. Typical (or perhaps old-fashioned?) resolutions tend to use pessimistic 'explanatory style':
1. Rigid/Stable (as in, unchanging): I will, I should, I promise...
2. Global: every day, always, forever, never...
3. External: planning for events out of your control
These characteristics define pessimistic thinking. And pessimistic thinking creates gratuitous negative emotions, which tend to deplete energy, focus, mood, and more. When we fail at these unrealistic goals and resolutions, our language can include more of the same pessimistic thinking: 1. "I can't" (rigid/unchanging) 2. "I'll never be able to..." (never/always) 3. "I'm a failure" (personal vs. out of your control).
The Power of Changing Your Language
Consider changing the way you describe your 'resolutions' or even 'goals'. Instead of using rigid, global, and external-related language, try this:
1. 'Unstable'/Flexible language and expectations: I'm interested in, I'll try to____, I hope to, (but I give myself permission to adjust and/or change my plans.)
2. 'Local'/Specific to a smaller, not global, framework: I'll schedule time for____and accept that I may not be always able to adhere to the schedule
3. 'Internal'/originating from your interests, passions, longings, abilities—i.e., what you can control: I'd like to spend more time researching more precise matches for exactly what I write, and make sure my mss. are the absolute best they can be before submitting.
Most Do Better With Flexibility
Since it is our inability to meet unrealistic expectations that often sets negative thinking into motion, I found that building in a gentle, compassionate, and flexible attitude can lead to greater productivity than a harsher and rigid one.
For the last several decades, this has made a huge difference by:
1. finding quicker ways to climb over obstacles and turns in the road
2. being more productive (which I view as persistent-to-completion of projects in which I'm interested)
3. focusing on what is in my control and acceptance of those things beyond my control.
Enabling the Events of a Creative Life
Practicing, and ultimately integrating, a different way of thinking about my own explanatory style enabled me to have the life of a writer, one that began seriously in 1999, when I wrote my first children's story. Submitting became an exercise in hope, rather than a chore that could lead to more despair. Working hard in response to serious critique became a meaningful challenge to move my writing in each manuscript, each verse of a novel, to a clearer, more lyrical, more truly poetic level. (Notably, this ability also evolved into the capacity to distinguish between helpful critique and that which did not mesh with my own vision—previously, a terrifying choice, since in the early years I did not trust my own perceptions of my work).
Is This Just Letting Ourselves ‘Off the Hook’?
The brain's response to a change in language can be life-changing. But is it scary to give up the more rigid framework? Does it feel like you'll never accomplish anything if you're flexible with yourself, depend on checking in with your specific needs, hopes, longings, instead of what you believe you "should" be doing? If "making resolutions" is expected, will you really be less successful if you don't do that?
I enjoy having projects to work on, making lists of what I'd like to accomplish in any given day or week, and frequently have items that move to the next week, without any judgment.
Work, not resolutions, challenges and energizes, encouraging repetition of focused, productive, and creative activity. Sometimes that doesn't work, particularly in our more challenging times. When I have an "off" day, I try to relax through it and return to work later, or the next day.
It is not the desire to accomplish and to plan that is problematic. Rather, rigid expectations set us up for failure and then stress, even anguish, caused by the too-global and too-huge framework.
Flexibility is not equivalent to slacking off. Gentleness is not lack of discipline and hard work. Compassion is not failure.
Any day of the year, we can relax the 'shoulds', and instead, wonder:
- What are my interests now?
- What am I capable of absolutely achieving today? (don't ever think there's something too tiny, because not the amount, but the something that encourages you)
- If I'm stuck on what I'd like to do, can I experiment with something different or new, and trust that it could be a bridge back to my original project?
I challenge myself on a regular basis to be a persistent, productive, joyful writer.
I try my best each day—and that can look different depending on the day, my internal state, and the external state of my life.
The result can be hard work, practicing and discovering, learning and experimenting. It won't make us Jedi, but it will help us become and live as the writers we want to be.
Do you have some thoughts or questions about this? Please feel free to email me through my website: https://carolcovengrannick.com