Updated: Jan 3, 2021
Happy New Year. Notice the lack of exclamation, that’s intentional.
I don’t know about you, but every January 1st, I get up late. It takes me until mid-afternoon to get myself together enough to do anything productive. For the past decade, that’s been because I was on the back of a very late night singing and DJ-ing for other peoples’ and venues’ NYE Parties. This year, I really don’t have any excuse. I was at home with no work due to Covid-19 and only had one glass of champagne (I’m not a big drinker). I DID only get to bed at 3am - but that’s not really so unusual for me - because I have anxiety and depression.
It’s not an excuse - but it does explain the late rising to some extent! I struggle to get to sleep at night. The schedule of my frozen rumination through the morning tends to shunt my productive phase back into the late hours. Then, the next morning, I wake late and there’s about an hour before I can talk myself into getting up. My heart races. My mind is swirling with worry and guilt, and even completely unrelated surreal nonsense. It’s almost like my brain hasn’t finished up processing through a dream state, even though my eyes have opened.
Once a I get up it takes me another hour of wobbling about in my pyjamas to feel ready even to shower! Even as I type this, I feel guilty and ashamed at ‘what everyone must think of me’. Luckily some small shred of self-compassion allows me to speak about it - because I think it’s important that we do.
For me, my depression (it's different for everyone) leaves me feeling weak. It’s a very strange type of weakness. I know that I am physically quite strong. I exercise regularly. I can stretch and balance and lift just fine. But I live with a constant, shimmering, magnetised feeling of weakness in my core and through the centre each limb.
Mentally, I have (thankfully rare) periods when tears come for no reason, or for every reason. Every emotion is expressed in liquid - anger, fear, love, happiness - any of it. Then there are days when I feel pretty solid and chipper - but even on these days, any action is preceded, (and often pre-emptively prevented) by hours of worrying, procrastination, self-sabotaging ruminations.
Those of you who have known me in a professional capacity are probably wondering what I’m talking about. I’m what some people call a ‘high-functioning’ depressive. Which means if I have someone else that I’m responsible to, I’m capable of seemingly superhuman effort! Christmas for a singer is usually 30 days straight of several gigs a day - I can do that. If I set out to give someone a lovely birthday, you can guarantee total overkill - decorations, themes, costumes, hand-made cards and gifts. Don’t even start me on when somebody lets me clean for them! Most of my colleagues and clients have never seen me at anything less than full pelt professional party performer.
The frozen, fearful couch potato is the other side of that.
WHAT’S THIS GOT TO DO WITH NEW YEAR?!
Well… I wanted to talk to you about New Year, and why I feel that we need to rethink our approach to resolutions.
New Years Eve - a time for looking back on the year gone by and to think about the future.
January is named for the Roman God Janus, a two-faced sucker looking back to the past and forward to the future at all times. It’s the very antithesis of being present and mindful!
For those with mental and emotional health (M.E.H) problems, a major symptom is regretting and replaying past event. We shame and guilt-trip ourselves over mistakes and missed opportunities. Guess what the other one is… yup! it’s ruminating about the future - worrying about things that haven’t happened yet. Completing the terrible trifecta, we have the unhelpful habit of reaching for unattainable standards and goals, hence setting ourselves up for failure (cue more self-flagellation). Perhaps you can already see where I’m going with New Year Resolutions!
If your personality leans towards all-or-nothing thinking, the idea of ONE day a year being the opportunity to begin anything is singularly unhelpful. It positions you to feel that if you falter, you have ruined the whole year and have to wait until next January to make a fresh start.
So, I’d like to propose a re-framing of this tradition - REALISTIC RESOLUTIONS.
Let’s talk about the ways that we can improve our chances of achieving our goals.
1. Decide if you’re even up to setting a goal.
Or make your first goal to be honest and compassionate.
Any journey is only worth starting if you are ready, willing and able.
There are a million wrong reasons to take any action:
- “Everyone’s doing it, it’s tradition”
- “I should. If I don’t, I am being lazy, weak (insert self-beating term)”
- “What will other people think if I don’t?”
- “I HAVE to change or everything will be awful”
- “I feel negative about current me, change will fix everything”
There’s only one good reason to take an action, set a target, or make a change:
“I want to. I am ready to. It I feel, all told, that I am able to.
It will bring positive things into my life. This is for ME.”
It’s really more of a cluster of requirements that need to be met. Not by you - but by the GOAL. This is so that the goal is worthy of your effort and so that you are likely to succeed.
Being honest and compassionate with yourself if the only way to come to these requirements in any meaningful way.
If you are not ready, you don’t want to, you feel you are unable to, or the negatives will outweigh the positives - be honest with yourself about that fact. Be compassionate enough to tell yourself that it’s OK if you don’t start this change TODAY, or ever. You may be saving yourself wasted time and distress that you’d otherwise spend fighting an uphill battle for a prize that’s not all it cracked up to be!
2. Choosing ACHIEVABLE Goals - A New kind of S.M.A.R.T Target.
Assuming you whittle down your goals to one (or more) that meets your requirements, let’s frame the goal to give you the best chance of success.
Take a few typical resolutions that people set themselves:
“To read a book each week all year / To read every book on a certain list”
“To loose weight”
“To learn a new skill / Instrument / sport / craft”
A lot of well meaning types will talk about S.M.A.R.T goals.
(Specific. Measurable. Attainable. Results-Focussed. Timely).
Honestly, if you live with M.E.H issues (Mental Emotional Health), the only letter of S.M.A.R.T to focus on is A (it’s a very good place to start). A goal being ATTAINABLE is the priority, and (this is only my pop-psych opinion) I’d tweak the others! What I want to do is make the journey towards your goal the most rewarding and comfortable it can be.
SPECIFIC - I think it’s good to break apart a goal into specific and realistic parts. If you set a whacking great aim, it can feel impossible to see how you get from 0 to 100%, unless you break it down into manageable steps. However, having too specific a target can mean there’s a lot more room to ‘miss the mark’. Aiming to read a specific list of books may trap you into reading things you really don’t enjoy. It may mean you have a mountain to climb in some huge tome, that stops you in your tracks and prevents you from reading the rest of the list.
It can be helpful to choose a SOFTLY SPECIFIC target, to give you a wider range of ‘success points’. Instead of “read a book a week” why not soften it out to “read more than last year” ? If you’re setting this goal, it’s probably because you don’t feel good about the amount you currently read. If you merely set out to improve on your previous - it’s measurable and you can take lots of different paths to that goal (which can always include, or be extended to, the high-end, specific goal we started with).
If your resolution is to ‘loose weight’ - try widening the target out into the parts that make it.
Resolutions to ‘move more’, ‘eat more vegetables’ ‘drink more water’ and ‘get proper rest’ are going to achieved on the path to loosing weight. Plus they’ll stand you in good stead for life-long behaviour change. Even if you don’t loose weight, you’ll improve your health - and that is something to celebrate in itself.
MEASURABLE - Yes. Measuring your progress can give you a boost - IF you are progressing as you expected. M.E.H veterans, however, know the how close measuring feels to judgement. For those of us who don’t feel ‘good enough’, measuring can feel damaging. I’m going to suggest MEANINGFUL as an alternative. Rather than asking “have I met the mark?”, we can ask ourselves “what have my actions meant to me?”. This helps us to discover the positive outcomes of our actions. Your behaviours may have not lead to you reading 52 books in a year, but they will likely have given you inspiration, journeys in your imagination, new knowledge and more.
ATTAINABLE - We’re sticking with this, so we skip to the next part.
RESULTS-FOCUSSED - On first glance this seems very similar to the Measurement part of S.M.A.R.T. . We previously discussed looking at what our actions have meant to us, or given to us, rather than the final destination of the year. So let’s swap result-focussed for JOURNEY-FOCUSSED. When your eye is only on the finish-line, your focus limits you from enjoying the feeling of running! So take time to review as you go - what are you enjoying about the process? Be honest! What are you NOT enjoying? - you may be able to change course to a more enjoyable and successful path!
TIMELY - Nope, nope, nope. I just can’t get with time!
Firstly any change worth being made if worth being made beyond a set period! Secondly, when you really get into your ‘FLOW’ with something, time transforms anyway! Who needs the extra pressure of a deadline? Your wellbeing is not a business (no matter what the health industry wants!). I want you to TAKE YOUR TIME, not TRACK YOUR TIME. Allow for a ‘ramp’ up period if you’re starting from ground-zero. Allow for bumps, blips and breaks. Pausing is not failing. Just like your mental health and mood is a dynamic thing, so is any process of personal development. In fact - you may not even want to set a resolution for the whole year! Why not set a resolution for each month? You could build one month’s behaviour on top of another, towards the same final goal. Or you could change up your monthly resolution to give yourself variety. It might be that one month you want to have a focussed month enjoying and increasing your reading. The next month you might want to try a new craft or sport. Some people are sprinter’s rather than marathon runners. Much joy and meaning can be gained from dabbling, rather than deep-diving.
One thing’s for sure - multiple long-term resolutions in multiple areas of life are going to split your energy. It needs to be given some serious thought.
NUDGES AND CHANGE-CHEATS.
This is a great way to improve your chances of success. Know your weaknesses!
Again, the M.E.H tribe have the jump on this - we are really good at looking for our weaknesses! Here's how to turn that into a strength!
I know that I’m next to useless for the first hour of my day. Remember me wobbling about in my pyjamas at the top of this article? I know that drinking from a glass, I won’t drink as much as I’d like. When I get dehydrated, my mood is worse and I eat empty calories.
I know that if I don’t do my exercise at the start of the day, I probably won’t do it at all.
Once you admit these things to yourself - you can start to build in nudges and coping mechanisms.
I now pick up my Ukulele (thank you secret Santa!) to aimlessly strum while I hide on the couch in my pyjamas. The Ukulele lives next to my favourite slouching spot. Inevitably, I decide that I’d like to work out the chords to a song. Hey presto - my weak and wombling hour is now aiding my goal to learn an instrument.
I live with a spouted drinks bottle by me at all times, and I always take a full one to bed. Yes, I look like a child slurping away. But at least I’m drinking - and drinking a lot more than when I have a glass. Having the bottle by my bed gives me something to reach for when I get late night emotional-eater pangs. It’s the first thing I do when I wake up, too. Having a good slug of water seems to shorten and soften that horrible heart-thumping, brain-whizzing waking hour. Plus there’s the added bonus of helping towards my aim of healthier living.
If it’s an exercise day I get straight into my workout clothes. I don’t give myself the shower or time in day clothes to lead me away from that run that I’m dreading. If I have to get my workout done in order to move on to the shower, clean clothes and rest of my day - I’m going to get the workout done!
These little physiological tricks are often called ‘nudges’ - I prefer ‘change-cheats’ (it makes me feel like I’m being extra cunning and getting one up on my less desirable behaviours!)
LEARN FROM YOUR SUCCESSES!
Whoever coined the phrase ‘learn from your mistakes’ wasn’t wrong, but I’d guess they were in a super positive frame of mind. For those of us who struggle with less happy notions about ourselves - I think it’s much better to LEARN FROM YOUR SUCCESSES. Take time to look back at your previous year and tot up some of the successes you’ve had, big or small. List the things that you enjoyed, the things that you achieved and some things that you are grateful for. Then use them to guide your path forward into the new year.
If you achieved a new behaviour - how did you do it? what helped you?
Use these things to help you with your new journey.
What did you enjoy? Find ways to replicate those joys in your new activity.
If having good music helped you to enjoy your culinary experiments - think about adding a soundtrack to your exercise journey.
What are you grateful for? Very often we are grateful for others company, kindness and help.
Remember to ask for help when you need it. Remember to thank anybody you are grateful for - let them know how they helped. By doing this, you are helping them to understand how they can best support you in the future. You are also letting them know they are appreciated - which is a nice boost for anybody. Lastly by discussing how people have helped you, you are opening the forum to discuss how you have helped them, or how you might help in the future. Everybody wins.
So, there you have it - my suggestions for a quiet, gentle revolution around your resolutions.
Be kind to yourself this year and always.
I’ll be back to suggest some nudges and change-cheats to help you out.
Let me know what you think, and what resolutions you are considering this year.